The Concept of Commodification

More musings from the Story of Stuff book:

Because we spend so much of our time chasing after money, to buy stuff that we don’t need, that promises us the world but delivers none of it – our communities are suffering. We spend so much time on the above, that we’re not available to be present and useful amongst our local community. This feeds our discontent and unhappiness because people in our local community could meet our need for relationship. We can have our emotional needs met by having a chat with a neighbour. We can have logistical needs met, by a neighbour bringing us a meal, babysitting, dog-walking, offering a lift or taking in our mail whilst we’re away.

Ironically, all of these things have now been commodified in our consumerist society and are available to buy from strangers, at a price! Probably most people don’t even know their neighbours these days, since all they do is go to work early and arrive home late. They are too busy, too stressed, time-poor and over-scheduled. No wonder we have increasing amounts of isolated elderly, or even depressed and overweight adults and children in our society. And the solution is really so simple!

If you’re a systems thinker, than you might liken this phenomenon to a negative feedback loop. A problem or problems, that cause an effect that only serves to add to the original problem. We now have to work harder, to pay for the kinds of service that friends and neighbours used to provide for free. This only serves to add to our stress levels and lack of time. So you can see how the downward spiral continues!

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More Musings on the Story of Stuff – Branding & Marketing

As I said yesterday, I’m currently reading this book:

Today, in the chapter on distribution I struck upon something horrifying. I guess I sort of knew this already, but seeing it in black and white is even more shocking. I’m sure we all know that most companies out there don’t actually make the stuff they sell, but they buy it in and have unknown manufacturers make it for them. We’ve seen this so much in the clothing industry where brands like H&M and Primark have clothes made up in India and take no responsibility for the working practices of those in their supply chain. This is all part of these companies plans to cut costs, basically by abdicating responsibility.

This efficiency driven, cost-cutting is pervasive. Companies don’t make the stuff they sell, they simply brand it. Apple don’t make computers, but they sure as heck have created a brand that people crave. H&M don’t make clothes, Nike doesn’t make trainers. They all simply buy the garments and items from producers, or the parts to assemble them and often not even from the same factory, but from multiple producers. It’s quite possible that one factory churns out the exact same product for multiple retailers.

So really, let’s face it – it’s often not the item we are buying, but we’ve been sold on the brand. The founder of Nike even admitted that the company once saw themselves as production oriented, but that they now understand their most important function is to market the product. So guess where they put all their money? Advertising. And often this advertising isn’t even for a specific product, it’s all about the image they want to associate with their brand. Nike aren’t selling your trainers, they are selling you a fashion statement that in this climate will probably be outdated in a mere 2 weeks!

What Impact Does Our Consumer Culture Have On Our State Of Mind?

It’s the New Year, a time when many of us make resolutions to stick to good habits. Many people will be committing to buy less and spend less this year for all manner of reasons, be they thrifty, green, minimalist, zero waste and or just plain skint! Today I’m going to explore the impact of our consumer culture. Some people even choose to enforce a ‘No Spend Year’. This often comes after people have been pursuing the Minimalist lifestyle for a while and they start to realise how meaningless all their stuff is. Some people have triggers for this, such as; having to box up all their possessions to move which really forces you to evaluate absolutely everything that you have.

The ‘No Spend Year’ concept is simply an extension of ‘Buy Nothing Day’ which falls on Black Friday each year. An academic from The University of Sussex, Dr Helga Dittmar has been exploring the effect of our consumer culture on our well-being and identity. She has been examining what she has termed as ‘a materialistic value orientation’ or ‘MVO’ where people pursue and strive to spend money on expensive possessions to gain status. Alongside this, people who do so also have beliefs that these things will lead to a better life and make us happy.

She and her team have conducted a meta-analysis of over 200 research studies, where they have looked at all the existing studies that link MVO to personal well-being. This is a very robust study of the evidence and in the case of the aforementioned, means that the results are conclusive. MVO is linked to lower personal well-being, lower subjective well-being, increased negative self-appraisal such as low self-esteem, mental health problems (in-particular depression and anxiety) and also poorer physical health. As you can see, the more MVO a person is, the worse they are affected and interestingly, there are no positive attributes according to this study!

