2007 - 2021

Buy Less Be More #Scotland101

buynothing-ed02Scotland101 – our series of extracts from Commonweal’s Book of Ideas.  #90 Set out a National Deconsumerisation Strategy

Me-first economics has created a cycle of work-to-consume. Saturation advertising and marketing continuously pushes us to spend money. But since me-first economics has also created long-term stagnation in wages, it has required us to borrow more and more to fuel consumption (personal debt in Britain is back to record levels). We are then trapped by our debt into maximising income in a low-pay economy, which often means excessive working hours (we work among the longest hours in Europe and have among the fewest holidays). And then we are actively told that if this makes us feel a bit down, we should lift our spirits and cheer ourselves up by consuming more.

The harmful effects of this cycle are well-documented. It creates stress and anxiety, generates low self-esteem, harms our physical health, damages our social relations (particularly inside the family), and harms the environment. But it has made a lot of powerful people very rich indeed and they have created a system where politicians and the media now routinely accept constantly increasing consumption as not only a sign of success but an essential driver of the economy. We need a different approach. Of course consumption is an essential component of the economy but we need to think much more clearly about what we consume, and how.

Scotland should set out a national strategy for deconsumerisation. The overarching aim should be to reduce the extent to which the value of its citizens is measured by their ability to repeatedly purchase short-life, disposable consumer goods and rely on the symbolism provided by these good to define their status in society; who they are and where they belong. Addressing these issues will reduce the destructive burden of consumerism on the environment, reduce the emotional burden of never ending insecurity on consumers, and reduce the debt burden required to purchase goods with little or no longevity or material worth.

Hobbies, sport, the arts, social life, entertainment, learning—all of these things make us feel better. They also all have positive economic impacts. But because they are much less effective at parting us with our money and transferring it to multinational corporations, they are seldom promoted and in some cases discouraged. It is in our common interest that we make that transition and so we need the commons to rebalance the power of advertising which pushes us in the other direction.

We must make activism and participation possible. A good transport system, proper systems of local democracy, reducing working hours, and creating supportive infrastructure such as childcare will make it easier for us to do things and get involved. Then we must make participation cheaper. All the facilities which are in the public realm (swimming pools, gyms, sports halls, outdoor activities in parks, museums) should be priced not on the basis of what the commercial sector is able to charge for the same activities, but on the basis of what will increase their use and open them up to everyone. They should not be seen as an income-generating device for cash-strapped local authorities. It would be much better to pay a little more in local tax and then let people do things inexpensively.

There are other ways in which the cost of participation can be reduced. Activities such as DIY need tools, but few people do enough DIY to really justify buying these tools (the average lifetime usage of a screwgun is less than 15 minutes, the rest of its lifetime, it gathers dust). We can create ‘share shops’ or tool libraries in which people can borrow tools or other creative goods for short periods, inexpensively or for nothing. These goods would be of higher quality and would be repairable, challenging the throwaway culture. From borrowing fruit presses for people who want to make their own cider to being able to access good sewing machines for people interested in dressmaking to borrowing mountaineering equipment to hiring a bike or borrowing a board game—the illogical and often prohibitive capital cost of being active can be removed.

Many of the things that people enjoy doing require space. For example, there are very big waiting lists for community allotments and many more people would love to be able to grow their own fruit and veg or flowers. Councils should make more land available for these purposes—and once a land strategy brings the cost of land down, more land should be purchased and dedicated to these purposes.

We have also lost many communal spaces such as football pitches, community halls or local sports centres, often in favour of one large, centralised, and expensive facility. This is bad planning and should be reversed. Some Community Sports Hubs, like at the Common Wealth Games site, seem to be more interested in getting people in from the wealthy suburbs around Glasgow to pay to play badminton and football than those who live in the East End. If we want people to take part in regular physical exercise through sport we have to make it affordable, and therefore local sporting facilities should be made as cheap as possible or even free for those living in the local area. We need to break down gender segregation in sporting activity as well. Women’s football is the fastest growing sport nationally and across the world, yet funding for this is paltry compared to that of the men’s game. Sporting activity doesn’t just improve physical health, the social activity involved in sport has been proven to make people happier and reduce mental illness.

Comments (13)

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  1. Martin O'Donnell says:

    Agreed with most of the points being made. Once house prices pick up then city centre places such as Meadowbank sports centre will be back on the “for sale” list. I heard Portobello pitz football may be sold off for sea view flats.

  2. Frank says:

    Agree with most of what is in this article but I find this problematic, and slightly Stalinist:

    ‘Scotland should set out a national strategy for deconsumerisation. The overarching aim should be to reduce the extent to which the value of its citizens is measured by their ability to repeatedly purchase short-life, disposable consumer goods and rely on the symbolism provided by these good to define their status in society’.

    I am not convinced that deconsumerisation (it sounds sinister to me) could happen in a free society, and is it really the business of government to tell the people to deconsumerise?

  3. Bidge says:

    The Common Weal produced the best book of the IndyRef. It laid out in plain English a series of policy papers based upon real world examples found in other countries that Scotland could use on the event of Indy to build a fairer and more equitable society.

    If it’s 10% as good as the original then its a must buy.

    PS: If you class yourself as Left Wing in the slightest I suggest buying the first book even if you are not a Scot, as its full of great ideas that you can tell your local politician that you support and want to see happen. People Power.

  4. Justin Kenrick says:

    Excellent piece.

