Lack, want, and reconciling consumerism with ethics
There are a host of issues in the way the global economy functions. I don’t believe that this is a very contentious statement. For me, what is odd is that despite egregious abuses of the system (LIBOR rigging and money laundering, just for starters) little has changed, and less still looks like changing. It doesn’t help that we have a declining media environment, where un-admitted bias from left and right prevent many from finding clear analysis.
At a lower level of consumption, I find myself struggling with a consumer-driven approach to living which permeates the thinking many people have. But of course, everyone wants stuff, right*? I want stuff too. I found myself making a list the other day, of things I want to buy. It’s not a very long list, but it’s still a list. The things on the list are not cheap — so I have to rationalise a little.
More than that, the things are not even good value. Not in the sense that I am not pleased to think about having them, that having them won’t make me happy (at least for a while). But in the sense that they are divorced from any connection to their cost of manufacture, to the materials they are made from, to the costs of transport. What are we really paying for?
So, I try to find brands where I can get a better sense of what I am paying for. I try to find brands where there is some sense of value extending beyond short-term profit. CIA wrote about Holstee some time ago, but there are other brands too.
Nudie Jeans (see Stockholm store, right), founded in 2001, work with Amnesty International. They are also aiming to use only organic cotton. They believe in reusing, repairing and recycling in their jeans. They manufacture in Italy, so the labour standards are relatively high. They don’t cost more than other brands who use less sustainable materials and sweatshop labour. Wanting jeans that look nice, fit well, are comfortable, and don’t require you to support sweatshop labour and unsustainably produced cotton is quite a lot. But you can find all these things if you are willing to look.
Some months ago I was watching something on Dutch TV. I couldn’t follow everything, because my Dutch is not very good. But they were showing the farming practices around cocoa beans. It wasn’t pretty, and all of a sudden I couldn’t get this vision of 10-year-olds with machetes hacking the husk off the bean** out of my head. I stopped eating chocolate. Believe me, when you have a sweet tooth like mine, this is a pretty big deal. Probably I was worse than a smoker trying to quit. Probably. But then in the supermarket a previously unexamined, brightly packaged chocolate bar suddenly caught my eye with the line slaafvrije. Chocolate totally tastes better without slaves in it, I thought. Then I realised they meant that it was made without slavery being involved in the production process. The brand was Tony’s Chocolonely. The packaging is so garish, but it’s really grown on me. It was Fairtrade too, bonus round. I still eat it now! It’s lekker.
Slavoj Žižek takes the view that Fairtrade might be less useful than you imagine. Probably he’s a little bit right. Soothing your conscience by purchasing something that’s “fair trade”, that’s environmentally friendly, or whatever other quality helps you sleep at night, you avoid having to think about the root causes. Fair trade continues to prop up a corrupt cultural capitalism. He puts it much more eloquently, and it’s always worth listening to him, even if he is sometimes hilariously stupid. Listen up, and enjoy the animations.
I also like good design. I was given a book earlier this year all about how good (just) design can contribute to society. How design is, nevertheless, just (only) design. It was intriguing. It drew my attention to MINE (or mine?). They have a REEL™. It’s pretty awesome. Designers mediate many every day experiences, so if a designer can reduce the size, the number, the amount, the volume, the effort, the need — for any given range of things — then many thousands of lives can be changed. So, design really is important, too.
However, my view of well designed, carefully constructed products found itself further challenged again today, with the following quote cutting deep:
The people who work in “creative industries” are those who “create” demand. We all need food, clothes, shelter, fuel, technology, transport. The demand is there, always, and there’s no great need to “stimulate it”. Yet people who do the basics – grow, prepare and serve food, harvest cotton or run up clothes, build houses, go down mines, assemble iPods or drive trains – are often the ones who are least able to buy stuff, once all the expensive extras have been magicked up by the consultants, the designers and advertising gurus.
The irony of all of this is clear to me. I agree, many primary producers in particular live their lives in a way that puts our consumerism to shame. Those who work at the bottom level of manufacturing struggle to make better lives for their children. But we all make choices every day that grind this deeper still.
Once, I listened to a talk by Jonathan Safran Foer. In it he said that you had to find the level of hypocrisy you are comfortable with. He was really talking about eating meat (or, more exactly, about not eating animals) but I think the same standard can be applied to this situation. When I was small my parents instilled a sense of the world not being fair in me. This may seem cruel, but I think it’s worked out pretty well. All children, at one time or another, yell out that “it’s not fair!”. And, in my experience they are usually right. The thing is, life really isn’t fair.
But although I won’t make myself feel bad for wanting stuff, I won’t make myself feel bad for enjoying good design, I won’t make myself feel bad for occasional moments of conspicuous consumption, I will think about everything I buy, before I buy it. I will assess its price, its value to me, its value to others, its real costs – hidden or transparent. Or at least, I will try to do this every time I buy something, because no-one’s perfect.
But everyone should try.
Photos by PJD in various places including Amsterdam and Stockholm. He bought his camera, and doesn’t feel bad about it, though does feel bad about his wish to buy another, more expensive camera.
* If you don’t want stuff, well, I am impressed.
** Another vision of child soldiers followed. Chocolate does not taste the same afterwards, I promise.