Let’s go not-shopping

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We are on the edge of a major shift in social attitudes that has the potential to radically reshape society and the global economy and despite the clear warning signals most people don’t see it coming. If we’re smart, we can all give this one a hand and in doing so make our personal lives happier and more interesting.

After active involvement in social change for 35 years, I think I’ve learnt a few things about how and when major shifts occur in social attitudes and values. Some sit under the surface for long periods before suddenly emerging. Predicting their timing requires us to observe the weak signals – the under the surface disturbances that are sending out vibrations but have not yet risen to the top of our busy information and ideas rich lives. When they do break the surface they can then sweep the world with extraordinary speed, now accelerated by technology and social networking.

One such weak signal I think is in on the verge of rising to the surface is the movement to rethink consumerism and consumption. While the issue has been around for decades, it’s no longer being discussed just as a philosophical or political ideal, but as a personal and everyday behaviour – as we shop. The level of debate and the number of groups, ideas and campaigns is now verging on critical mass and the so-called financial crisis may just tip it over the edge. Just to make sure, I think we should give it a leg up – so it shoots to the surface with greater impact.

So let’s talk about not-shopping. After all, it may be coming soon to a mall near you and the social and economic consequences can barely be overstated.

Really? I mean it’s just shopping isn’t it? Well no, it’s not just shopping, which is why not-shopping is perhaps the greatest threat to capitalism since communism, except it’s likely to be far more effective because it has one of the key ingredients that communism lacked; the ability for people to take personal action and initiative that directly delivered greater happiness and more fulfilled lives.

Now you’re getting really carried away I hear you say. No, I’ve thought about this for a long time, waiting for this moment, and I really think it’s that significant. Here’s why.

You see shopping boils the whole global sustainability challenge down to its most basic and personal level. The two billion people or so of us in the world, who can afford to, simply buy too much stuff.

We do so in the delusion that it will make our lives better. This delusion is key to the effective functioning of global markets and indeed modern consumer capitalism. We think we’ll be happier if we have more stuff, so we work harder to get more money or to be able to borrow more money. We then buy stuff that we think will make our lives better.

If you think it is not that significant, just think about this. What if we stopped doing it so much? What if we all said, actually I won’t give it up, because I do like stuff, but how about I buy 10% less stuff this year. That couldn’t be so hard, delay a few purchases, live with that thing that works but is a bit boring or the wrong colour, buy a smaller thing, waste a bit less food and so on. If I did that right, my reward could be an extra 5 weeks holiday every year! Five extra weeks having fun, getting to know my community, playing with the kids, listening to music, going hiking, hanging out with friends. Sound good? You bet. And the price we would pay for this considerable benefit is marginal and easy to achieve.

But why would people do this en masse, which is what would be required for real impact? Don’t we love shopping? Isn’t that what defines our success and progress through life – our ability to go shopping? Well yes, but no. Yes we think we like it because of the buzz it gives us when we have that new thing, but then it fades and we need another new thing, so we borrow or we work some more, and we try it again. The trouble is it doesn’t work. We keep doing it because we’re told every day on bill boards, TV and websites that oh yes, that didn’t work, but if you had this one or that one, then you’d be happier. But it really doesn’t work and unlike before, this is now well established with solid global data.

What this data shows, in comprehensive global studies, is that happiness and life satisfaction go up sharply when you go from poverty to an income of between $10K and $20K per person per year. Then it stops. It levels out and stays there no matter how much more income you get. (Though some studies suggest if you get really, really stinking rich, it then goes down again!) If you want to understand the numbers check out the excellent report “Prosperity Without Growth” which can find here.

It’s not only that shopping doesn’t work though. We are now on the verge of tipping the global climate into meltdown if we keep buying more stuff, particularly if we’re successful in getting the rest of the world to follow us over the giant cliff of delusion.  Then our quality of life will seriously be degraded with a collapsing global economy and society.

So it’s time we faced up to the reality that every day our personal credit cards are collectively building up the debt on the planetary credit card. That planetary debt will be due for payment very soon – not by our children, but by us.

