Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Stuff, stuff and more stuff!

I have just returned from Istanbul where I was attending the European Foundation Centre Annual General Assembly at the invitation of the Carnegie UK Trust where I am a trustee. It’s an amazing city, 16 million people, thousands of years old, known previously as Byzantium and Constantinople, the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam and a major trading centre.

I spoke at one of the sessions, but the most interesting part of the conference for me was a workshop entitled “Slowing the treadmill of consumption”. Now you might think as Chair of a consumer organisation that I wouldn’t be entertaining such heresy! However I don’t promote or support rampant consumerism, the concept that people need to buy, buy, buy and shop till they drop. I am a consumerist,(consumer activist) essentially I want people to get value when they buy goods or services and if things go awry I want to ensure their rights are upheld and vindicated. I would also encourage people to be conscious consumers, taking into account the consequences of their spending on their personal finances and on our planet. Yes, people should be able to enjoy their disposal income and buy goods and services that will enhance their lives, but it is important to know the limits of consumerism as well.

Anyhow at this session Annie Leonard in person gave her amazing presentation on the impact of the rampant consumerism in the western world on natural resources. Its called “The Story of Stuff” and you can watch her here. Her work has had a big impact already, having been watched by over 2 million people. Some of the more sobering facts are that if the rest of the world consumed at the rate of American consumers, we would need 5 planets. Of course we only have one!

She also talked about how planned obsolescence, the way in which manufacturers deliberately produce goods that will break easily and will have to be replaced in a very short period. That struck me recently when I was doing a bit of spring cleaning, I came across an old electric kettle which hasn’t been used for years and must be 40 years old and it still works, whereas an electric kettle that can only be 2 years old won’t. I used to think that the buy it cheap and throw it away and buy another one was the modern and best solution and that the annoyance of my mother at the fact that goods didn’t last any time and couldn’t be repaired was a bit dated. But in fact she was right all along, our planet cannot sustain the throwaway culture. Of course this is not an attitude that has happened by accident, it has been driven by the corporations involved aided and abetted by the advertising industry, which bombards us with ads every day telling us that we need to buy, spend and consume in a certain way to be happy, cool and successful.

The other speaker at the session was Sam Thompson from the New Economics Foundation in London. His presentation was also very interesting, particularly their work on the Happy Planet Index. He outlined that conventional economic theory suggests that rising consumption is strongly related to individuals well-being, however that is not the full story. Yes studies show that people living in poverty are less happy than those on better incomes, makes a lot of sense. However he argued that their research also shows that once we achieve certain levels of income and consumption and that our basic needs are met that the happiness levels of the population reaches a plateau. For example the overall happiness and well being of people with incomes of €30-40,000 is not all that different than people on incomes of €200,000.

So that would suggest that the 3rd plasma TV won’t make us 50% happier than the neighbours who only have 2! Of course that runs counter to the constant barrage of marketing and advertising that tells us the more we buy and consume the happier we will be. And of course a lot of the economic growth of recent years has been built on consumer spending and the more recent discussion on the global economic downturn has focused on declining consumer confidence. I know a lot of jobs in our western economies depend on consumer spending, but as both presentations outlined our current consumption patterns are unsustainable. A lot of food for thought!!

The Grand Bazaar

After that session I felt very guilty for visiting the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, which for centuries has been all about buying and spending….there are over 4,000 shops…but taking on board all I had heard I only bought stuff I really needed….I swear!