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The Consolation of Christ Fraternity, Secular Franciscan Order

How Can We Change Consumerism ?

Our Apostolate Works
Franciscan Saints
Prayers from Franciscan Tertiarys and Saints of the Catholic Church
An Occasional Almanac of Useful Information about Simple, Sustainable, and Frugal Living
How Can We Change Consumerism ?
c/o Owric,
One World Centre,
6 Mount street,
Manchester M2 5NS.

Economists tell us that natural resources are scarce but that human wants are unlimited, thus leading to the necessity of rationing goods by markets and prices, but as Gandhi once famously said: "There is enough on earth for everybody's need, but not for everyone's greed." What is it that makes human beings behave in an acquisitive manner? Human nature? Or is it mass marketing and advertising that makes people believe that they can't brush their own teeth without the help of an electronic gadget?

"In the US, wood and paper
thrown away each year is
enough to heat 5 million
homes for 200 years."
Ruth Leger Sivard, World
Military & Social Expenditure
(World Priorities Inc, 1991)

So, what do humans need? food, decent shelter, health care, education, the opportunity to express themselves, and leisure. I'll leave YOU to decide what else, free from the wiles of the marketing executives. I believe people would act responsibly if free from this influence. Let's give this a try, and if people are as irresponsible as the economists say they are, then I 'll be happy to support taxes on non-renewable resources and the consumption of luxury goods.

[Global Excess] In a sense 'consuming' fulfills needs that will require other ways of being satisfied in a post- consumer society: the need to belong, the need for variety in life, the need to control your personal environment and your work. "Shopping gives you a sense of choice and power which is often absent from the rest of your life", says Judith Williamson, author of 'Decoding Advertisements'.
When we have come to an idea about what sustainable human needs are, an assessment can then be made as to whether humans are prepared to accept changes in their lifestyle.


Durning's consumer class (4) will have to make the most sacrifices in a post-consumer society. Consuming 64% of world income with around a fifth of its population (1.1 bn) is grotesque when the bottom fifth get 2% . It's clear any changes will need to be pretty radical to begin to turn this situation around. Even the UN's 20:20 initiative, which states that 20% of southern governments' money and 20% of northern aid should be spent on basic services, such as sanitation, nutrition, health care and family planning, has not yet been implemented. If this plan were carried out these basic services would become universally available. Relieving the worst excesses of Third World poverty would not significantly reduce standards of living in developed countries. Comforting the consumer class is not enough, however. Many of the ways in which we measure progress in our society have to be looked at again. We need to go beyond economic growth when measuring success. Alternative economic indicators might have a part to play here.(5)


Trying to convince people of the case for Anticonsumerism is not easy, but other articles in this booklet will have shown that the arguments directed towards the consumer class are straight forward.

a) The environment is being destroyed by natural resource depletion, itself the result of a consumerist attitude towards resources. If you care for the future think carefully about what you buy.

b) Preventable poverty is in part being created because of consumer cash crops such as coffee, sugar and cocoa.

Far from slowing energy
consumption to prevent global
warming, Britain is accelerating
it. In 1991 Britain used
89,960 million therms of
primary fuels and equivalents.
By 1993, the figure was 92,307
Central Statistical Office

c) Consuming more things is a harmful way to try to be happy and fulfilled. In a consumer society, you can never have enough. Are we any happier now than we were 50 years ago? Human happiness is not related to what you buy, but what you are and how you treat people. These issues are difficult because they seem as though they are far away or can be put off until tomorrow. But after four decades of unbridled post-war consumerism we need to rediscover the values of conservation and frugality which have served humanity well for most of its time on earth. But who are the 'agents' of change? The poor of the world obviously have a vested interest in anticonsumerism because they suffer most in consumer society, even though many would aspire to the very consumerism they can never achieve. But is it desirable for the 'rich' in material possessions to live in a crime-ridden, uncaring and polluted society? The broad mass of the consumer class will have to be convinced by a combination of the morality of the case and (Methuen 1987) seeing that it is in the planet's interest for ALL its cltizens to have the right to a minimum of health, food and security. The altemative is already all around us: in wars; in famines while farmers grow cash crops for dissatisfied, closed individuals, unable to communicate except through the next purchase.


At the outset, let me make it clear that I am not suggesting the world's poor should be asked to reduce their consumption. We are all responsible, but some are more responsible than others. It is not a choice between consumption or no consumption but a demand that the consumer class be forced to allow evelyone to define their own limited needs.

