The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World - Paul Gilding (2011)

Chapter 16. Yes, There Is Life After Shopping

We’ll start with what is arguably the central plank of the global economy. Let’s go shopping.

As discussed the data now confirms what many of us have been feeling for a while. Once our basic needs are met, more possessions and more money, for which there’s a price to pay in stress, time, and work, actually don’t make us any happier or give us more satisfying lives. This is probably the most dangerous and threatening idea in this book. More than terrorism, more than war, and more than communism ever did, this idea strikes at the heart of modern global capitalism. What would happen if we all stopped shopping?

Of course, there’s more to the issue of a quantitative economic growth than shopping, but shopping goes to the core of the problem, the solution, and the implications of a steady-state economy for global society. It also takes us out of economic theory and into the implications of all of this in our personal lives.

It goes to the essence of the issue because the global economy is built on a single assumption that is starting to look pretty shaky: that we are motivated to work hard and create more personal wealth to buy more stuff because it will improve the quality of our lives and those of our children.

If this assumption is false, and the data and common sense now say it is, the global economy could face a major crisis just with a change of public mood. This could be the aikido of political revolutions—a small, well-placed move that uses the energy of the attacker to change the whole system.

It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of this potential. This consumption-based economic system has most of the world tied into it, and even those people who aren’t aspire to join. It depends on the cycle being whole, and if any part is withdrawn, the system could fall over.

If a trend emerged where people realized that buying more stuff wasn’t improving their lives and was instead locking them into a cycle of time-poor lives, unsatisfying work, and endless debt, they might stop. Of course not completely, but buying significantly less would have a far-reaching impact.

This would soon roll out across the system with dramatic consequences. If we stop buying so much stuff, we won’t need to work so much to make the money to buy it. We could pay off debt and tear up our credit cards, undermining the business model of most retail banks. If we don’t need the money and we don’t enjoy our work, we might be less motivated to work as much. If we then don’t work so much, we’re going to have a lot more time. Ask your friends how many of them could manage to spend 10 percent less on stuff if instead they had an extra five weeks’ holiday leave every year? Yes, the extra holiday may have to be spent socializing rather than jet-setting but this would still be preferred by most.

The impacts roll on. If we stop buying so much stuff, the growth model of the developing world collapses. The growth we have seen in China and elsewhere is based on a simple idea—make stuff for rich people using cheap labor while stuffing up your local and global environment. With a globalized economy, the impacts quickly spread. If Americans stop buying so much stuff, the Chinese won’t be manufacturing it and my own country, Australia, won’t be selling mineral resources to China to make all that stuff. If the Chinese aren’t selling so much stuff to the United States, they won’t have their surpluses to buy U.S. Treasury bonds that finance the U.S. economy. So it would flow on around the world.

The consequences aren’t just economic, however, and this is where it gets interesting. If we don’t get happiness from buying more material possessions, we’ll have to get it from somewhere else. Without the distraction of the emotional drug of materialism, we would look to places like relationships, friendships, and family. We might be more inclined to get involved in our community. Who knows, we might even look inside to discover the source of the unhappiness that shopping was covering up!

If we are less motivated to work for money, we might be choosier whom we work for and what work we do. After all, if meaning isn’t coming from stuff, then perhaps it could come from the work we do. It’s not hard to imagine what that would mean for companies seeking to attract and retain the best talent—they would find the company’s social purpose key to attracting good people. This may make it difficult to recruit people to market chocolate bars!

This may seem far-fetched if you consider it while standing in the middle of Times Square in New York City. I did just this with Rick Humphries, my good friend and a lifelong environmentalist who now works on biodiversity protection for the resource company Rio Tinto. On a visit to the United States, we were on our way home from an evening out and stood there at midnight, looking around at the frenzy of consumerism and marketing going on around us. People going shopping at midnight, flashing signs everywhere screaming at our senses to buy, buy, buy before it’s bye bye bye. Rick and I looked at each other and had the same reaction. Sustainability? We’re stuffed!

Little did we know that elsewhere in Manhattan, Colin Beavan was pondering the same issue. He was living every day in this citadel of shopping and consumption and wondering what he could do about it.

Colin got it into his head in November 2006 that he would try to live for a year, with his wife, Michelle Conlin, their two-year-old child, and their four-year-old dog, with no net environmental impact. He would reduce his negative impact of waste, CO2 emissions, and excessive consumption and expand his positive impact through environmental restoration, donations of time and money to environmental groups, and so on, until his family’s net contribution to the problem was zero. After convincing his “caffeine-loving, retail-obsessed, TV-addicted” wife to join in, he started to investigate what it would take. He did so not as a moralizing crusade or as some kind of ascetic sacrifice, but as a personal experiment to find out how hard it would be and what impact it would have on him and his family’s life. And so No Impact Man was born.

