“There is enough on earth for everybody’s needs, but not for everybody’s greed”- Ghandi.
I have now started this blog ten times over. What I didn’t expect when I started to write about consumerism and parenting was that it would have a profound impact on me not only as a parent, but also as a human being. What an internal struggle it has created for my head, my heart and, my conscious and not to mention my relationships to people and the world around me. Is it any wonder I struggled with coming to terms with my consumerism as a parent. I was born in the 70’s and mostly grew up in the affluent 80’s. My Parents were young and didn’t have a lot of money; in fact the only people around me who appeared to be rich were those on the TV shows like the Brady Bunch. We were not dirt poor but we didn’t have much to go around. I remember my sister telling me I use to play a game with her called Julie and Janes. Julie who I played was rich and had all the finer things in life, Jane was poor and often had to steal from Julie, the game usually ended with Jane going to Jail and Julie relaxing in her holiday house. So there it was from an early age I believed success = money and things. I do remember on many occasions my parent’s arguing about money or the lack of it, therefore I reinforced in my little head again money and lots of it = happiness.
Writing for this blog has meant I have had to visit places of myself that I really didn’t want to look at. I have had to examine 30 odd years of assumptions and come to terms with the fact that I have had an impact in shaping my children’s views on what’s important in life, sometimes not in the way I had hoped. I always had a belief that because we didn’t have much as children, that my children would not go without. Little did I understand until now was that not having much shaped my sister and me into the creative, independent, successful women we are today and having stuff does not equal happiness.
Now all this may sound a tad dramatic to those of you who are already wise about all things involving consumerism, but for me it was a rude uncomfortable awakening.
The catalyst was Christmas 2012. Social media helped me have a moment of clarity I hadn’t had before about consumerism and helped me to discover that I could think differently about this. While I was sifting through the many photos of my Facebook friend’s children on Christmas morning, I had this nagging judgemental voice say, “Wow way too many presents for one child”. Alongside this in my news feed I saw starving children struggling to have enough to eat and drink on Christmas day. I saw more clearly the huge gulf between the haves and have nots and began to feel ill. Had I become what I judged in others?
As I lay on my comfortable brand name pillow in my brand name bed, questions like “What’s happening when a 13 year old in Australia is upset with her new IPAD because it’s not the latest mini IPAD and a 13 year old in Haiti just wants a clean drink of water?” Have we as parents of western children created consumerist monsters? So I thought I would check in with my partner to ease my conscious and guilt and ask him to reassure myself I wasn’t one of “those parents”.
Well it’s fair to say I was just a little defensive when my husband’s response was “well you realise that you can be just as excessive at Christmas time with our children, right? Well no, I hadn’t realised. I was gobsmacked! Was I really doing what I had judged only days earlier? I knew I had to take a step back and, as uncomfortable as it was, take a good hard look at myself.
So that’s what I have been doing in my head recently, observing myself, undoing myself, examining myself, questioning myself, blaming myself, tying myself in knots, letting guilt find its way into my parenting and on occasions seeing things clearly, and I’m not finished yet.
To help us all understand that word consumerism, let’s have a brief look at what consumerism really is and how it is impacting on us as parents. Here is a KISS (Keep it simple sweetheart) definition of consumerism:
(1) “A preoccupation with and an inclination towards the buying of consumer goods.” (Source: choosethewayyouwanttolive.blog.spot.com.au)
(2) People rich and poor alike, attempt to impress others and seek to gain advantage through “conspicuous consumption” and the ability to engage in “conspicuous leisure”… creating “conspicuous waste” (Source: Torstein Bunde Veblen Norwegian Sociologist)
We have reached a point where we want more and more and more, bigger, faster, stronger purchases at our finger tips with endless choice. Some might say this is a good thing and at first glance it appears it is; but if we dig deeper this is what we find.
We are no longer satisfied with spending our hard earned dollars on the basics in life, a home, food, clothing, work and family. We now crave “the lifestyle” we have been told is essential to living a “good and happy” life. Shinier cars, bigger boats, expensive holidays, regular eating out, hundreds of electronic gadgets, the latest brands, frequent fast food, reputable schools and sexier must have brand name clothing, accessories and appliances. We are conditioned from such an early age (some experts even believe advertising starts in the womb) with marketing to believe these things in life are absolute essentials in making us happier, healthier and, most importantly, successful. Not only do we want these things but we want them in excess, one TV per household is not enough today we must have one in every room, including the bathroom. Fast food once a treat is now available 24/7 and considered an everyday meal, a snack and a staple. I was talking with a friend the other day and he informed me that there are kid’s apps out there where you need to pay real money to move to the next level of competition. The car game app requires you as the parent to pay real money for virtual fuel, to fuel your virtual car on the virtual app; I wonder is there a virtual prize, probably yes. It’s no wonder we feel virtually overwhelmed!
