I enjoyed listening to a talk at the RSA recently on consumerism. Five speakers gave an excellent introduction to the topic.
Neal Lawson, author and chair of the pressure group Compass suggested we need to more fully understand the impact on us of the “Consumer Industrial Complex”, and choose a point of balance that serves our real needs better. Neal had some very nice slogans such as “working harder for our Prada”. But, in the short time he had available, I thought it came across as rather reminiscent of “infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me”.
Matthew Hilton, Professor of Social History, University of Birmingham, gave, for me, the best of the brief talks. He suggested that we should reframe our dialogue about consumerism towards a debate about the real choices we have. This would be a broader conversation about the bigger goals of our society as a whole.
That society includes, of course, people outside the developed world. In his view, “worrying about consumption is as much a part of consumer society as consumption itself” and we should really be considering just what kind of world to we want to live in. He celebrates both the cooperative movement and consumer movement (a la Which?) as movements which have always held these deeper goals – of fairness and equity – at their core: “Let’s call the poor all around the world consumers too”.
Daniel Ben-Ami, another journalist and author, then spoke. Daniel seems to see economic growth as the solution to all our problems. His argument seemed to be in more or less complete opposition to Neal’s, and seemed to lack any of the more systemic analysis of Matthew Hilton.
John Naish, journalist and author of Enough: breaking free from the world of more took the perspective of evolutionary psychology to again address the bigger system problems, pointing out that Barack Obama spent $9 billion dollars rescuing the current system, rather than invest anything in trying to evaluate and re-design a better system.
I especially liked his suggestion that dropping the illusions of choice with which we surround ourselves might also lead to a rather more “interesting” society than the one currently inhabit. I loved his choice of word.
Joseph Wan, chief executive of the luxury goods store Harvey Nichols, seemed to suggest that consumerism, even extreme consumerism, is an inevitable human characteristic – and something that we cannot avoid manifesting. This, for me, seemed to be another version of a “there’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as well go along with it” mantra. A big element of raising consciousness is, for me, about intervening in our future. So that kind of (convenient?) determinism doesn’t sit very well with me.
What next? As ever, with this event, the RSA has done a great job of raising my consciousness of the debate around consumerism. Which is an excellent thing; conscious consumerism seems to me to be about increasing our awareness of the impact of our purchasing decisions on the environment and our lives in general. About introducing “intentionality” into our purchasing.
And, of course, business produces many of the products and services we purchase.
So what, then, is the role of conscious business in consumerism?
Matthew Hilton, amongst others, pointed out the importance of focussing on the bigger picture, and on the broader objectives of the system.
This is something I touched on just recently in another post. I wondered what business would be like if we set as our overall goal leaving a better world for the next generation.
If we were to do that, as businesses:
- Just what kind of consumers would we want?
- What kinds of products and services would we offer?
- What kinds of needs would we try to meet?
- What kind of regulatory framework would we want?
- How would we go about it?
And most of importantly, what kind of overall system of production and consumption would suit us all?
I’d love to hear your views.