Of course most sustainability advocates understand this problem and we all agree that people who shop more than we do are shopping too much. (It’s a bit like driving, where many surveys have shown the clear majority of us think we’re “better than average” drivers. Work out that maths of that!)

The reality is we pretty much all do it more than we need to, whenever we can afford to. We all have our weak spot, it might be eating out, clothes, MP3 players, CD’s, cars, tech gadgets or shoes. Mine is hardware and my particular delusion is that if I have better tools and gear I’ll be a better handyman. Fortunately my wife Michelle regularly points to reality and gets me back on track!

The problem is that we’re all stuck in this cycle of more is better. If only I had this or that, I’d be more comfortable, look better, work more efficiently and besides, I deserve it – I’ve worked hard, I deserve a little treat.

So what do we do about it? I think we need to build a global, open source campaign of not-shopping. It needs to be open source because there’s a lot of powerful people and companies who are going to really hate this, so it’s better if no one is in charge, then there’s no-one to get at! Open source, distributed and viral = unstoppable, global and fast.

We need to grab all the great ideas that have been bubbling away under the surface and drag them into the bright light and fresh air of the mainstream debate. In doing so however, we should resist the temptation to treat this as a moral crusade against an enemy. We should see it more like an addiction – which means we need recovery programs, support groups and a new culture of sufficiency. None of these ideas are new of course; people have been making these arguments for decades. What is new however is the times we are in, which means the time has come. So let’s all rise up and go not-shopping !

Because it is an addiction, we’re going to need help. We’re going to need to support each other with ideas and creativity. Fortunately there is a movement out there with really smart people who’ve thought hard about this and they’re just waiting to all be connected and amplified. For example there’s already a viral campaign around the world broadly going under the name of “The Compact” where support groups counsel each other through a year of buying nothing new except basic needs like food and medicine. Yes, a year! That’s cold turkey addiction therapy, but the stories of their experiences are quite extraordinary.

For those like me not quite ready for the whole program, there’s lots of other ways to start, like an organised not-shopping day you can find here. There’s a book – by Judith Devine “Not Buying It – My Year without Shopping” that you can read about here , countless blogs like this one here by fashion writer Susan Wagner, and even a gospel choir and stage show – Reverend Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping which you can find here. Rev Billy and his flock regular drop by to local shopping centres seeking new converts. The heathen priests of consumer land aren’t very fond of their visits!

If you want to understand the concept of why buying more stuff is big problem in terms of impact, or teach your kids about it, then check out the great website the Story of Stuff which you can find here.  

So let’s all inform ourselves on the issue and give this movement a boost. Write about it, tweet about it, talk about it. Connect all these groups and ideas into your network and onto all your favourite blogs. Talk to your friends, send them this column and most importantly of all, buy less stuff.

Let’s help not-shopping to sweep the world.

22 thoughts on “Let’s go not-shopping

  1. James

    Paul,

    I agree that this idea is timely, but its execution must be managed with a great deal of foresight. Unless the power sources of consumerism are weakened as well – and here I include, for example, among other things the powerful consumptive messaging that the media convey on behalf of manufacturers – abstaining will be a significant but potentially short lived gesture. I agree that it is good to start somewhere though. There are also the potentially damaging and destabilising effects for poorer communities, reliant on the income from the manufacturing industry, from a mass shutdown in demand. What other ‘surprise’ rebound effects might there be?

    James

  2. john

    paul,

    I agree, and have dramatically cut my shopping this year, not because it is the moral thing to do, but because I am doing my best to ‘deleverage’. I have also developed a serious distaste for things disposable and made of plastic. When I do buy something, i’m assessing it and speculating if it will last out my lifetime and still be useful to my grandchildren. I sense that we standing on a headland gazing into an unknown future, and the trends that have characterised and driven the last half century or so, have given way to a new paradigm. I don’t think that you will need to set up AA for shoppers. Fairly soon people will realise that shopping is just ‘old hat’, and gardening to stay alive will become the ‘in thing’.

    john

  3. Friends and neighbors in my community have reduced our shopping significantly over the last few years. We have a completely different mindset today. What we do is split the costs of many items with friends and neighbors who need the same things. Often items are necessary but used only once a week or less. Why should everybody own the same things that they rarely use? Anyway, we use a kind of checkout system that works very well. We also pool our money and buy bulk goods too and get a nice discount. We save lots of money, and reduce our clutter and waste in the process. Now I feel a bit strange buying things only for myself. :-) I just started a blog about it, if anybody wants to know more.

