General ramblings

The ‘C’ Word

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.

So maybe consumerism isn’t such a dirty word after all?
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.
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  • Reply Liz Pearson October 24, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    I agree, well said. I also have the book mentioned by Becky A (Radical Homemakers). If there’s ever a book that can inspire someone to be more of a producer, and less of a consumer in the home, it’s that one. I did notice that some of the people interviewed for the book said that they didn’t feel that their peers saw them as being as productive as they would if they were earning a wage in the normal way. It’s as if earning money then spending it commands more respect that growing your own food, or making and mending clothes, or thinking about what you buy. I often hesitate to say, in conversation, that I aspire to run an ‘urban smallholding’, if I can call it that. I think I’m likely to be met with blank and puzzled looks. There seems to be a growing community that sees things differently though. I’m glad they’re around!

    • Reply Jen October 24, 2016 at 4:56 pm

      I must try and find a copy of that book, it sounds great! Yes, I hear you about the earning money seeming somehow more valued by others than any attempts to save money /be more self sufficient ????

  • Reply Chickpea October 18, 2016 at 8:15 pm

    So true, we really need to stop and think before we consume. My weekly local food box keeps local families in jobs which makes this particular consumption a pleasure.

    • Reply Jen October 24, 2016 at 4:56 pm

      That sounds like a great scheme!

    • Reply Jen October 31, 2016 at 8:30 am

      I love our veg box too, and as you say there is something so much more empowering about giving your money to a local family run firm rather than some massive faceless supermarket.

  • Reply Meg October 16, 2016 at 10:52 am

    Super post! I increasingly use the old-fashioned words “buy” and “use”. I don’t think there is anything wrong in carefully buying things that will be used to their full capacity. It’s the buying for the sake of buying, buying as a proxy for living… that are the problem. The type of buying that much of marketing (and pointless) production is geared to of course…

    • Reply Jen October 24, 2016 at 4:57 pm

      Yes! Buying for the sake of buying, that’s exactly it.

    • Reply Jen October 31, 2016 at 8:32 am

      Thanks so much Meg! I read something the other day that said our education system was designed to make ‘units of production and consumption’. That kind of shocked me, that it might actually be that calculated 🙁

  • Reply Sue woodford October 16, 2016 at 9:16 am

    I think that one of the best things would be for schools to teach children the joy of making things, not to pass some exam, but for the pleasure of achievement, and to enhance their lives. Being able to make things, whatever that may be, gives self esteem and the confidence to tackle practical problems. We all meet adversity in ours lives, but knowing you can turn to, and make or mend what you have, and save money makes your prospects of dealing with your problems a lot easier. Most young people these days wouldn’t know where to start and that’s a dreadful shame. Most people will tell you they aren’t “creative” but everyone has the ability to make something, cook something, grow something, they just don’t realise it.
    Keep up the good work.

    • Reply Jen October 24, 2016 at 4:59 pm

      Thanks Sue. Yes, when you really start to think about what our education system is geared to: teaching people how to get jobs to earn money to buy stuff, it all becomes quite overwhelming. It seems we need to overhaul not just our economic system but our education system too.

    • Reply Jen October 31, 2016 at 8:35 am

      YES! Everyone is creative. I never thought I was until I learned to sew and then that unlocked something in me. I would still say I am not artistic, but I think I am creative, and I am so much more willing to have a go now. We seem to have lost that ability to just try something, unless we know it’s guaranteed to work.
      Once you start looking into these things, it becomes apparent what a huge thing it is to tackle. We need to overhaul not just our economic system but our education system too, as well as trying to shift the values of our society. And that’s where it becomes overwhelming. But that’s why it’s so important that we each make the changes that we can, and take responsibility for our choices every day. Great comment, thanks Sue!

  • Reply Becky A October 14, 2016 at 11:17 am

    I think that Shannon Hayes in her book Radical Homemakers talks about how homes used to be centres of production as well as consumption (i.e. cooking, growing, chickens for eggs, making). Since the post-war years homes are becoming more and more centres of consumption with little to no production. We will always need to consume as human beings but in addition to your awesome comments about not being mindless consumers – I would also add…

    What can you do to start tilting the balance back towards production?

    • Reply Jen October 24, 2016 at 5:01 pm

      I love this idea of producing at the same time as consuming Becky and I love the sound of that book!

  • Reply francivusk October 14, 2016 at 6:24 am

    I’ve been trying to make that Anna Lappe quote my life motto for a year now and I feel so much more empowered and in control of my buying choices!

    • Reply Jen October 24, 2016 at 5:02 pm

      It’s a brilliant quote isn’t it, and what a great idea to have it as a motto to live by!

  • Reply Nicky October 13, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    I do so agree with everything you have just said and with the Christmas ‘C’ word not far away it is the perfect time to put into practice the fairer, kinder and gentler way of consuming.

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