"Any relation that does exist
between happiness and
income is relative rather than
absolute. the happiness
people derive from
consumption is based on
whether they consume more
than their neighbours and
more than they did in the past.
The upper classes in any
society are more satisfied with
their lives than the lower
classes are, but they are no
more satisfied than the upper
classes of much poorer
countries, nor than the upper
classes were in the less
affluent past."
Michael Argyle, The
psychology of happiness


[Global Excess] a) Solidarity. Anything that strengthens the position of the exploited majority (80% ot the world's population) will in itself act as challenge to consumer culture. After all, it relies upon their unwilling participation to be able to function. Political movements for land rights such as the Zapatistas in ChiaPas. Mexico (who advocate communal solutions to the problems of landless peasants and economic independence for local communities) deserve at least critical support for their rebellion, even if some would disagree with their guerrilla tactics. By insisting on production for local use, small-scale farmers are attacking the notion of a world market, in which developing countries are dependent on what ever prices that the consumer class is prepared to pay for cash crops.

b) Education . The consumer class needs to be provided with the necessary information for them to begin publicly challenging the notion that consumerism is the only way to live. The Anticonsumerism Campaign has begun to tackle this task modestly and this autumn will organise the 6th International No Shop Day, with actions designed to inform and gain media attention.


a) Buy nothing. Unfortunately this is not an option for most people, as the global market extends to societies that for centuries have relied on non-money economies. It has been responsible for a massive shift of people towards cities, and has robbed them of the ability to feed themselves. In countries such as Brazil, many are forced to eke out a living scavenging amongst the rubbish of the elite. There have been several attempts to-'buy nothing' in a consumer society, where individuals or groups have deliberately impoverished themselves as a protest against the greed they see around them, and as a way of trying to provoke debate or inspire by example. However, I do not feel we will get many takers for our message if we promote this as the only, or primary, way of living an anticonsumerist lifestyle.

b) Buy Less... i) Quantitatively. Share things that obviously have a high resource impact, such as cars, lawnmowers, deep freezers, etc. You might want to ask if you could survive without a fridge. Before the 1950s people used to shop locally and regularly for perishables, and the pantry would keep most things fresh for an acceptable length of time. Only the TV dinner junkie need have anything to fear from the demise of the fridge. Another example of buying less would be the radical extension of home and allotment growing, as happened during the second world war. Colin Ward's recent work on the allotment shows how significant the idea became in the days when the working class was associated with hard work and self-reliance. But by buying less we do not automatically make a better society, merely a less polluted one. There is still the need to design and implement better ways of running a post-consumer economy. ii) Qualitatively. Buy goods which have little or no packaging or make your point by presenting the excess to the manager of the shop. Try to buy more durable goods. Avoid advertised products and the feeling of being manipulated . Until recently the bitter-drinker usually escaped the worst excesses of the lager advert, largely because lagers are indistinguishable from one another (and have to be sold with a loutish image), whereas bitters tended to have distinct ingredients and tastes. Now we have to put up with 'widgets' and 'draught bitter in a can' (a hideous oxymoron if ever there was one).

The 1995 Draught Guinness
marketing budget, which ran
to #35 million, could stand
Britain's 18 million male
drinkers a free pint of
Guinness each.

This approach to anticonsumerism might best be summed up in the Lifestyle Movement's slogan:

Live simply so that all may simply live

c) Ethical Consumption. Today, large numbers of people recognise that national governments are less powerful than trans- and multi-national corporations. Many buy cosmetics which are not tested on animals, believing their economic vote has power. After all, if the workers don't collectively buy back their bosses' own products the system would collapse. The only problem here is that these economic 'votes' are not very evenly distributed. However, an educated consumer class might want to invent an ethical category based on Anticonsumerism. Particularly bad culprits for encouraging consumerism such as Coca-Cola or McDonalds, the major brewers and Nestle could be boycotted unconditionally on this basis with no other aim than to drive them out of business. The reverse of this would be positive buying, where products are purchased because of their ethical soundness. Examples would include fairly traded goods (giving exploited producers a higher price for their goods) and ethical investment. Anyone interested in Ethical Consumption / Consumerism could contact Ethical Consumer Magazine at: ECRA Publishing Limited, 16 Nicholas Street, Manchester Ml 4EJ.

d). Choices. When buying something, start from the premise, "What do I need?" not, "What do I want?" The latter attitude is often expressed in the absurd concept of window shopping . This entails putting yourself into the advertisers chosen territory. Why on earth should we want to do that? This is why the integration of leisure and shopping is so insidious. The indoor shopping mall represents nothing less than the commercialization of social interaction.


a). Culture Jamming. This is the practice of attacking the consumer culture with dysfunctional messages which undermine the values of a 'you are what you buy' mentality. Adbusters has come up with the culture jammers' credo:

We will take on the archetypal mind-polluters - Marlboro, Budweiser, Benetton, McDonald's, Coke, Calvin Klein - and beat them at their own game.
We will uncool their billion dollar images with uncommercials on TV, subvertisements in magazines and antiads right next to theirs in the urban landscape.
We will take control of the role that the tobacco, alcohol, fashion, cosmetics and fast-food corporations play in our lives. We will hold their marketing strategies up to public scrutiny and set new agendas in their industries.
We will culture jam the pop culture marketeers-MTV, Time- Wamer, Sony - and bring their image factories to a sudden, shuddering halt.
On the rubble of the old Media culture, we will build a new one with a non-commercial heart and soul.

b) Subvertising. This practice of changing adverts to make them read differently has been used by campaigns such as the Nestle boycott. The Canadian magazine, Adbusters , specialises in publicising successful actions of this nature.