Oxfam recently released the report “The Cost of Inequality: How Wealth and Income Extremes Hurt Us All”, http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/cost-of-inequality-oxfam-mb180113.pdf the report outlined how the extreme concentration of wealth for a few actually hinders the world’s efforts in reducing poverty. So we can have all the world aide concerts we like with Bono and Sir Bob but at the end of the day if we have 100 of the world’s richest people earning more than 240 billion (enough money to end extreme poverty) we really have no hope. There is good news for those 100 billionaires however. If they are looking to invest why not try the luxury goods market, it has seen double digit growth for the past 5 years, when other industries are dying. This alone paints a real picture of inequality. Ok, so this is pretty depressing stuff from where I’m standing, so I figured I had better start thinking about alternatives and solutions if I was really going to make changes as a parent. I also had to dig deeper. While I know this intellectual stuff about consumerism, why did I still participate fully in the consumerist madness, why couldn’t I change my behaviour?
Why do we feel the need to go bigger, faster, stronger expensive and more, more and more?
To answer this question I had to look at what drives me as a human being first. We all have a need to belong to something, somewhere, somehow; whether that sense of belonging is to a person, a land or a concept like religion. We have also been socialised to want variety and some level of control over our lives. The mass media, marketing and advertising companies know this all too well. They have studied us long and hard and they want to fulfil those needs with things that make them lots of money. Shopping for example provides us today with endless choice and a false sense that we are making choices about our purchases. It also provides us with a fleeting moment of perceived happiness. Think about this for a moment. If companies selling us stuff lead us to believe we are only happy if we have the latest and best, and this message is feed it to us frequently and often enough through a variety of sources and reinforced by family and friends, then it’s not hard to believe. They tell us we need it to stay healthier, to be better people, to provide better for our families, to be happier, sexier, more desirable and, the best one for busy people, it makes life easier. The ironic thing is more and more stuff doesn’t make life easier, it makes it more complicated. We know this because every time we buy a new piece of gym equipment for those abs we absolutely need, it doesn’t make life easier. We stress over not doing it enough, feel guilty, and end up parking another piece of equipment in the garage behind the treadmill!
Charles Kettering, once a Director of General Motors US, always told his staff “keep the customer dissatisfied”. Now Charles wasn’t a stupid man, he knew that if he made us believe our cars weren’t good enough in the long run, he could bring out a new, upgraded car in the future and we would all be back to purchase it. Apple does it beautifully, releasing new products to outdate current products almost before they are a year old, in turn, making us believe we need the next best thing.
If as parent’s we believe our kids are not smart enough, not skinny enough, not popular enough, not fast enough, not beautiful enough, not funny enough, not stylish enough, not competitive enough and not intelligent enough, we invest in solutions. We hunt down the best products and services to improve our offspring so that they will be successful. If you’re thinking no way, that’s not me, I love my child just the way they are, take a look in your bathroom cupboard, on your kid’s computers and devices and in the sports bags. I’m pretty sure you have fallen into the trap just like me. Did you get your child braces so they had better teeth? Did you invest in tutoring? Did you buy them the latest software for school? Did you put them on a diet? I mean seriously, I think I even purchased a book called how to win your child friends. What was I thinking?! I was thinking what they wanted me to think…..we are not good enough; therefore, I need to consume more things to make us good enough.
