No, not that one.
Or even the other one that tends to start popping up at around this time of year (Christmas).
I’m talking about Consumerism.
For me, the label of “consumer” conjures up someone who devours things, who chews things up and spits them out. Consumers buy the latest fast fashion from Primark, and upgrade their phones every time Apple tells them to. They buy stuff without any more thought than “I want that”. There is something mindless about this level of consumerism that makes it feel like we are puppets of the big retailers and the advertisers, brainwashed into buying ever more stuff by the bombardment of messages we receive every day telling us that our lives will be better/happier/richer if we just have a new x, y or z.
There is a big part of me that refuses to even associate with the word “consumer”. I don’t want that to be a part of my identity, to be one of my labels. I am not a consumer.
But it’s slowly dawning on me that we are all consumers. Whether we like it or not.
When we spent our year buying nothing new, I felt like we’d opted out of consumerism. And I will confess to feeling a little bit smug. We had found the golden bullet solution, the antidote to consumerism and the answer to all the worlds problems. Well, not quite, but surely it was close.
But as some people like to point out to me, we didn’t opt out of consumerism at all. We were still consuming. We still needed to eat, to heat our house, to put fuel in our car. And we still bought stuff, even though it was second hand.
It’s four years since I first stepped off the treadmill of mindless consumption, and my initial reaction after a year of buying nothing new was that if we could all just stop buying stuff, then we’d solve so many problems.
But we can’t just stop buying stuff.
We all need stuff. We all need to buy stuff.
What we really need is not to stop buying stuff, but to buy it more consciously, thoughtfully, mindfully and slowly.
Part of the problem with modern consumption, is that we do it so unconsciously. As consumer goods and clothes have become cheaper and cheaper, the barrier of price, that would have made many of us stop and make a more conscious and deliberate decision about buying something is lowered, or even removed. And we buy stuff because we want it. Because we are told we need it. Because we can.
As much as I dislike this label, and something inside me really kicks back against calling myself a consumer, I don’t think that any of us can escape it. Even people like the brilliant Michelle McGagh, a financial journalist who is nearing the end of her year without spending money. She is still having to buy food (she has a strict budget) and I’m guessing pay her utilities bills, and her rent or mortgage.
So I have reluctantly reached the conclusion that I am a consumer.
I feel a bit like that is a confession, or something that should be said at the start of a 12 step addictions meeting, “Hi, my name is Jen, and I am a consumer”.
And instead of trying to fight it, I need to embrace it. To accept that we are all consumers and that that’s ok.
But what is not ok is to be a mindless consumer. Someone who buys into the messages from big business, and actually from society, that what we consume somehow defines us.
We are not what we buy.
And then I realise that it all comes back to the post I wrote earlier on this week about changing the world with our choices.
When we buy something, we are making a choice about the kind of world we want. One of my favourite quotes is by the author Anna Lappe:
We can choose secondhand, or organic, or fair-trade. We can choose something made by a local artisan, or something that’s specifically designed to last, or to be repaired. We can chose to fix something, or pay for it to be repaired. We can choose to make do.
We can cast our votes for a fairer, kinder, gentler world, with the things we buy, with how we choose to consume.
Instead of seeing consumerism as a label that is being forced on me, I need to start seeing it as a gift, and embrace the power that it gives me to cast my vote.
To change the world.