You know the feeling, it’s Black Friday and you’re set on getting a bloody good deal on that new coat you’ve been ogling for the past 2 months. Trouble is, you entered the (virtual) store 4 hours ago and now your shopping cart is piled high with a lot of other things you’ve convinced yourself you also need. Then amidst the confused mental calculations trying to work out what you can actually afford, you have a sort of out-of-body experience; imagining yourself in one of those videos taken from last year’s black Friday, trampling over desperate shoppers to bag that pre-Christmas bargain before anyone else. A part of you thinks ‘god what have I become’ while the other part of you thinks ‘but I do really need that coat, though.’ If you’re anything like me, this leads to what I like to call shopping-induced-hysteria. What’s more, when I’ve really think about it, this particular form of hysteria doesn’t occur exclusively at Black Friday or Christmas, but can happen almost anytime I go to buy anything. The question is, why? When I took stock of it, I realised that at the root of all this shopping-panic was a real sense of guilt. After a bit of soul searching I realised this guilt came from two seemingly contradictory truisms:
- Stuff doesn’t last forever.
- Stuff lasts forever.
1 – I’m parting with my hard-earned cash for a new product that I’m buying to replace the old product I had, which is either broken or no longer cool enough for me to use. And when this cool new product becomes redundant (by virtue of its low cool or utility ratings) I’ll unthinkingly replace it, forgetting about when I bought it shiny and new, thinking it could magically change my life for the better. It’s a monotonous cycle, which I am unwillingly compelled to participate in. I’m trapped on the Consumerist Ferris Wheel, having eaten too much of that cool new Candy Floss- and I want to get off now, please.
2 – When I replace cool product 2016 with the mega-hyped, cool product 2018, the former doesn’t just vanish into a cloudless, environmentally-friendly puff of air. In fact, more often than not it is burned, buried or blown up, releasing chemicals and substances which are really REALLY bad for our environment. I imagine that the planet is a finite entity and that it’s (not so) slowly filling up with every rotting Christmas, birthday and self-care present I’ve ever had – and then I remember the planet IS finite, and there’s plenty of scientific (and photographic) evidence of the disastrous environmental impact that the disposal of these items is having.
What’s worse, is that by getting a great deal for myself (which as a self-confessed bargain-hunter, I take massive pride in), the likelihood is that I’m actually ripping-off someone else. Low-cost items, from clothes to phones to food, are low cost for me, because the people producing them are actually paying the price; through their low-wages, employment insecurity and unsafe working conditions. Several high-profile stories have emerged over recent years detailing the discovery of hidden notes from garment workers, highlighting the daily hardship they endure to make such items.
The Fashion industry is notorious for its exploitative practices, but this problem isn’t unique to the Fashion industry. When I look into it I discover: my authentically sumptuous Italian tomatoes – well they’ve been picked by Romanian women who are subject to sexual violence, harmful chemicals and arduous labour. My fancy new smartphone– well there’s a metal called Cobalt inside that which has been mined in the politically unstable DRC by child labourers, oh and the factory workers who put my phone together, yeah well they threatened mass suicide to protest the exploitative conditions of their labour. Fine, I thought, I’ll just stay at home, drink a cup of tea, and think how shit the world is. Well, the likelihood is that the tea I’m drinking actually comes from tea plantations where workers experience inadequate sanitation, malnutrition and exposure to harmful chemicals. The point being, this isn’t just one-off event in a single industry, it’s a systemic problem, which has arisen from our insatiable consumerist culture as fed by the big fat capitalist cats. As this video so eloquently captures.
You can imagine, my discovery of our incredibly exploitative, unjust system of mass production sent me down a rather frustrated line of questioning, which went a bit like this: AGHHHH OKAY well what the F*** can I actually do about it? Buy overly-expensive products I can’t afford, riddling myself with anxiety over debt? Become like one of these ethereal Millennial Women who can fit their annual waste into a (trendy) jam jar? STOP CONSUMING ALTOGETHER AND DIE?