After their first trial week, Colin wrote:

We got the glimpse of a life with an entirely different rhythm. We began to think that, by depriving us of our Madison Avenue addictions, the no impact experiment might actually make us happier. It was only a seven-day experiment, but it convinced us that living no impact can be done, it can be done pleasantly, and that we could conceivably end up happier rather than sadder—which is why, God help us, we’re in it for a year.1

A year later and the experience was being turned into a book and then a film, and the blog had attracted 1.8 million visitors. With stories in the New York Times and Time magazine and TV appearances on shows like Good Morning America and Nightline, there was clearly something deeper going on than one man’s fascination with personal impact.

There is now an emerging movement on this issue and a serious social and consumer trend emerging. Long perceived to be an issue at the margins and relevant only to a fringe part of the market, the issue of changing consumer preferences and a desire for both lower-impact products and fewer products is now firmly entering the mainstream. This has ranged from attacks by religious leaders such as the pope on consumerism to media fascination with efforts to consume less, like Colin and Michelle’s, to responses by marketers to this as a consumer trend. There is even advice available on how to market your products to a category called “anticonsumers”!2

This is occurring naturally as people question their lives and the deception of consumption-driven happiness projected to them every day by marketers. Given that it is already under way, there is no question this anticonsumerism trend will grow exponentially as the Great Disruption gathers momentum. As the world starts to feel increasingly unstable and insecure, the public will come to accept that the cause is an economy built on material consumption and their shopping is where it starts. It will then be a natural development for people to start to focus on shopping and consumerism both at the macro policy level and, more significant, at the personal shopping level.

This is how such trends start. Following a long, slow-building phase, observed as an interesting curiosity by the mainstream, they’re then triggered to mass scale by either their own critical mass or an outside event. With the Great Disruption and an economy in decline, people will be forced to experiment and be creative. If, like No Impact Man Colin, they find out their lives have improved anyway, such trends could spread exponentially.

“Shop less, live more” may well become the defining economic and political mantra of the coming decades.

Of course it will build over time; it won’t be that we all suddenly wake up and literally stop shopping. Mind you, there have been some who’ve done just this, giving us important personal lessons and significant insights into public attitudes.

One such example was the participants in the Compact—a group of ten friends in San Francisco who all agreed to buy nothing new for twelve months (food, drink, health, and safety necessities excluded). The idea was in large part a general response to excessive consumerism and advertising pressure, but the group was also motivated by the absurd post-9/11 push that shopping had now become “Americans’ patriotic duty.”3

The concept took off, and groups sprang up around the world. From Australia to France and Iceland to Hong Kong, thousands signed up to participate in this twelve-month shopping-free zone. The experience led to fascinating personal insights for the people involved and an extensive media profile—a small but interesting indicator of the depth of interest and public hunger for a new way.

One of the co-founders, John Perry, told the U.K. Guardian newspaper about his reflections on the year: “The real revelation is that it isn’t that hard. We all have so much stuff, we could probably live for years without replacing anything. It makes you change the way you look at and appreciate the things you have. We’re definitely going to continue.”

With the media profile they even faced a backlash. The Guardian story 4 continued: “Compact members found themselves attacked by conservatives as ‘un-American’ and guilty of ‘economic terrorism.’ One San Francisco shop even offered ‘break the Compact’ discounts.”

While there are important personal insights from people involved in such experiments, the key thing to observe here is not their actual activity, but the fascination of others with it. The backlash against consumerism is, in my view, having watched trends emerge in this area for thirty-five years, a sleeper trend—something to watch carefully as an indicator of what is coming. When it bursts into the mainstream, the implications for the global economy will be profound.

This behavior and people’s response to it have a strong and established theoretical underpinning. The research into human happiness and life satisfaction in recent years shows clear and consistent results. Data gathered by people like Professor Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania is being confirmed by others around the world and give us proof of what is actually common sense. We know how to become happier. Get out of poverty, and then focus on community connections, family, love, and active, meaningful lives. All things that are cheap, are easy to access, and, unlike oil and coal, are globally well distributed!

As we covered in the last chapter, the research data that confirms this have been thoroughly tested. And the results are consistent between countries and cultures and within countries over time—as an individual country gets richer, its citizens’ lives do not improve.

So given that shopping doesn’t make us happy, yet most of us make various levels of compromise in life to get more money to buy more stuff, what do we do to break the cycle? How do individuals take action now, assuming they don’t want to go down the path of No Impact Man or the Compact?

Shopping less, working less, and finding new sources of happiness and satisfaction is easy to say but harder to do. This is not made any easier with messages blasted at us all day every day to buy, buy, buy so we’ll be happier, sexier, healthier, and all-around more popular and loved. But we can’t blame it all on marketing. After many decades in this pointless pursuit, given that we all keep doing it, we can safely assume that most of us are deeply addicted. Therefore, it will be important to accept that we all have the problem (vs. making it into a moralizing crusade against shopping) and also that we’re going to need some help to give it up.