If you’re thinking that this consumerism thing is only about middle class people, think again. We all want to seek pleasure now and then. Unfortunately, what we have been taught is that pleasure costs money and you need to purchase it from a recognisable and “trusted” chain. When you’re living in poverty, which I have done before, you become isolated because you often feel you can’t participate in the pleasurable activities that others are engaging in. Going out for dinner isn’t an option, nor is a holiday with friends, these are just too far out of reach. Instead the marketing world has it all worked out for you, so you don’t have to worry! They know you can’t afford an overseas holiday so they market to your so called needs. Fast food, tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical products all do well in low socio-economic areas. Why? Because you may not be able to afford a holiday but you can afford to buy the kids MacDonald’s. That makes you a great parent in their eyes and makes you feel like your children are not losing out in life. Guilt is kept at bay, be it just for a short while. As harsh as this may sound, it’s the truth tobacco companies know cigarettes will sell well in low socio economic communities under stress. They make you believe that just for a moment you too can have pleasure on a low income. It really does suck, but when you’re living from pay to pay you try to seek pleasure where you can because you just never know when it will come again. For all those people out there tut tutting people on low incomes because they want TV’s, cigarettes, fast food and alcohol, consider what it might be liked to be trapped in poverty and have marketing flashed in your face day after day saying you need this to be happy but you can’t afford it. Now this is a generalisation but it is also real when you look at tobacco figures for the last 20 years.
Unfortunately, as humans in the western world we have also been taught to measure success from how much money we have and how many things we have compared to our friends and neighbours. If you’re thinking, “well, we don’t try and keep up with the Jones’”, think for a minute. If you have a teenager, what was the last thing you purchased for them and why did they want it? Most of the time it’s because they need what everyone else has so they belong. I recently purchased school uniforms for my kids for hundreds and hundreds of dollars at the school uniform shop so they didn’t stand out, and blended in. I wondered had my values gone slightly off the rails when I drum into them every other day “be an individual dance to the beat of your own drum son!”, yeah, right, mum!
The sad part is to maintain this perceived sense of belonging, pleasure and happiness we need to keep consuming, which means we need to work harder and longer and spend more time away from our families and friends and usually in jobs we don’t really enjoy. I’m lucky enough to be in a job I do enjoy but I do wonder sometimes how I will ever climb out of this trap of working, spending, debt, working, spending, and debt. This endless cycle of debt is apparently what’s measured as success or otherwise known as the great Australian dream (the mortgage). This is where I really start to freak out because if what I have been told all my life about success isn’t true, then what is? Can we ever go back to being happy with the basics in life just like the Sullivans were in the 1940’s?
Probably what worries me most is what it’s doing to us as human beings when people are trampled to death in Boxing Day sales, Black Friday sales and click frenzy frenzies. There is seriously something that has gone wrong with our world.
What are the Impacts on our kids if we keep consuming this way?
Consumption has become such an unquestioned way of life that the buy nothing day campaign seems like a radical idea to most of us. What? You want me to buy nothing for a whole day, are you serious?!
Here are just a few of the impacts and consequences of a consumerist culture on our next generation:
- As parents we are behaving in ways that says to our children “I am what I have”; both they and we interpret this as the guide to defining self. Do we really want our children to find their sense of self through things they acquire? Wouldn’t we rather they concentrate on their qualities as a person to find their sense of self?
- If we say that success is about making money to buy lots of nice stuff, are we creating a generation that looks inwards and is narcissistic? Does this mean we will have a whole generation of people out for themselves not contributing to their communities, not able to build lasting relationships or not able to feel happy in the moment?
- Are we helping to create a disposable culture and a generation that creates more waste for the planet to dispose of? Are we doing them out of skills by not asking them to fix things but rather just throw things away and buy another thing? If we are doing this, then will the fixers of the world die out? Will skills of great importance like carpentry and problem solving disappear? One things for sure, the increase in waste and packaging will eventually destroy our children’s and our grandchildren’s environment.
- Are we helping to create a “look good culture” where the outside needs to look good despite the emptiness on the inside? Do we really want this empty future for our children?
- Are we raising our children’s expectations to the point where they believe they are entitled just because they breathe? When they move from home into a share house will they expect new furniture and belongings or will they accept the useful second hand furniture handed to them from supportive friends and family?
- Isn’t it our job to teach our children to be independent, to contribute to their communities, in a positive way?
Ok, so it’s looking pretty bleak at this point if I continue to consume in the same way I have in the past. Not just for me, but for my children, it will undoubtedly end in tears. It’s almost impossible to live in the western world and not consume in some way. So the question for me is how do I limit my participation? When I do consume, how do I do it reasonably and ethically? How do I turn my attitudinal change into behavioural change? Not the easiest challenge I have set myself.
The no spend challenge:
I’ve decided to set myself a challenge or two. The first challenge was to figure out why I needed to make a change and I have been pondering this recently. The biggest driver for me was to pass on the real values that matter on to my children, but more importantly, live those values. Those values (the opposite of consumerism); sustainability, community, respect, connecting to others and having meaningful relationships. This little (dare I say it) journey, has lead me to re-examine who I am, what I value and how I want my children to see in me.