  4. Thanks Paul, a great way to open local, community and potentially global discussion. One of the outcomes of this is that we as a collective of people, not just as one person can direct commerce to actually produce in a more sustainable way – If we collectively reject high consumer items and insist more on earth friendly product and packaging etc., business, to survive and or grow must respond to the need of the market, instead of telling or seducing the market (us) into the next fancy throw away one day item.
    As someone involved in graphics / design / packaging I whole heartedly embrace this change of heart, come on lets do it. There is no excuse now, with bio-plastics and bamboo and other fully recyclable materials available, (there is even disposable nappies that can be recycled) – the choice can be made by the ‘consumer’ that’s US!, to direct business to change their production methods to more sustainable products, simply by what we buy and how much we buy. While we remain ‘lazy’ we continue to pay the price which will be more than the extra we may need to pay for the change toward a ‘greener’ attitude. And do we need so much ‘stuff’ really?

  5. Kevin Brennan

    Paul

    Hit a nerve – thanks.

    Critical to this is improving our “character”, to appreciate that eliminating “grab” impulses will make our lives happier and more engaging. Training our minds to slow to stillness for one minute, to resist the “grab” impulse, whilst then the next switching the next to absorbing and working with information faster than the human mind has ever known. As you imply, the choice needs to be active. And therefore trained to be effective and persistent. Inevitably, it will need the media getting behind “character”. That will be tough – I worry we have gone too far to put a brake on commercial media, and the enormous impact it has had on our social character today (a London train carriage today in mid-rush hour has a floor covering of discarded free newspapers yielding really only celebrity headlines and adverts).

    But yes – I feel the simmerings of character leadership there in us…the west drawing on the old philosophies of the east to learn contentment, whilst the east looks to the west for satisfaction (they’ll have fun for a few years before appreciating the wisdom of their grandaddies when they start to OD on stuff dissatisfaction!).

    Kevin B.

  6. Graeme Smith

    Hi Paul
    A story about stuff
    about 45 years ago I was working in a Joinery factory and found some pieces of timber left from a contract.
    It was Totara which has a soft feel. Yes, I know that is a NZ timber, and I have been asked many times how timber which is “hard” can feel “soft”.
    I cut this timber up into blocks that were mathmatically sized so that they would stack in a variety of ways along the lines of leggo today. They filled a carton about the size of a microwave. All my three children built many structures over the years. My grandaughter who is now 2 has some of thse blocks left in her toybox. 45 years and still going

  7. I totally agree we need to curb our addiction to ‘shopping’ and acquiring goods and services for the sake of doing so. Mindless consumption only feeds our desire to ‘have’ more! Great article. I will be forwarding this to my mailing list.

  8. Thanks for this Paul. I don’t have any really recent stats, but a research study published in 2005 into wasteful consumption ( spending money on goods or services that are never or rarely used) reinforces your point. The Australia Institute commissioned Roy Morgan research to look into this and they found overall the amount spent on wasteful consumption in 2004 was over $10.5 billion, or more than $1,200 per household. The largest amount of wasteful spending is on food. Overall, Aussies threw away $5.3 billion in 2004. This is more than 13 times the amount donated by Aussie households to overseas aid agencies in 2003.
    Also, can you add an option to share your articles on Facebook? I am a Facebook user and would like to be able to more readily share your thoughts with my Facebook network.

  9. Tony

    Great article, maybe we also need to reduce the total number of shoppers on the planet. ie have a plan to reduce world population growth. Maybe the subject of a future article?

  10. Thanks for the article Paul – very timely. A few pieces with some numbers that may be useful:
    The UK Sustainable Development Commission did a solid report ‘I Will if you Will’ http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications.php?id=367 that that accepts the need to ‘consume less’ as well as ‘consume differently‘.

    Like the food focus as well – both for its significance and also as an example of quick radical change.

