I’ve stumbled across something quite by accident and without even realising it. I’m on the fringe of a new movement that appears to be slowly creeping into the global psyche. It may take a while to get a complete hold but the signs are all there that consumerism is on the decline.
Last week in this very column I was suggesting that instead of giving up chocolate for Lent I was giving the credit card a little bit of a rest. Shopping has become too much of a leisure activity rather than a simple excursion for necessities. The difficulty is that there is temptation lurking around every corner. Even supermarkets these days stock clothing, home fashions and cosmetics. Clothes shops tend to carry ranges of shoes and accessories also, sometimes making it difficult to stop at just purchasing one item. The idea for the credit card fast occurred to me when I was reading about a journalist who went on a clothing fast for one year. She could accept gifts of new underwear or swap stuff with friends and family but everything else was out of bounds. By all accounts it certainly didn’t kill her and she managed to survive the year without turning into a scruffy Dickensian street urchin. Writing about her experience she says that she found herself appreciating all the clothes she did have rather more, she became more inventive with outfits and even more creative as she cut items down or added embellishments here and there. To be honest it sounded like fun but I wouldn’t like to be embarking on such a strict regime immediately. A little bit like exercise, you don’t run a marathon without training. My credit card curb is the training session. I am allowing myself buy new clothes if I want them, but instead of whipping out the plastic I have to use cash and that will certainly make me think.
But back to the movement I mentioned. It started in San Francisco, is known as The Compact and is gaining momentum through the internet. Essentially it is a pledge not to buy anything new other than food or health related items, for six months. Quoted in one interview, the founder of Compact, John Perry says the aim is not just to “scale back financially, but to reduce the environmental toll of the consumer lifestyle”. Compact members communicate through Yahoo chat groups and agree to “reuse and recycle what they have and buy only used or second hand goods”. Compact members have interesting observations. Initially, according to many, it is quite difficult but once you get into the whole mindset it brings many benefits. Members talk about reduced stress, more time for relationships, exercise, and personal interests. In fact many of those on the website continue for a long time after the initial six months are over. There is obviously a high to be found in saving money and having more time and obviously this high lasts a little longer than that initial fuzzy feeling that you get when you buzz something new. Now there’s something that the advertising world won’t be advertising – how good it will feel and how happy it will make you not to spend any money.
There is a cruel irony in all of this of course and that is that goods and clothing particularly have become quite cheap. While our services costs have spiralled upwards the actual price of goods seems to have come down. It certainly makes more economic sense these days to replace electrical and electronic equipment rather than pay excessive costs in call out and repair charges. Disposable clothes are also popular; why have to maintain the garment with expensive dry cleaning! When it comes to clothing the worst thing is that the cheap stuff is now looking particularly good as well and this just adds to the difficulty. It is easy to avoid over-consumption of high priced designer goods, but when smart looking items beckon at reasonable prices it is a huge temptation. However the planet and our children’s future both environmentally and economically depends on our prudence. We have to become more discerning about what we buy and look at a product’s life cycle to see if it makes sense. Where is it made? How is it made? What is it made of? What will become of it when I’m finished with it – will it biodegrade/can I give it to someone else/can I find a second use for it? According to one article that I read about the movement the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University has actually published a list of guidelines for the modern shopper; buy fewer more durable clothes, buy second-hand, repair what you have, recycle the remains when an item of clothing comes to the end of its life, choose ethically (if you suspect it was made in a sweatshop by exploiting a six year old, don’t touch it!) Apart from the ‘ethical’ statement it almost reads like something you would have expected to read in a war time situation. Well I suppose in one sense we are in the middle of a war – a battle to save the planet, a battle to stop vulgar consumerism and a battle for time, values and family as it used to be.
All of this might be difficult for the chemically dyed in the wool Saturday shopper but it is time to face the realities. According to another study 80% of the stuff we buy is discarded after one use and we are producing up to 20lbs each a week that ends up as landfill. Just reading the figures made me feel slightly guilty. If you just think about wearing a simple pair of tights (only certain types of men will get this, but don’t worry!). You wear them once, a ladder appears in the leg and that’s it, curtains for the tights. Now think of the packaging that they came in and the amount of raw material, water and fuel that was involved with their production and suddenly you decide to opt for stockings the next time, at least if a ladder appears in one leg the other is still salvageable.
Because of the move towards second hand, perhaps a nicer word to use is Vintage. We are seeing this everywhere and so what, if it makes you feel better to think that you are wearing a vintage piece rather than a second hand piece then so be it. Sewing is also back in vogue and swapping is quite on trend also.
It’s hilarious really, for years we wouldn’t cook, sew or wear second hand anything as these were all signs that we were dependant, poor or backward and now in 2008 here we are in our highly progressive, success driven society reaching back into the past and looking to the skills our grandmothers had to move us forward.