The second part of the challenge is to take a leaf out of the beautiful bird’s blog where the “No Purchase Plan Challenge” was set. So I will be embarking on a no spend challenge, not purchasing anything for me (except for essentials, food, toiletries and I’m really hanging onto coffee), until the end of the financial year, June 30th. The challenge will require me to monitor my consumption, promote the simple things in life and be raising awareness about unethical consumerism.
Please pledge with me, I need support, if you think you can do it too. We can support each other and swap ideas! I will continue to let the blog audience know how I’m going; the good, the bad and the ugly of the challenge will be documented. Please don’t applaud me because I want to make it clear that this challenge will be really hard for me and I’m definitely scared of failure.
10 things Parents can do to not reduce consumption and reduce participation in consumerism:
- Buy Nothing – Take a challenge or sign my pledge
- Buy less – Try having some household consumption reduction goals and get the children to help and make it a challenge each month. See who can make things last longer, fix things or save money.
- Edit your possessions – Go through your home and ask yourself if I lived on a small boat and I could only keep a handful of things, what would I keep? We live with too many things, our homes are stuffed full of stuff. Our kids have many possessions, so many that they have trouble appreciating what they do have. Try to reduce your paper by viewing bills and statements online and putting documents on electronic devices.
- Stop comparing yourself to others – Easier said than done I know; but the moment we stop trying to keep up with the Jones’ we will feel a heavy weight lift off our shoulders. Let the guilt go, the children will be fine without the latest brands, they will survive. They might even get creative about the no name brand items they have to use and wear. Stop trying to make you and your family, prettier, smarter, thinner and wiser by buying crap. Accept that your good enough already. You don’t need another ab crusher or wrinkle cream from the shopping channel.
- Buy wisely – If you need to buy, buy locally at small farmer’s markets and shops where your dollar goes towards your local community. Buy a product that will go the distance and is off quality. Ask how ethical is this product? Has it been made with child labour? Is a multinational making millions from this product produced by a child? Try to reduce packaging, buy products that don’t have masses of plastic packaging. If you buy furniture make sure it will last and stand up to children. Space save by buying a sofa bed or folding furniture so your house doesn’t have to be a mac mansion. For presents, consider giving a gift that continues to give. For example, look for businesses that donate something to a developing nation every time you purchase.
- Home gown – Start a veggie garden, grow your own food and produce your own produce to swap or sell at markets. Use the produce to do more cooking at home. Get some chickens and have your own sunny side up eggs. The skies the limit!
- Reduce your fuel consumption – Do you really need three cars to a household? Sell a car if you don’t need it. Car pool for work and play. Ride bikes where possible and here’s an idea, make the children walk to school! Try catching the public transport with the children.
- Sharing – Try a system where you share things – toy library, clothes swapping parties, free gift exchanges and re-gifting, share meals with the neighbours and friends. The possibilities are endless. Try errand and task networks. Swap skills for things that you need. Some workplaces are sharing workspaces and parking spots with other workplaces to save costs. Almost anything you can buy new you can either borrow or rent from a stranger.
- Try a smaller home – Less = more, some bright spark said once. Less furniture to fill it, less cleaning products to clean it, less maintenance to maintain it and more time for fun.
- Live in the moment – Try to recognise happiness in the moment, don’t hang on for the next best moment, it may never come. Enjoy the ones you have right in front of you. When you’re feeling good take a moment to take it all in. Smell, feel, see and touch the moment before it passes. Recognising you’re in a happy moment means you’re already there, you’re already happy.
- Replace your craving for consumerism – with something else more meaningful; find something your passionate about, like giving back by volunteering or joining a team sport. Spend time with the children or just go about doing random acts of kindness.
- Say goodbye to people who devalue you – After you have tried making changes; consider who you want in your life and who has similar value and belief systems to you. Ask yourself why you might hold onto friendships that are directly opposite to your beliefs. Is it for the status, the image or the materialistic benefits? Encourage your children to seek out relationships that are based on qualities they admire, rather than being friends with the person with the most X box games.
Despite how hard the challenges are for me, above all it’s going to be worthwhile for me, my family, my community, and hopefully our planet. It’s just a small step in the right direction. I’m just making a positive change as a parent and trying to undo some of the damage I have already done.