The advantages of spending less are that you are more organised with your time, organising free or low cost activities to replace your previous expensive habits. Your health may benefit as you spend less on eating out, junk food and alcohol. It may even force you to find new things, that you may never have considered before.Buying things can easily become addictive behaviour, bringing along with it a pressure to spend more and more due to our consumer culture. We are constantly bombarded by advertising which tries to persuade us to buy yet more. Advertising has become totally pervasive in our culture, it’s literally everywhere these days – on TV, on radio, on the internet, on billboards, in magazines and newspapers and more! It partly plays to our fear of not wanting to miss out on something that everyone else has. But they also ply us with subtle messages – ‘buy this and you will be happy’, ‘buy this and your relationship will be better’, ‘buy this and you will achieve the perfect body’ and so on. Consumer culture will try to sell us everything. However, the research shows that buying all this stuff has actually made us less happy. Psycho-pathologies have increased since the 1930s.

Ultimately, stripping away all this stuff will expose the real you and what matters is that you are a good person, happy and positive in yourself. Having stuff won’t necessarily make people like you. The research demonstrated that the most crucial aspect in getting the balance right in your life, is getting the right orientation towards money and material things. Having things is not inherently bad, but you do not need to have certain things in life. You can use the MVO in either a positive or a negative way, for example- if you seek status, you might become depressed which leads you self-medicate and this is a bad use of MVO which leads to lower well-being. Conversely, highly treasured personal possessions, are a record of your history and tell a very personal story of who you are and who you’ve been over time, who you’re connected with, they are symbols of your personal relationships and are a form of self-expression – these can have a positive effect. The study particularly looked at life transitions, such as going into a nursing home in older age. In this situation, if you are allowed to take your treasured personal possessions, you are not only happier – you actually live longer!

So, in the light of all this you might want to consider taking up a musical instrument, singing in a choir, learning a new art or craft. I also think this research shows that we should make time for small items that can make a big difference to our well-being; like flowers, perfume or a good moisturiser. Of course, what brings joy to one person will be completely different for another but try to keep it simple – so no purchasing of a Ferrari! Consider purchasing items that allow you to spend time with others; like a meal out, or travelling together, or to see someone important.

This blog post was inspired by today’s episode of Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4. If you are in the UK, you should be able to catch up on iPlayer. If you are interested in the work of Dr Helga Dittmar, then you can look here for more information or read her book on the topic. The author of this book was also featured in the podcast – Michelle McGagh – The No Spend Year: How I Spent Less and Lived More. I have added that book to my reading list!

 

The Rough Guide To Ethical Living

Today I want to recommend to you a book I discovered recently in a charity shop; The Rough Guide to Ethical Living. This book covers climate change, sweatshops, fair-trade, ethical investment, organic food, finances and more. Pretty much every issue you could face in life.

You know, life can sometimes seem like a moral minefield – particularly when you start to pay attention to ethics, zero waste, fair trade or green principles. It’s so hard to know which products or companies we should support and those we would be better avoiding. Also, there are so many claims out there today, despite advertising standards some can be dubious. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by it all.

If you would like some help to decide which ethical claims can you can trust then the Rough Guide to Ethical Living cuts through the ‘greenwash’ to answer your questions. This guide literally looks at all the problems and ethical options. It’s a relatively compact tome, but it covers all the main issues. Where there is more information available, it points you to relevant, trustworthy websites where you can find out more.

It’s particularly aimed at UK readers and recommends websites, books and magazines. It also includes tips on reducing your carbon footprint at home and on the road. I would consider this book to be an essential handbook for responsible consumers and it’s very easy to read. It’s definitely one that I plan to keep on my bookshelf for reference.

