Think before consuming

Over the past few days I’ve been at The Big Tent: Scotland’s Festival of Stewardship. On Friday, before the festival started, I attended a Transition Towns meeting. I’ll present notes from two discussions; first is a conversation about consumer culture:
Think before consuming
The session was mainly concerned with how to raise awareness about waste and energy involved with the production and packaging of “plastic rubbish” (this term was used several times through the conversation to indicate anything from flat-pac furniture to toys that are used briefly and then thrown out). We considered the social implications of becoming “that mother who doesn’t want her children to give or receive gifts from the store” and what misunderstandings and opportunities might arise from taking a “non-consumer” or contrarian stance on this issue.

The discussion was round-table with participants forwarding ideas in a free-flowing conversational manner. As “consumerism” is a fairly broad topic with many levels of participation (or options for opting-out), we covered a range of interrelated ideas. We began with a discussion about gifts and the expectations placed on people when they give gifts. I think the most straightforward way of presenting the discussion is in a list format with comments.

  • The Freecycle concept is good but how might we organise it in smaller groups (more geographically specific with clearer categories of “stuff”)? What are the options for food co-op and borrowing networks? What role can the Transition Town initiative can take in organising these things?
  • Communication: the key thing is getting the word out on what tools are available to communities to reduce dependance on outside resources; also, how do we “sell” non-consumption? It is difficult to withstand, even for people who are aware of it, the draw of advertising and move from a “wants-based” economy to a needs-based one. How can we encourage such a transition in communities that might not necessarily welcome or see any need for it? What are the tools we have to make the “not buying more stuff because most of it is crap and made shoddily by people who are underpaid and living in environments that are polluted so we can have shiny new toys for less money movement” more accessible and less of a mouthful?
  • There will always be room for people who think creatively—noting the importance of beginning with children and teaching them craft as opposed to teaching them how to be consumers and how to not think about their own ability to create. If children can be taught craft and the importance of craftsmanship, they will recognise poorly made things and find no satisfaction in them. We have to invite them to become involved in decisions about purchasing as well; rather than succumbing to social pressure to send the child with a purchased gift to her friend’s birthday party, what options might there be for her to choose something of her own that she treasures to give as a gift instead, etc.?
  • The finding and repair of damaged things is enriching to one’s life—recognising the history of something and making it your own (and passing it on to others—stewardship).
  • How might we reenforce the positive? E.g. rather than presenting oneself as a contrarian crank who wants to burn down Tesco, how do we let people know that gardening is relaxing and fresh produce makes a great gift? How might we note the importance of growing and living gifts?
  • How might we consume more efficiently? (E.g. rather than driving out to the shop to purchase milk and eggs, might someone else already going pick them up? How might this be organised?)
  • “A gift is something that comes from the heart–not something made of plastic”.
  • How and when might we use opportunities to tell people we don’t personally need more material things. Example given was a couple who do not want purchases made for their wedding; what can the couple do so people can fulfil a desire to give gifts without putting a burden on the couple (in terms of un-needed items, loads of packaging, etc.)?
  • Taking damaged goods and fixing them is good for the soul. A child who gets a beat up metal wagon and learns to paint and personalise it has learned both skill and stewarding rather than just seeing it as another disposable toy; if you take the rejects from the charity shop and fix the holes, you’ve brought things from the brink of the landfill (and free clothes).
  • It’s important not to come across as a ranting loony—however, this is less likely as the economy and environment changes (must remember that, 60 or 70 years ago, in a time of relative austerity these ideas were commonplace).
  • Most importantly, how do we reduce the “distance” between ourselves and our neighbours and what opportunities might sharing and trusting one another with our “things” bring to build community. (How might the focus on trust and community help us to step back from such a consumer focus in the things themselves?)