[Global Excess]

Essentially these are strategies of resistance against the marketers and admen. People have been participating in counter-cultures of various kinds for as long as they have felt manipulated. These ideas are the modern expression of that trend. Adbusters Media Foundation can be contacted at: 1243 West 7th Avenue, Vancouver, BC, V6H l B7 Canada.


Obviously, anything that weakens industry's ability to mass produce and market goods is likely to reduce the likelihood of consumers being manipulated. But the consumer economy relies above all on the lack of democratic control of the economy, the ability of the worker and the consumer to say, "What can I do?" You can't expect people to take responsibility for their consumption if they have no say over what is produced, and how. People tend to regard problems as someone else's fault - either the evil bosses', this government's, or some irresponsible foreigner's. In general, forms of organisation based on local production, worker control, product diversity and regional interest would break down the world market and reduce the opportunities for product standardisation that consumerism demands: Big Macs must taste the same in Moscow, London, Nairobi, Tokyo and Rio.

'Someday it may be possible to
be born, go from preschool
through college, get a job,
date, marry, have children...
get a divorce, advance through
a career or two, receive your
medical care, even get arrested
,tried and jailed; live a
relatively full life of culture
and entertainment, and eventually
die and be given funeral
rites without ever leaving a
particular mall complex -
because every one of those
posslbilities now exists in
some shopping center some-
William Kowinski, The malling
of America William Morrow &
Co Inc, 1985)

The expansion of consumer co-ops could be one part of the economic alternative to consumerism. Many villages, such as Itteringham in Norfolk, when faced with the loss of their shops and post offices have come together to run them co-operatively. Instead of having to travel to the nearest town these villages are asserting mutual ties and local interest as a more human alternative. On a different scale, a new network of shops is being established which will only sell goods which pass strict ethical and environmental criteria. Out of This World is a consumer co-operative, owned by its members, who are also its customers. For an investing members 'introductory pack write to:Out of This World 52 Elswick Road, Newcastle Upon Tyne NE4 6JH.

On an even larger scale people need to look again at the wisdom of free trade and trickle-down economics. Lang and Hines have produced a rigorously argued alternative to GATT in The New Protectionism (Earthscan,1993). This book argues for less external trade, and shows how free trade is serving only a narrow range of global interests. They call for environmental criteria to be built into trade regulations and for the richer countries help the poorer, by allowing them to develop sustainably, free from the demands of making Reebok trainers for the consumer class. [Global Excess] Regional self-sufficiency would then create more work for people in the richer countries. Anyone interested in looking further into the 'new economics' might like to contact The New Economics Foundation at:
1st Floor,
Vine Court,
112 - 116 Whitechapel Road,
London E11 JE.


Yes, is the simple answer, but only if there is the will to effect change. At the time of writing, an energy conservation bill is before Parliament aiming to reduce domestic fuel consumption by insulating homes properly, thereby cutting greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. The green agenda is vital if we are to 'tread lightly upon the earth' and save it for future generations. So, while anticonsumerism is about getting rid of the shopaholic nightmare of out-of-town shopping-centres, it is also about a practical attitude towards resources in general; conserving, saving, sharing. While there are already practical islands of sustainability within this society, such as the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth in Mid-Wales, we should not regard them as blueprints, but look to them for the general principles and values which might govern a different society. For people wishing to begin the job now by consuming less there are hundreds of books in libraries up and down the land about sustainable living and fair-trade schemes to relieve the worst excesses of the market. For many ,if not most, the question has not even been put on the agenda. It is to these people that we say, "Please think before you buy, and find out the consequences of what you purchase."

The crucial, and underlying, point about the alternatives to consumerism is that people must choose them in a spirit of voluntary simplicity. People must take back responsibility for what they do to the earth and its poorer citizens. The alternative is to have change imposed in a brutal and authoritarian way by a government playing the green card.

Some of what has been said may sound like hair-shirt puritanism, but there are no easy choices when one is trying to create a 'culture of permanence'. It is in fact an appeal for control and satisfaction in our economic life and for a just distribution of the world's finite, yet not scarce, resources.

The Consolation of Christ Fraternity, Secular Franciscan Order