    ‘Deconsumerism’ can sound like imposing an ideology, when in fact it is simply an attempt to support people to resist an ideology of consumerism being rammed down our throats by a media which itself is controlled by those whose ever increasing wealth depends on us agreeing to enslave ourselves to the fantasy that (even after a certain point) ever more consumption leads to ever more happiness.

    In an unrelated point re the Catalonia referendum result, it’s important to be clear that Yes almost certainly would win the popular vote.

    This is clear from a quick fact check on the state of the independence vote in Catalonia:

    Explicitly pro-independence parties: 39.5 + 8.2 = 47.7%


    You also need to factor in the 8.9% vote for the Catalonia Yes We Can group of parties (CSQEP) – “Although independence isn’t directly supported, the group is in favour of a consultation on the relationship between Spain and Catalonia and its leaders are sympathetic to Catalans’ right to decide on self-determination.” http://www.theguardian.com/world/datablog/2015/sep/24/guide-catalonia-most-important-election-ever

    In other words in a straight Yes/ No referendum a good proportion (whether a third, a half or two thirds) of those 8.9% are likely to vote Yes to independence. Certainly enough to suggest that Yes won this surrogate referendum, and would win a real one.

  5. john young says:

    Completely in agreement with the above,we are a need for greed society,it has snuck up on us and overwhelmed us with hardly any notice,people buy for the sake of it,there is so much unnecessary spending,there has to be a better way forward and I believe the above would go a very long way to achieving a better life for all,we just cannot continue producing producing things that are not essential,something has to give.

  6. Johnny says:

    Particularly agree that the facilities built for the Commonwealth Games should be easily available to all for use, rather than being some cynical cash-grab for those who can afford to pay for it. This holds especially true when you think that it could save the NHS money by helping the problems surrounding obesity, heart disease etc etc which are more likely to plague those who would be unable to afford it when fitness facilities are highly priced.

    A lot of other interesting ideas in here too. I certainly think we need to get away from the idea that consumerism is all and that we must work all the time to fund more of it. Some form of ‘restrained consumerism’ might be better (you do acknowledge that the economy requires consumerism, and I agree with the sense that it should be useful consumerism rather than ‘for the sake of it’).

  7. Erick says:

    Excellent article – I went to Iceland earlier this year and it cost £3 for adults to get into their public hotpools/swimming centres/gyms in Reykyavik. Now that is bloody cheap for Iceland. Why? Because they’re subsidised by the local authority. Healthiest looking people I’ve ever seen in my life.
    Now in Scotland with our multiple deprivations and associated health issues urban swimming centres/gyms cost about £5-8 for entry. The councils and their ‘arms-length’ leisure companies have taken an executive decision on this pricing. It doesn’t need to be this way.
    I’m under no illusion that subsidising exercise will sort out the structural reasons underlying this deprivation (of which so called austerity is a fitting symbol) but it is incredibly short-sighted of the Scottish Government and local authorities to not provide more subsidy to encourage more exercise – this saves so much money in health etc savings in the long-term.
    There is no intrinsic reason why Scottish people couldn’t be as healthy as Icelandic people – we have nothing to lose but our chains.

  8. stephy says:

    Great article.

    Consumerism has gone off the scale, and the ‘throw away’ culture has to change. I remember watching on TV as despairing council workers dumped kids bikes – in mint condition – that many could have enjoyed. Surely our councils, perhaps aided by by volunteers, could have areas set aside for items that obviously shouldn’t get dumped? A kind of local ‘freecycle’ area.

    Could there also be a place for ‘swap shops’, where goods can be exchanged for other items? A pre-Christmas toy clear out could see many items exchanged, rather than dumped, and our kids/young people are pretty clued up on the ideals of being eco-friendly. Even at other times of year – maybe when the seasons change – I don’t think it would take much encouragement to see our kids clearing out toys/items they’ve outgrown, and choosing pre loved items.

    I also wonder whether there could be local funded ‘workshops’, where people can bring, (for example), broken electrical items, excess building/gardening materials and learn about repairing/utilising this stuff in their homes and communities.

    There is so much waste. Things need to change!

    1. Mr T says:

      Don’t know about where you live but in East Lothian our council tip saves bikes that can be repaired / reused / recycled and they are picked up by an Edinburgh bike shop / recycling organisation. Likewise most towns have a Facebook page where folk advertise – either for sale or free to a good home.

      What is more tricky is electrical maintenance. If things aren’t designed for maintenance then it is normally cost prohibitive to maintain them.

  9. bill fraser says:

    I have to agree in principal to a lot of the ideas from the above We work and also need relaxation in a number of ways, sport films an a lot of the new and wonderful electronics which make our leisure time more acceptable.This in turn boost’s the economies of the multi nationals who are reluctant to spread the wealth in creating better working facilities and a fairer share of participation.

  10. Roger Hyam says:

    The French city of Grenoble has banned billboard advertising. Simple really. Mean while in Edinburgh we are getting nice new advert powered bus stops!

  11. Jean Urquhart says:

    just a wee point with ref to allotments. While investigation was done to find suitable land for allotments in Ullapool some years ago the keen gardeners without gardens got together and identified houses with gardens where people who either couldn’t garden (no time/no interest) would allow someone with the interest and ability, but no garden, to use their patch. Some of the older folk, no longer able to look after their garden, were pleased to get the work done, fed the gardener tea and scones, had a good blether, and had some new tatties and other veg to eat and to share. There must be a million such gardens looking for gardeners in Scotland. Learning curve: some time needed to make sure you match the people and the garden and the skills and be clear about outcomes (he/she gets half the carrots, or whatever). But when it works, it works a treat.

    1. Roger says:

      And there are the shared gardens of tenements …

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