“You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you're satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you've got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you're trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.”
Chuck Palahniuk, ‘Fight Club’
The definition of a ‘consumer’ is “a person who purchases goods and services for personal use”. Consumerism upsets me, because if everyone is purchasing things for their ‘personal use’ and therefore thinking of themselves, they are not necessarily thinking about where their stuff is from or who made it. We think about whether an object is selling for a fairly cheap price (which will generally mean that the people who made it were not paid enough money). Consumers look at things and how it will affect them ‘personally’.
But consumer products are never personal. They were made by someone, somewhere with something. People don't think about this. If you don’t pay attention to what you are buying. You are supporting the killing of animals and plants and people - because people die making cheap products. They are just like you. They feel the same and their skin hurts the same and miscarriages and death and poverty will hurt them just as much as they will hurt anyone else. How can we support this? How can we support what is basically slavery. I imagine working in a factory and being tired and hungry. I imagine my eyes burning and my skin itching and my body aching and I feel guilty, because at some point I have bought something that supports this. We do think about other people when we buy things, but we don’t think about the people who made them. We think about the fashion models or our ‘friends’ who will surely judge us if we don't own something and we don't all match one another.
We are not the same. Why do people buy the same things and try to match? Is it because we want to fit in? If fitting in means hurting people and plants and the world then I will not fit in. Ever. I will not support this system and this way of thinking. It is NOT okay. How have we let this happen? Where is empathy? I wonder if we bury it under all our phones and clothes and furniture and blankets. We worry about all the things in our lives, but we are one person out of billions on a tiny planet in an infinite universe. We are smaller than dust, but we get so involved in ourselves.
It is not that we are unimportant, but that it is not only us who matter. People get upset that they do not look like the people in magazines and that they don’t have as much as they would like. This is upsetting of course. It is sad, but it is irrelevant really, because many of us have so much. If you have money to buy a magazine and admire the people in it, you have much more money than so many people.
We need some perspective. We need to remember other people. We must live kindly. We must fight for change. Change can be difficult, but the ways things are right now is very difficult too. Maybe not for you, but certainly for someone.
Consumerism is one of the things that is hurting the world. Buying trendy things and throwing them away. Buying stuff that you don’t need because others have it. Not paying attention to what you buy. Consumerism is something that many people partake in, but that means it is also something we can change. We may not personally be cutting down forests, so we can’t suddenly change that, but we don't have to support it. Even if you are the only person who doesn’t. By not supporting it, you don’t have to feel guilty, because you were not a part of it. You did not add to the pain. We all make a difference to this world, one way or another. Make sure that you are proud of your difference. Live a life without guilt.
I've been aware for a little while of the impacts of consumerism on the world, and on our fellow humans. I read No Logo a while back, but I find Andy Fisher's approach to be very sensitive. Andy Fisher looks at the shame we are made to feel because of a need to sell products. He looked at how we are made to feel 'outdated' or sometimes, as though we are 'trying to hard'. I've been wondering what this does to our sense of dignity or humanity?
Making the connections between products and environmental impact can be painful at first. There's also such a lot of guilt. But I think the guilt or shame which is often aimed at consumerism can be difficult for people to bear. Our deep connectedness to beauty, nature and other beings seems to me to be the place to start. When we see the impacts of dyes on water, animals, ourselves and 'other' people, I think it takes us to a place where there's a greater awareness or consciousness of what happens to the world, the need for ethical choices and even a sense that we won't join in when it comes to mocking or shaming others for not being 'on trend'.
Awareness means we can change the way we look at the world, and we can see the importance of Fair Trade, for example. But I think it also helps to know that we can buy from local producers, buy organic, or remember what feels sacred to us. I've found that as I re-connect to the beauty which is all around me, I feel as though I'm more aware of what is sacred to me, and I feel more content. I don't feel so restless or out of sync with myself. And I don't buy into advertising or the promise of happiness they bring. I've also found that by learning to share and express what I feel, I'm far more able to sit with the feelings instead of searching for ways to make them go away. It's okay to feel sad, distressed or puzzled at times. Some situations make us uneasy. I don't need a product to make it better. Empathy and care help far more.
I'm starting to believe that a deeper awareness of our own needs - for solitude, for connection, for wonder, beauty or change, can help us to avoid the pitfalls of looking for answers in the shops. We all get lonely, bored or restless. I think the true work is to realize that this is okay, and that our feelings or questions can lead us into new spaces. They don't need to be resolved right away, and giving time to them can be helpful.
Empathy for the world is important, but I like to think that by being kind to ourselves too, we can find a way back to what's sacred to us.
Thank you Nicci Attfield for these images and reflection from the group in Cape Town.