According to the blurb, there are a couple of other Rough Guides out there; The Rough Guide to Ethical Shopping and The Rough Guide to Climate Change. I’m going to add these to my reading list!

The British Shopping Habit

I’ve just finished reading Shopgirls: True Stories of Friendship, Hardship and Triumph From Behind the Counter, after picking it up a few months ago in a charity shop. It is a thoroughly well researched book and I find this kind of social history very interesting. What surprised me was  this little bit at the end of the book which I shall share with you now. It was nothing like the historical accounts that compiled the rest of the book and I thought it was pertinent.

      “Over the past two centuries shopping has become nothing less than our national past time and many will find it a hard habit to break. Collectively, we still spend more time shopping than we do on any other single activity outside work. – as much as eighteen hours a week according to one recent survey and a combined total of eight years of our lives, according to another.

Part of what drives us to do this, of course, is that we shop out of necessity for the food, clothes and other essentials that we cannot get any other way. After all, most of our nineteenth-century ancestors didn’t become consumers for fun; if they were among the working poor, they became consumers to live. But along the way, together with the better-off, they found new pleasures and developed new kinds of sociability in and around shopping. And it’s arguably these things that continue to draw so many of us to the shops today: we have strong emotional attachments to both the stores and, very often, the people who help us within them.

Shops suffuse our earliest memories. As babies and children, it’s quite likely that we spent a fair amount of time in and around shops for the simple reason that shopping is one of the few tasks that can be achieved with young children in tow. Beyond that, particular visits to specific shops are often markers of personal milestones: being taken to buy our first pair of shoes, school uniform, wristwatch or teenage party outfit; spending our first wage packet; choosing gifts for birthdays, engagements, weddings and retirements. Equally, being unable to afford to be part of these modern rituals of buying and giving can hurt and be a source of shame.

The fact that shopping allows us to give to others – and to give much more than formal gifts and presents – is hugely important. Everyday shopping is nothing less than an act of love. Buying things for others – food, clothes, toys, or treats – is an everyday way of showing we care, that we’ve thought about what others need or want. In effect, we ‘say it through shopping’. To view consumer culture this way – as an intensely social part of life, built on relationships – is to challenge the more wearily familiar line that it is shallow, self-centred and individualising. Perhaps the pursuit of small personal pleasures, alongside the promise of the ‘experience’, may yet keep our shopping rituals alive.”

I don’t know what your thoughts are? I have to say that I feel I disagree with the authors, I don’t think that much of the buying that goes on is for others. I think most people buy for themselves, much of the time. It’s admirable that they have tried to put a more positive spin on consumerism, but I think they’ve missed some other huge elements around sustainability and the environment, debt and finance, slave labour and so on. I also think it would be terribly sad if all a child’s key moments in their life revolved around the acquisition of stuff in some form. Sure, I remember being taken to buy school uniform but I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly fond thought. I’m far happier re-calling many a childhood experience – holidays, sporting activities and time spent with significant people than I am visits to shops!

I would say that in the UK we have largely turned every religious festival into an excuse to buy stuff and there is nothing left that we celebrate for celebrations sake. Wouldn’t we be far richer as a culture if we had shared traditions that we all participated in, where we could feel a connection with the past and our roots, than a ritual of buying every-changing stuff only to dispose of it a short-time later?

Fighting for a Simpler Christmas

Season’s Greetings to one and all! How has you Christmas been? I’ve come on here to air some of my frustrations about being a Minimalist at Christmas. I know you’ll understand.

We’ve been Minimalists for 4 years now and certainly our wider family and friends know about this by now. We are the butt of regular jokes about Minimalism which we try to take with good humour; since we also laugh at some of the lavish spending of our family and friends. However it really does start to grate with me now, 4 years on when we’ve specifically asked for people to respect our lifestyle and values at each seasonal celebration when we still get gifts we’d rather not be receiving. With the odd and rare exception, however thoughtful people think they are being, they are buying something that quite bluntly – we don’t want!