That’s how it felt for a while, impossible; damned if I buy things (as a greedy uncaring consumerist monster) and damned if I don’t (you know: cold without a coat, hungry without food etc.). It really felt as though there was nothing I could do to change it. Thankfully after a bit of research, I discovered there was a lot I could do to help change things for the better. To save you the agonizing existential questioning of ‘WHO AM I AND WHAT CAN I DO?’ as described above, I’ve created a handy guide of different types of actions: spending, talking and doing, as your very own ethical consumerism 101 directory. This list is neither definitive nor normative, if you feel compelled to act in just one of the ways listed below, you’re already on your way to making meaningful sustainable change.
- If you’re going to consume, consume ethically. The Good Shopping Guide gives you an ethical index of major companies and you can search using product, industry or look up a specific company – it’s really easy to use and lot of the recommended brands you’ll recognise (meaning they don’t cost an arm and a leg). As the consumer, companies want to make what you want to consume. If enough people want ethically-made products, eventually that’s what companies will focus on producing.
- Buy local: The whole process of creation to consumption is pretty messed up and inefficient. Food is shipped across the world to complete various stages of the production cycle. A good example of this is food; food which is grown in Africa, can be be shipped to the US to be packaged in Europe, to be flown and sold in Portugal. You can circumnavigate all this messy, environmentally-costly process by simply buying locally-sourced food, clothes and whatever else you find!
- Consume consciously. There are some things we can’t live without (FOOD). But most of the things we buy, we don’t really NEED. If you’re going shopping, just be aware of what you’re buying and if there’s a more sustainable alternative: instead of buying pre-cut and packaged parsley, why not buy a living parsley plant?
- Start a conversation about consumption. If you notice a friend or family member forgetting to recycle, or throwing things away because of a minor, alterable defect, talk to them about it, you could suggest to them local places of recycle and repair. I must stress with this one- don’t shame anyone into behaving the way you think they ‘should’. Shaming or else arguing with quick-fire facts and statistics will just put people on the defensive. Instead explain why you feel the issue you raised is important not just for you but also for them.
- Recommend great articles/books/films/documentaries. If initiating conversations on potentially sensitive topics feels too confrontational for you, good news is there’s a ton of information out there, which can help you start conversations about ethical consumption organically, a lot of which is enjoyable to watch without an obvious political or moral agenda that can dissuade some. Blue Planet is a great example: I dare anyone to think of a more compelling argument to divest from buying plastic water bottles than listening to David Attenborough describe a Clown Fish attempting to lay its eggs on a plastic bottle.
- Do Nothing. By Doing Nothing on Black Friday, you could actually be making a real difference by demonstrating that consumerism ain’t cool no more. This guide from Adbusters explains how by doing nothing, you can actually DO SOMETHING more meaningful than spending money.
- If it’s broke, fix it (or get it fixed). There are lots of things it’s easier than you think to fix yourself, or (for the time-poor) get it fixed: sew buttons onto missing shirts/coats/trousers, get your shoes re-soled. I’m not suggesting you become the hippy alter-ego of Kirsty Allsopp here. However, there are lots of free initiatives which can help fix your things FOR FREE. Across Europe, there’s thousands of Repair Cafés,
- Complain, petition and lobby the companies you buy from. Granted, these things are by no means the same, but as a consumer of a product you have real influence over the production practices of a company– whether you simply want to write an individual complaint letter or scale it up to a petition or full-on demonstration. Corporate Social Responsibility is becoming an increasing focus for many organisations, so never underestimate .
Get inspired and take the initiative to create something of your own: There are many inspiring organisations that have set out to create alternatives where they don’t feel like existing industries are doing it right. Stitched Up is a great example of this in the UK. You could set up your own Repair Café, or talk to people in your community about creating a collective allotment.
Find out more about how We Make Change can give you the power to change the world here.