Is shopping the answer?

The British Prime Minister is encouraging people to shop in order to support the economy out of the coronavirus crisis. But we need to change how we shop and what we buy if we are to create a more sustainable way of life.

Mel Young and Alexandra Matthews, the founders of The New Ism, are practising social distancing at home in Edinburgh and London respectively: we wanted to take the opportunity to discuss how this time of change and reflection could be harnessed to create a New Ism when all this is over. As members of different generations, we have different experiences and perspectives, but share a desire to create a new way forward.

Mel: Recently Boris Johnston, the UK Prime Minister, said that it was very important that as soon as the lockdown was over that everybody went out and started shopping.

His rationale was very simple: to the economy working again, money had to begin circulating. The current global economic system is based on a very simple theory of money changing hands – circulation of money is key and the quicker it changes hands the better. That has obviously nearly completely stopped during the pandemic and so the economy had plummeted. 

So, to keep the system going, the government is urging people to go out and spend lots. Leaving aside the fact that people may actually have the money to spend, the rallying call simply means that the government wants us to return to the way things were. But a key question is: what should we be spending money on?

Alex: Well obviously governments are keen to get economies back to ‘normal’ – i.e. back to what they were before the coronavirus pandemic. But that ‘normal’ is out of balance – it means that some people are getting very rich, while others – factory workers, farmers, etc are being exploited and often have to live below the poverty line, despite the fact they work full time. That isn’t right and it isn’t, as far as I understand, what Adam Smith meant when he wrote about capitalism. I think therefore we – consumers – have a responsibility to choose where we spend our money wisely. Do we want a t-shirt that was made by a child paid 20p per day, or by a person who was paid fairly and works in decent conditions? Should that t-shirt be made from materials that damage the environment, or materials that are responsibly sourced and renewable? 

Mel: That’s right, Smith talked about money being for the good of society not just for a few individuals. People have talked for a long time about fair trade and sustainable consumerism and a minority of people have bought into this concept and will only spend their money on goods or services which don’t exploit people or harm the planet. The challenge has always been, how does that move from the minority to the majority? I am very intrigued by the concept of ‘The Big Reset’ which was recently published by the World Economic Forum. In essence, what it says is the current system isn’t sustainable and we need to think about creating a new one: resetting the entire global system. Key decision makers and leaders in the world seem to be buying into this which is incredibly interesting. The simple cry of “just go shopping” is banal and doesn’t solve the systemic problems in the world. But it seems that smart leaders are now thinking in a different way. I think this might be a critical moment in economic history – are we going to go back to the car which keeps breaking down or are we making a new one?

Alex: The answer is of course that we have to make a new car. But the old car is familiar and it works most of the time for most of the people, even if it’s not ideal. The big issue in terms of shopping is that products that exploit people and planet are usually far, far cheaper than those which don’t: organic food, for example, is many times the price of ‘regular’ food – and that’s why most people don’t buy it – because they simply can’t afford it. What I’m interested in is whether organic (or sustainable, or ethical) products are in fact realistically priced or whether they are inflated – and if the latter, can we make them more readily accessible to more people? That would be how we start creating a healthier, fairer economy in terms of consumption.

Mel: This is one of the key aspects of any new economy. How do you stop cheap unsustainable products flooding the market? There are lots of other moral issues as well. For example, a friend said to me recently that he wouldn’t mind if all the airline companies went bust because they are causing pollution directly and causing secondary pollution by encouraging people to travel all over the world. Stop getting on airplanes, he said. But the ethical question is, what happens to the thousands of people who lose their jobs if the airline industry collapsed completely? It’s the same issue which you are looking at. The whole system is weighted the wrong way. We need to go back to basics and have a look at the values in our economy and build from there.

Alex: And now seems the perfect time to do that – it’s easier to go back to basics when nothing is running, and it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll have an opportunity like that which the pandemic has presented us to ‘start over’. Many are using the expression ‘build back better’ – but that suggests reverting in some way to what we had already. We should instead be thinking in terms of ‘moving forward’ or ‘building anew’. Our leaders need to focus on what the future – the ‘new car’ – looks like, and not on how to fix the old one. As consumers, we can play our role by – where possible – voting with our wallets and choosing to support businesses which are fair, ethical and sustainable. The message will eventually filter through and our governments will have to follow our lead.

Mel: So, Alex, when you next go to the shops what will you buy?

Alex: Good question! It’s not straightforward as I’m not wealthy, but I try to choose the ethical option where I can. I try to keep in mind the ‘buy less, buy better’ slogan – choosing higher quality products which are more likely to last, and buying them less often. 

Mel: An answer would be to increase everyone’s disposable income so that they could afford ethical goods but there needs to be a way of restricting cheap products getting into the retail network which damage the planet and hurt people.

It’s a difficult question without an easy answer, but our leaders must address it and find solutions, because the current system just doesn’t work for the planet or the people.

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