    In environmental terms, as well as dollar terms, food’s a big part of our consumption and waste. It works out as around 40% an individual Australian’s environmental footprint and, according to the industry’s Australian Food and Grocery Council, we waste a staggering 3 million tonnes a year http://www.afgc.org.au/index.cfm?id=812 . I’m trying to think what a sixth of a tonne of food, my share per year, would look like in my back yard….

    On the upside food is one of the best example of fast change – Al Gore uses the US Victory Garden story and its impressive quick change – http://greenmodesustainabilitydevelopments.blogspot.com/2009/03/obamas-are-about-to-plant-veggie-patch.html. Also the White House lawn has just been dug up again.

    Also, in addition to facebook, how about twitter? I’m a recent convert – I decided it was a time saver rather than waster…..

  11. John Vandenberg

    I just heard you speak on Background Briefing tonight and wanted to say I heartily agree with what you said. I think we do stand on the cusp of disaster or re-creation (like many chaotic systems from time to time) and it will be a rough ride. I just wanted to pass on to you a couple of book references which if you have not already seen, I would recommend: Steven Keen’s ‘Debunking Economics’ and his related website Debtwatch. The book is a few years old but its criticism of neoclassical economics (and economists) is even more pertinent now.

    The second is Janis Birkeland’s Positive Development which is a refreshingly optimistic list of proposals for rebuilding ecological health and nurturing communities.

    The third is Pete Lunn’s Basic Instincts which provides a neuroscientist-come-economists insight into why humans don’t actually behave like the selfish consumers demanded by the economic equilibrium models that drive national policy.

    I am doing my best to avoid shopping by growing as much of my own food as I can. Gardening is a satisfying pursuit.

    Feel free to keep in touch if you want to discuss these topics further.

    Best wishes

  12. Paull Guster

    Paul, I heard you on background briefing tonight. Appreciated your ideas. I feel we are way too greedy generally as a species. What’s wrong with having something that works for twenty years? What’s wrong with repairing things rather than buying the latest gadget (which often is an impulse purchase and lasts five minutes)?. I’m no better than other’s in this respect but I still repair in preference to rebuy. You say that it up to us to create the change (no one is in charge), and while I agree, I still think that we need the Govt. (yes I know we get the govt. we deserve) to demand and legislate major change – the little things I do (CFDs, repair things, walk more, etc) are really a panacea and have no affect on the problem. As I see it, you are (sadly) correct. All evidence points to the fact that we are very close to going down the gurgler but, like you point out, no one wants to know – much less do something about it.

    I also feel that while there is a possibility of job losses (coal industry for one) – that no one in power will risk their own job for the sake of the planet. The industry lobby in this country is way too strong to allow such a rational action by the elected. So how do we get past this stumbling block? I feel that a revolution is what is really required to get things going – but that will probably be the first thing that happens after we all get a good dose of reaity!

    I am excited by the prospect of making worldwide changes to our enegy generation processes. I look forward to the day when the words “Solar energy” and “Australia” are interchangeable. We have such talented researchers in the sciences that we should be well ahead of the field, but unfortunately science is not supported in this country. Sport is the default science. Enough said. Wish you well. Keep talking.

  13. Paul, this is a very interesting idea and one that requires a deep and well thought through approach. Yes we now increasingly have the technologies for people to be able to shop more sustainably and sure the data exists to demonstrate to people that having more does not equal being more happy / content / fulfilled. In embarking on this change we need to realise that the second half of the 20th century is a narcisstic age where narcissitc personality disorder is prevalent in western culture and is reinforced across the whole system… the media, government & the very fabric of consumer capitalism – they all depend on a growing economy where people spend more. From a social perspective we have come to define our relationships in the context of possessions and owning. Evolving from the status quo will require change at a systems and societal level as the forces that underpin consumerism are simply too permeating. People will need to be informed and eductaed on the reality of their habits and our culture and the impacts on the world of this model. They also need to see the fallacy of the consumer promise that is a myth as well as be supported to transition off the shopping drug. Narcissim hides a painful, empty inner core that unfortunately is at the heart of why so many people can unconsciously and sbsent mindedly shop without understanding. As people evolve and change there will be a real need to create communities and relationships and support groups that provide people with connection, hope and pleasure – the very things that consumerism and rampant shopping promise but cant deliver.