The fact is that we buy the chocolate we like to eat and don’t particularly enjoy the seasonal boxes of chocolates that people like to give. If we need biscuits, we go out and buy the ones that we love to eat. If we wanted seasonal fruits and nuts at Christmas, we would buy them. Inevitably also, all these things come wrapped in plastic which we try so hard to avoid with all our purchasing. We don’t want wasteful novelty gifts – no matter how much fun the giver thinks they will be – they will end up going to charity and I strongly suspect they have to bin them. We’d rather they weren’t created and resources weren’t needlessly wasted in the first place. Whatever hobby we have, we buy the tools that we have researched and would like to have, so it’s not helpful when people give us more. Do I sound ungrateful? Because I worry that’s how it comes across to family.

Sadly, they all seem to think we’re boring asking for gift cards  and ‘need’ something to open on Christmas Day (which we don’t and have tried with all our might to get this across). So every gift card seems to come attached to a box of chocolates, box of biscuits or other Christmas novelty – sigh. Actually the best gift we received this year was from a family friend, who via Unicef had donated a pair of warm, winter boots to a child abroad in need. Opening that card gave me a really warm feeling on Christmas Day which I didn’t get with any of my other gifts.

The trouble is that whether we don’t create a list and ask for nothing, or whether we create a very specific list – we still end up receiving gifts that we don’t want and then have to dispose of in a responsible manner. However for the largest part, our family did stick to either money or gift cards (although I worry  a little about the plastic waste those create, but surely a little plastic is better than whole items you don’t want or need?) A friend of ours (who is not a Minimalist) only ever asks for the essentials at Christmas, like socks and deodorants. That way he never has to worry about buying them for himself and gets to spend all his money on computing which is his first love. So perhaps I will start asking for bags of flour, oats, sugar and that kind of thing instead?! My family will probably then start to assume we are living in poverty but hey ho!

My husband and I have agreed that we need to try and find some alternative traditions to fill up Christmas Day with. We always enjoy a couple of good meals together, a short walk and usually a board game. Perhaps we just need to accept that that is special enough. Since most people do congregate under a loaded Christmas Tree and that is some sort of expectation around which the day centres. How do you deal with it, especially when celebrating with non-Minimalist family members? I promise I’m not Scrooge really, but still aligning my newer Minimalist values with older traditions. Any tried and trusted methods to get family to STOP buying you things you don’t want or need?

Bah humbug! 😉

False Advertising

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What’s with all the Christmas advertising this year regarding having your best Christmas ever?! It seems worse than usual to me, it’s the mainstay of several UK stores campaigns. Wilko’s tagline is “Bring home your best Christmas”. Asda’s tagline is “Christmas made better”. Swarovski are saying that you must ‘give brilliant’. Since when did stores get so arrogant? I’m all for retailers helping you to achieve ‘Christmas’, after all we all want to buy a little special food to celebrate the day. We may wish to buy a few gifts, or experiences. That’s what makes Christmas different from every other day of the year. But it’s this year I’ve really noticed them piling on the pressure for people to buy more and more. Maybe it’s just that I’ve got fresh eyes now I’m further down the road on my minimalist journey.

In fact the only retailer I’ve seen peddling a different message is Sainsbury’s, who are pioneering an advertising campaign centred on a harassed dad who’s trying to find his family ‘the greatest gifts’. It ends when he discovers the greatest gift he could give anyone is his time. It’s refreshingly different, even if I find the song that accompanies it rather irritating. At the end of the day, a huge part of Christmas is meeting up with people you love and sharing a meal. I think that is a truly great thing – sharing conversation, food, laughter, a few silly hats and a walk in the afternoon.

But, Christmas IS just another day – albeit a special day – but it doesn’t need to be perfect, you don’t need to keep ‘besting’ last year and no amount of stuff, including food is going to stop the odd family argument. After all, you’re probably going to be couped up with these people for a few days! So relax, enjoy it for what it is and take it as it comes. Happy Christmas Everyone!