Almost 10 years ago now, I travelled to Singapore for the first time. Matt and I had been living in Nepal for six months, and came home by way of a four week jaunt through Asia (of course), which involved a couple of days in the squeaky clean metropolis that is Singapore.
I was horrified.
Now Singapore has plenty of its own charms, and there's no question that being fresh from the casual chaos of Nepal coloured my perception. But what struck me on that first visit was the all-pervasive sense of consumption-as-identity - a carefully constructed, almost impenetrable consumer veneer that everyone seemed to be wearing, drowning themselves in a sea of branding and corporate marketing. It seemed like the only way people were able to define or express themselves was through their consumption - their gazillion dollar cars, their perfectly curated look. Having been living among the rawness of life-as-survival that is the daily reality for so many Nepalis, it was shocking. I had an overwhelming to run up to people in the street, grasp them by the shoulders, look into their eyes and shout, "You are not your stuff!"
The really scary thing though is that the practice of constructing our identity through our consumption is present nearly everywhere in the modern world - so much so that we hardly even notice it. I think Bethany Noble at Good on You hits the nail on the head when she points out that, "We are spoken to more as a consumer than we are as citizens or human beings." But don't despair - she also has four great ideas on reclaiming your status beyond your consumption. Here are her thoughts...
Consumer or citizen? How we gain the power to change the world
It’s been five years since I joined the ethical fashion movement – and to be honest, it’s been tricky to be a purist about the supply chains I’m buying from.
The system is set up so that making the right decision (one that aligns with your personal values) is really hard. I drive my car because the public transport systems do not accommodate my schedule. Or the lack of options at the supermarket means I buy tuna which is most likely contributing to overfishing. And poor labelling and hidden supply chains means I do not know the true cost of my garments, limiting my power to make a better choice and call the company to account.
We need a new default. Systems and business structures that automatically choose the most sustainable and ethically-oriented avenue.
Is it so hard to imagine a world where no company can make clothing or products which release toxic chemicals, destroy natural habitats, exploit workers or are tested on animals?
We’re consumers before we’re citizens
Our identity in society is predominately as a consumer. We are spoken to more as a consumer than we are as citizens or human beings. Our needs as people have been commercialised and marketing has become so effective, that unquenchable consumption has become a cultural norm.
We’re bombarded with consumer messages telling us we’ll be happier, more successful and fulfilled if we have newer stuff. Did I really need to upgrade my iPhone? Those three winter coats – were they entirely necessary? We receive an estimated 3,000 marketing messages a day telling us that we need to buy more to live a better life.
Not so long ago, our status and meaning came from our community and family. Today it’s reflected by the car we drive or the labels we wear.
Marketing is incredibly subtle and pervasive. But it’s time that we reclaim our identity and hold these corporations accountable for the impact they have on our world. It’s time to solve these problems with better company policies, increased transparency and awareness about their impact.
And that’s where we have the opportunity to put our citizen hats on and make a difference. Because companies are listening.
The Tipping Point from Consumer to Citizen
Having more stuff doesn’t make us happy. Once our basic needs are met, it’s quality relationships and a strong community that makes us happy. And you know what adds to happiness? Working towards shared goals.
I doubt many people will disagree when I say that having a healthy planet, and people who aren’t exploited for our gain is a fairly universally shared value.
So how can we move from a consumer mindset to a citizen mindset where we pursue our universally shared vision?
1. Build community
Let’s find our value and identity in our community, from our family and friends to the global community at large. When we love and care for people, we automatically feel happier, and full of love. Take time to spend with people rather than searching through the latest Asos sale on your laptop. Or go for a walk in nature on the weekend instead of joining the throngs in the malls buying more stuff that we don’t need.
2. Develop new traditions
Instead of acquiring more stuff in search of self-worth, have an experience or invest that money on improving our world. Do you really need to buy all those boots this winter? Instead you could save that money to swim with turtles in the Great Barrier Reef. Or enjoy a dinner out with your loved one, where you actually engage in meaningful conversations. Instead of giving gifts, give experiences. A day-spa voucher, or scuba course. It’s experiences that will create lasting memories.
3. Join a new economy
Only in the last 80 years have we moved from living hand-to-mouth to over-consumption. Our grandparents saved for years to afford houses. Or they wore the same coat for twenty years. Now people own multiple houses, wear clothing for one season and throw out thousands of dollars of food each year.
So it’s exciting to see new economies emerging which provide a sustainable consumer alternative. Car sharing models, fair trade economies and fresh produce cooperatives are disrupting the capitalist business model and in the process we’re building stronger community engagement. This is about disrupting an economy of acquisition.
4. Talk to brands, companies and corporations
I’m particularly excited about this one. Companies are listening to people using their voice and calling for better policies on the environment, treatment of animals and people. That’s why we built into our Good On You app the ‘Your Voice’ feature.
We’re seeing a shift in business models towards shared value – solving social problems that intersect with business. Many businesses, like Who Gives a Crap (using recycled paper to make toilet paper with 50% of profit going to build toilets for those in need) and Bhalo (employing marginalised communities in Bangalesh, paying them a sustainable wage) are turning the traditional business structure on its head and using their profit for good [Wanderlust People note: sounds familiar - check out exactly how our business model works!]. Coke have recently brought out the sustainably innovative plant bottle. And David Jones have committed to ensuring their supply chains are entirely ethical in the next five years.
These aren’t coincidental shifts in the business world. They are happening because people have more access to knowledge and communications tools than ever before. And they are saying enough is enough; we don’t want an economy that thrives off the backs of the poor or our natural environment.
We’ve had a great response within our app of people taking action. Sending encouraging messages to brands that are doing well (Etiko and People Tree) and urging brands to improve on areas they’re passionate about (H&M and Forever New).
This is the rumblings of a shift from being consumers to citizens.
Because try as we might, the majority of us need to buy clothes, food and other lifestyle goods. But we don’t want to be complicit in the issues we care about. At Good On You we want to help you make better choices! The app shows you how a brand rates on their ethics and sustainability credentials from publically available information. And the direct line of feedback to companies offers us the opportunity to act as citizens, directly telling companies that they’re doing great, or you’ll be shopping elsewhere until they improve their supply chain. We’ve start with fashion but we plan to expand to beauty and personal care products in due course.
We only have one planet. And we only have one life.
Sounds good to me. What do you think?