  14. annmarie

    will a sense of “not” doing things and “giving things up” work as a motivator for change? The social theorist Anthony Giddens, who’s recently written on climate change politics, proposes that a sense of “deprivation” won’t work long term for the majority of us. Perhaps its a deeper investigation of the needs we think we are meeting with shopping, and whether we are denying ourselves a more creative use of our intelligence, time and pursuit happiness through discovering more creative resources and ways of being. If “not shopping” also means “time out” to do this, then great.

  15. Phil Preston

    I’m not sure everyone downing tools on consumption is going to produce a smooth transition to what is required. A more effective arguement may be to advocate shifting consumption from goods to services.

    And the Story of Stuff, despite good intent, seems to imply grand conspiracy of companies and governments against ‘us’, which is ‘us’ avoiding responsibility in my book.

    • Paul Gilding

      Phil – yes I think it is very important not to blame in this area, it is after all us who are the consumers. However, I also think there’s a need to acknowledge how the system works and for corporates to take some responsibility for what they are encouraging. It sure ain’t no conspiracy though, they’re not that organised! Check out the Prosperity without Growth report in my last chronicles however to understand why stuff to services is not going to cut it ( I thought that was the answer, but basically its too late except as a contribution)

  16. Thanks for the article Paul – very timely. A few pieces with some numbers and comments that may be useful:

    The UK Sustainable Development Commission did a solid report ‘I Will if you Will’ http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications.php?id=367 that that accepts the need to ‘consume less’ as well as ‘consume differently‘ .

    I like the food discussion both for its significance as well as being an example of fast change.

    In environmental terms, as well as dollar terms, food’s a big part of this. For Australians food is around 40% an individual environmental footprint and, according to the industry’s Australian Food and Grocery Council, we waste a staggering 3 million tonnes a year http://www.afgc.org.au/index.cfm?id=812 . I’m trying to think what a sixth of a tonne of food, my share per year, would look like in my back yard….

    On the upside food is one of the best examples of fast change – Al Gore uses the US Victory Garden story, its impressive -http://greenmodesustainabilitydevelopments.blogspot.com/2009/03/obamas-are-about-to-plant-veggie-patch.html . And the White House lawn has just been dug up again!

    In addition to facebook have you thought about twitter? I’m a recent convert – I decided it was a timesaver rather than waster…

  17. carlos

    you’ve hit the mark with this one paul:

    “which is why not-shopping is perhaps the greatest threat to capitalism since communism, except it’s likely to be far more effective because it has one of the key ingredients that communism lacked; the ability for people to take personal action and initiative that directly delivered greater happiness and more fulfilled lives.”

    this is also why the great exponents of capitalism – i.e. those with the most to lose – are terrified of this prospect, and why every corporate/advertising media message tries to entrench the traditional position of “shopping = happiness”.

    but the people are waking up. and finally, people have the ability to vote with their feet in a powerful way – true democracy, true anarchy, whatever you want to call it. exciting times.

    keep up the good work paul, shine the light into the darkness.

  18. Paul – Clearly an important concept that is served well by continued discussion and shared experience towards your idea of going open source. It’s obviously a very confronting idea for those who are in the business of “selling more stuff”, but it is clear that a groundswell in the no-shopping direction needs to start gaining attention inside manufacturer and retailer boardrooms for the mid-to-long term. I face my own daily battle just trying to advocate against the use of the word “consumer” in these kinds of environments, particularly for products which will be sold but will never be fully consumed, recycled or renewed.

    Having also just read this post from PSFK about a study exploring the relationship of material goods and happiness [http://www.psfk.com/2009/07/happiness-objectified-do-our-things-make-us-happy.html] it’s important to consider the extent of help and support required to build momentum.

  19. After linking to the post this afternoon on Twitter, I had several enthusiastic replies and “Re-Tweets”. What I thought was worth sharing, however, was a comment from @pattyhuntington [http://twitter.com/pattyhuntington] who coined the phrase, “The Shopocalypse”.

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