Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting

RaeOne is always hearing about consumer confidence these days. Apparently, if only consumers feel confident they will confine themselves in shopping malls and spend until their credit limit is reached. When they don’t want to add to their possessions or to live under a mountain of debt, our economists assume they lack confidence, and fear that financial ruin is about to come upon the country. Thus we find the Treasurer, during the Boxing Day sales, urging us to go out and consume for the good of the economy, as though reckless spending was a public good.

Of course Quakers have always resisted this kind of consumerism. Our Advices and Queries tell us to “Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford.” John Woolman declared in 1771 that “The produce of the earth is a gift from our gracious creator to the inhabitants, and to impoverish the earth now to support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age.” Two thousand years ago Jesus taught his disciples “Do not store up riches for yourselves here on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and robbers break in and steal. Instead store up riches for yourselves in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and robbers cannot break in and steal. For your heart will always be where your riches are.”

But I am not sure that these high moral precepts are the reason I avoid the shopping mall. I just don’t enjoy shopping. And I suspect that I am not alone, and that the gloss of consumerism is beginning to wear off. Why should we endure hours of embarrassment trying of clothes that never seem to fit? Why should we fill our homes with “collectables”, aka “things that have no discernible use”? Why should we waste our hard-earned cash on anti-aging creams that only seem to work on those in the first bloom of youth?

I find consumerism easier to resist since the range of goods on sale seems to have shrunk. What happened to the book shops, the music stores, even the toy shops? Gone on-line I suppose. So the shopping malls are full of clothes, make-up and beauty treatments. There comes a time in life (and it may be a time when one actually has some money) when these goodies cease to delight. They have failed us too many times.

“And is this a good time to buy a major household appliance?” I hear the researchers asking. No, it is never a good time to buy such a thing unless you are absolutely desperate for a machine to wash clothes in or a stove to cook on. To begin with, many of the shops that sell these products are situated in far-flung industrial estates where you will wander lost for hours. If you do find the right shop you will find that appliances have changed their dimensions, and will not fit in your house until you do major renovations. Then you will find that the only day they can be delivered is the day you simply can’t get off work. If you are unwise enough to buy furniture it will arrive in 50 pieces accompanied by instructions written in sign language.

But if you are still tempted to buy that which you do not really need, I suggest the following mantra:

  • It will take up space.
  • It will need to be cleaned.
  • It will break down.

After reciting this mantra a few times I usually decide to forget about the new purchase, and go to buy a cup of coffee instead.

I suggested that I am not alone in finding that the sparkle has gone out of the shopping experience, and I think you can see evidence for this in the way advertisements have changed. Advertisements used to show happy people. Housewives smiled as they applied wonder cleaning products to their homes. Men smiled as they climbed into their new cars. Models smiled as they showed off their new clothes. I have developed some skill in ignoring advertisements (as, I believe, has the population generally), but it is my impression that being a consumer is no longer fun. Emaciated models do not smile, they pout. And the theme of most advertisements seems to be Peace of Mind, not pleasure. Women in nice clean houses worry about bacteria. Healthy women fill themselves with vitamins and wonder foods. And how many forms of insurance can you count in an hour of television programs? Even the laptop I am writing on has a little sticker which offers me the “Toshiba Peace of Mind”. It seems that consumer confidence depends on a lack of confidence in everything else!

Of course we should not get too complacent about our Testimony of Simplicity. Our concepts of simplicity are to a large extent culturally determined. Nor can you totally ignore societal standards – these days you cannot get a job if you smell, or wear tatty clothes. You may not be able to get to work without private transport. You may be happy to live in a simple shack but you won’t get planning permission for it.

But even where we have choices, we are more influenced than we know by the standards of other people. Are overseas holidays an acceptable part of the simple life? Well, of course, everyone is taking them. Do you really need that new smart phone? Well, they are so convenient, and really very cheap.

This cheapness is part of the problem. Many items are cheap because the price does not reflect the true cost of the raw materials consumed or the human labour that is required for their manufacture. Which brings us back to the moral precepts which we hold dear: simplicity, equality, and care of the earth. Let us feel confident enough to lower our consumption. The Economy should be the servant of humanity, not its master.

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