How can we make consumerism better?

Today is Black Friday, with brands deploying a whole range of methods to encourage us to buy more than ever. How can we fight back?

Mel Young: I was so pleased to see the launch this week of a new online platform, Catalyst Markets, which has been put together by members of Catalyst 2030. Members who run organisations that produce goods have come together to use the platform to sell their wares together. They all have the same values and the goods are produced in a fair way using sustainable methods: fair trade fashion, natural food, sustainable energy, zero waste supplies, and body, home and garden products.  To me, this is a great example of people coming together to change the world in a very practical way. We, as consumers, should be buying these goods rather than ones that are not ethically produced. 

Alex Matthews: Yes this is definitely how we should be shopping in a new ism – and indeed right now. There are so many options these days to shop ethically and sustainably – just on the Catalyst Markets, there are dozens of amazing businesses to buy from. We are of course writing this at the time of year when marketers whip people up into a frenzy of consumerism: today is Black Friday, when brands deploy all their marketing techniques to get people to buy things they may or may not need. It doesn’t stop until well after Christmas – we get obsessed with buying presents, ‘bargains’ that we don’t need. I don’t want to think about the damage that is done to the environment at this time of year – the materials used, the transportation, the waste as so many unwanted presents are discarded. If we could rewire our thinking (and somehow become immune to marketing), we could focus on the social enterprises that are producing things thoughtfully and sustainably. 

MY: I agree. We all go collectively crazy. I hoped things might change as a result of the pandemic but those in power have pushed us back to the old ways and gone back to what they call ‘normal’. I hoped that we might start to rethink how we lived our lives. We have to change the way we live if we are to create a sustainable planet. Maybe I am being too naive; maybe it is too difficult to urge people to stop buying so much stuff, then the least we can do is buy goods that are sustainable and kind to the environment and the people who make them. Catalyst Markets is an excellent example of how we can change our habits in the meantime. 

AM: It’s so disappointing that we haven’t used the pandemic as an opportunity to change our ways and put more value on intangible rather than tangible things. But as you say, our leaders also squandered the opportunity – I guess the focus was on an economic recovery, which is very short-term thinking. However, there are signs that thinking is changing. I read an article about the fact that 85% of British retailers will be boycotting Black Friday, with many even donating a portion of anything they do make over this weekend to charities. I find that heartening – but it’s such a shame that it’s the ‘small people’ who have to do this. Amazon and their ilk should take note, because it’s them that have such a huge impact on the planet and on the people who make the products we consume. 

We urgently need to have a national, or even global, conversation about consumerism, similar to those we are having about climate change. Our rampant desire for new things is stoked by far-too-clever advertisers (I know – I work in advertising!), who are in turn motivated by eternal growth. We’ve talked many times about how ridiculous it is to use growth as a measure of economic success, and how we need to look at other measures. Here’s your difficult question for the week Mel – how can we do that?!

MY: We simply create new measures which are based on other factors like environmental and social impact. There are some measures out there already and people are starting to put credence around them, but the headline goal is still about profit and growth. It is interesting to hear you say that there are some signs of change and a push back against marketing ploys like Black Friday. This is true, particularly amongst younger people. The politicians don’t seem connected at all. Do you think this movement is starting to gain some traction around a new set of values, or is it still just a tiny few people trying to push change?

AM: It’s difficult to say. I would like to think there is some traction around it – we see this with the climate change movement led by young people. I think a significant minority of people worry about over-consumption and try to buy thoughtfully and rationally, whether that’s by prioritising small businesses, sustainable fabrics, transparent supply chains, buying local, seasonal food, or whatever. But unfortunately, there aren’t currently enough of them, so they aren’t being listened to. We need to amplify the voices of those who are driving change – so initiatives like Catalyst Markets are really important. 

MY: Agreed. So, there is a real call to action here – that we should support initiatives like Catalyst Markets and buy their goods. We all need to be very conscious of our actions when we buy things and support those who are trying to create a sustainable world. 

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

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