Deirdre Shaw, Iain Black and Katherine Trebeck report on Commonweal’s latest research. On any given day, the consumer citizens of Scotland can be found on homogeneous high streets, in hotels, pubs and gyms or on the web, shopping, buying, bargain hunting, seeking out real or imitation brands – consuming. Searching for the next pair of shoes, the next “fashion” sofa, the next “must have” electronic gadget even a better body all to be paid for, perhaps in cash, but often in “easy” monthly payments or via credit cards.
Our relationship with material goods, through the product and brands we buy and the services we consume, have invaded every relationship we have. The ones we have with ourselves, the ones we have with our family, friends and even strangers. They now rely on us, repeatedly, consuming new stuff.
Strong evidence tells us how all this undermines our economic security, our sense of who we are, our relationships, our mental wellbeing and it is an iniquitous burden. It is the engine that drives climate change and is destroying all of the Earth’s ecosystems. If that’s the case, and the evidence is shouting loudly that it is, then shouldn’t we do something about it? Here we set out briefly some of the main ideas to tackle this contained in the Common weal paper: From ‘I’ to ‘We’: Changing the narrative in Scotland’s relationship with consumption released on the 3rd of December. The ideas in this paper are not to pass judgement on what people buy or articulate particular choices of what we should do instead. Rather its ideas aim to allow people more space to examine different ways of living, ways they might find more fulfilling, less harmful, more dignified and fairer for us all.
We argue that the choice to go shopping for consumer goods is an illusion, and that the choice not to shop is harder. Governments, culture and ubiquitous marketing messages encourage and compel consumption in public and private spheres and therefore we think that the onus to change should not be placed on the consumer. Instead, we focus on government and public policy as given a different national narrative, public infrastructure, price signals and symbols for identity development, we can consume to help us live rather than living to consume.
At the heart of the rise materialism and consumerism has been the establishment of a new political discourse within the UK. Supported by a range of economic, legislative and rhetorical factors this created, then maintained, an accepted narrative of post-modern existence, we call this the ‘Narrative of I’. This national narrative, over the last 40 years has placed individual freedom over collective experience and responsibility. It is a narrative of ‘I must have’ ‘I deserve’, ‘I’m worth it’. ‘I’ is built on free market economics, privatisation, deregulated markets and the financial sector, globalisation and cheap debt by neo-liberal politicians promising it was the way to a better, more powerful, youthful life. Crucially, our form of material consumption is enabled through ever more freely debt.
But it’s more powerful creative force was and still is, the explicit, repeated expression of the doctrine through all the avenues open to the state – press releases, speeches, interviews and advertising, through the words it and its supporters use: Individualism not collectivism is how society progresses. Increased wealth is the key measure of success. Private ownership releases potential, public owners stifles it.
Marketing is a central manipulative tool in the ‘Narrative of I’. Advertising, again with light touch self-regulation dominates our public spaces, we allow it to target our children, so they too can be socialised into good little consumers. And whilst people still view themselves as mothers, fathers, workers, students, cyclists, artists etc., marketing has imbued these with a larger material and consumerist dimension. Social interactions to a much greater required spending and status and group membership are defined by what, where, how and with whom we consume. At the core of the success of so much marketing is its very failure; it satisfies demands in a way that ensures they remain unsatisfied.
Our vision for change is based around establishing the precedence of the ‘Narrative of We’. This pro-social, pro-people, pro-planet narrative looks to establish the precedence of collective experience and responsibility, of shared experience and society, of equality and fairness and sustainability. It is a narrative of skills, mentorship, coaching, and apprenticeship. It is a narrative of participation, membership, joining, and creativity. It is a narrative of repair, reuse, and re-appropriation. It is a narrative of active citizenship, protest, and change. It is a narrative where goods and services serve us: ‘We’ does not exist to serve the market.
A key part of this change hinges on our use of language and the language of governance instilled in legislation, press releases, tenders or specific social marketing communications. It relies on a different press, socially owned and funded. To rebuild the narrative of ‘We’, us, the citizens, our government, our press and the marketers, should stop talking about ourselves as consumers, instead we are citizens. Shared ownership should be lauded, we should talk about social and individual responsibility, local goods rather than global. We should talk about what is enough rather than wanting more, slow rather than convenience, rental rather than individual ownership and we should be able to participate easily without consumption playing a central role.
As happened with the narrative of ‘I’ as the language and narrative changes it becomes easier to pass legislation bringing assets back under public and community control. It makes it easier to restrict the availability and marketing of personally and socially damaging products. It makes it easier to promote and funds pro-social and pro-environmental activities public transport and access to community land.
Beyond language, we must make space for participation and different ideas of living: Participation needs to be made more desirable by creating spaces that are safe and do not gender roles. Participation must be easier, by reducing cost and increasing accessibility through better infrastructure and transport, increased leisure time and skill development.
Participation must be cheaper, entry for children to governments funded sporting, artistic and cultural facilities should be free. Equipment can be made available via kit libraries and community owned goods should not attract VAT. We must do something about liability insurance. No citizen of Scotland should be stuck at home because a club or group cannot find a room to rent or patch of green space. We call for a presumption of local ownership for all unused local government owned land.
To fund this subsidies paid to the petrochemical, car and other environmentally (and in some instances socially) damaging industries should be diverted. We support tax incentives, in the form of a self-identified increased tax free allowance for community volunteerism. In this way we can help remove financial barriers to participation and say thank you to all those volunteers who run our clubs, societies, youth groups and charities etc.
We need to control marketing as currently practiced and encourage its use as a facilitator. Marketing is neither inherently manipulative nor dysfunctional and can be a vital set of tools for changing Scotland’s dysfunctional relationship with consumption. Kate Soper talks about ‘alternative hedonism’ and reconnecting humans with the pleasures of consuming more slowly, more mindful and focusing on the quality rather than quantity. This links with a new materialism where we cherish, repair, reimagine what we have and focus on experiences rather than ownership. This focusses Marketing tools on circulating value by sharing, giving and making things ourselves.
We call for a complete ban on the marketing and advertising of goods and services to children and other vulnerable groups. Stricter control should be placed sponsorships by companies selling social or health damaging products. Further restrictions should be enacted over the amount and size of advertising allowed in civic and shared spaces. Marketing need to be co-regulated not self-regulated.
Products should have full material input labelling including but not limited to energy, emissions, and waste used in producing it. A producer pays model for litter should be introduced and we should enforce uniform bottle sizes. The sale of high sugar, high fat products in schools, libraries and other community owned spaces should be banned.
Finally, prices must include the full cost of producing, maintaining and disposing of goods throughout their life cycles. We need an international level greenhouse gas pollution cap and trading scheme.
Part of achieving a fairer and more just society is to re-evaluate our relationship with material goods and consumer practices. Currently we are consuming in ways that are damaging to just about every aspect of our lives as well as the environment. We would like to live in a society where people are free from the anxiety and stress caused by consumption practices, and are able to use goods in way that bond us together rather than drive us apart. To do this we must first change the narrative of life in Scotland, enable participation and control and redefine marketing. We have to, because we’re worth it.