Antonia Zimmermann explains
The most wonderful time of the year filled supermarket shelves with chocolate Santas and my Facebook newsfeed with Christmassy ads. No day in December could go by without these ads – all of them reminding me that a Christmas tree does not go without shiny gifts underneath, almost aggressively entwining my love for friends and family with tangible goods. As every year, they were excellent at imposing the idea that merely a material proof of my affection was admissible.
When did we start to spread the idea that the most valuable embodiment of affection is a material one and to believe that consumer goods were intrinsically bringing about happiness? Moreover, when did we stop being satisfied with Christmas cards and small gifts, always aiming for the newest, the best and the most?
Consumerism is generally understood as “the preoccupation of society with consumer goods in ever-increasing amounts”. Although the origins of a consumer society can be drawn back to the seventeenth century, it hugely developed after the industrial revolution and finally exploded when methods of mass production gained predominance. It is now normal to own the newest version of a smartphone, to buy a new pair of shoes because the old one is out of season and to throw away perfectly good cheese because it is not perfectly to our taste.
Today, however, certain trends shed new light on the relative insignificance of consumer goods. We, also known as the “millenials” or generation Y, seem to witness and take part in movements that challenge consumption free with ethical and thought-out ideas about the world and the society we desire to live in. Eco-friendly, vegan and minimalist movements (such as the newest “mindfulness” trend) are finding more and more adherents. In the part of our generation belonging to Western middle and upper class, it is slowly but safely becoming common sense that consumption cannot be free from ethical considerations.
Most of us probably remember the clouds of smoke above the “Twin Towers” that engraved the happenings of 9/11 and the consequent shaking of the world order to its very foundations in our memory. We witnessed the disaster of the 2008 financial crisis and its economic implications. These challenges have illustrated in different ways that excessive consumption cannot fill any void. What remains, instead, is the importance of a secure environment, human interaction and ethical values.
Through technological change, even if we wanted to, it is somehow impossible for us to escape from what is happening on the other side of the globe. Turning a blind eye has become nearly impossible. Sweatshop labour and the absurdity of poverty enabling cheap consumption cannot be ignored.
Last but not least, the most recent Paris climate agreement COP21, which sets the goal of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, testifies an urgent need to act against the dramatic trends of climate change. If we do not reduce greenhouse emissions now, they will bring about disastrous consequences for our environment. The main reason for the greenhouse effect, for instance, is animal agriculture, something we do have a direct impact on through our consumption choices. Moving away from consumerism has become a need. It is the responsibility of our generation to act accordingly.
So finally, the crucial question is not whether we are moving away from consumerism, but what happens if we don’t. The first steps might be hard to take in a society that is deep-seated in the neon-coloured, blinking and obtrusively massive Wallmart-style foundations of consumption, but they are both possible and inevitable.
It can all start by asking oneself the most basic questions: When did I last buy something new? Was it something I really needed? Do I know how it was produced?
It would be wrong to neglect the economic growth consumption society brought about, but if we do not challenge the ethics behind the seemingly never-ending striving for the best, we are on our best way to leaving behind a world of exacerbated structural poverty and exhausted resources.