The good news is that help is at hand. People have been thinking about this and have even formed self-help groups, like the Compact, training manuals, and a humorous gospel choir. Reverend Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping have toured the United States and the United Kingdom, preaching their anticonsumerism message for over a decade, singing outside shopping malls and exorcising cash registers!5

On a more practical, everyday level, the lessons of initiatives like No Impact Man and the Compact, combined with the research by Seligman, NEF, and others, are that we can all buy less stuff and feel better for it. Not a morally superior, “save the world” kind of feel good, but a practical, enjoy your life, have more fun, deeper kind of feel good. It’s interesting in this context to read the tips section at www.noimpactproject.org, the nonprofit set up to promote the ideas behind Colin Beavan’s year of no impact. The categories are more fun, clearer conscience, more money, more time, and better health. Doesn’t exactly sound like much sacrifice involved, does it. There are countless “how to” tips out there. Good places to start include www.noimpactproject.org/change and the Compact’s site, sfcompact.blogspot.com.

For motivation and education, take a look at the now legendary animation at www.storyofstuff.com. This twenty-minute Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard takes you on an entertaining journey into where all this stuff comes from and the consequences of its manufacture and use. Its message is clear and easy to access—so much so that it has been viewed by twelve million people and been translated into fifteen languages.6 Well worth a look and fun to do with your kids.

Another set of advice came from the United Kingdom’s Government Office for Science, which commissioned the NEF to conduct a review of the interdisciplinary work of over four hundred scientists from across the world. The aim was to identify a set of evidence-based actions to improve well-being, which individuals would be encouraged to build into their daily lives. Nic Marks, founder of the Centre for Well-being at the NEF, commenting on the results, said: “The ‘five ways to well-being’ are rooted in a wealth of evidence and show that there are simple, positive actions that people can take to improve their well-being. For too long we’ve measured the health of the nation by how much we are consuming rather than the things that really matter, which is how things are really going for people.” The conclusions from this research were distilled into Five Ways to Well-being, which focused on connecting with people, being physically active, taking notice of the world around you, learning new things, and giving to others (which includes volunteering). Notice that shopping didn’t rate a mention!7

The science in this area is particularly interesting. According to the NEF: “Studies in neuroscience have shown that cooperative behaviour activates reward areas of the brain, suggesting we are hard wired to enjoy helping one another. Individuals actively engaged in their communities report higher well-being and their help and gestures have knock-on effects for others.”

We’ve been working on all this in my own family and have been experimenting with some simple ideas to guide us. One that has saved us a great deal of money is the seven-day cooling-off period for major purchases. We agree that once we’ve chosen something we want to buy, not conceptually but specifically the product, shop, and price we’re paying, we defer the purchase for seven days. It’s amazing how often after thinking about it, we decide against it. A friend in South Africa has a rule where he takes his young kids grocery shopping, and after they’ve finished, they have to put back 10 percent of what’s in the cart. A friend in the United Kingdom has a family rule that any shopping other than furniture-size items can only be done and brought home by bicycle. The effort involved in the two-mile ride quickly reduces the teenagers’ consumption levels.

One of the more successful initiatives we’ve taken at home is to give to our kids as a birthday or Christmas present control over a family experience. We set rules like cost and location and that we all have to go, then let them decide. Their sense of control and the ability to have the whole family join in their chosen activity makes for a lot of fun. My eight-year-old, Grace, suffers through the rugby games, but she has her revenge making her big brothers sit through movies about princesses. So as well as creating memorable family experiences, we are teaching tolerance and sharing, not to mention reducing the piles of plastic toys that otherwise mount in the corners of the bedrooms. It’s interesting to note that if I test the kids on what presents they remember from previous years, it’s more often the experience ones than the stuff we’ve given them.

There are some significant assumptions and barriers to overcome in our thinking as well. My two young boys, Jasper and Oscar, love playing online computer games. Eleven-year-old Jasper wanted to subscribe to one for $5 a month from his pocket money. I was railing against it, saying what a con it was that these games got you in by being free and then demanded money to play them at a higher level. “Why would you pay money for something like that?” I asked. “It’s just an online game.” His response came back in flash: “Okay, I’ll go and spend it on plastic toys, then.” Ouch. Victory to the young fella experiencing the new, low-material-intensity economy. Loss to the old-fashioned father, stuck in his material economy ways. Yes, he subscribed.

So there’s a fair bit of new thinking involved in many aspects of these questions. Another one is to recognize the social nature of shopping and how we can not only maintain it, but strengthen it while doing less and different types of shopping. At the community level, there are countless opportunities for this, like “freecycling” networks. These are groups where people give away unwanted goods to other members of their local group who promise to give the goods a decent home—the outcomes include reusing useful stuff, reducing landfill waste, reducing the need to buy new stuff, and, perhaps most important, bringing communities and people together in acts of generosity.

The freecycle idea started when Deron Beal sent out an e-mail to about thirty or forty friends and a handful of nonprofits in Tucson, Arizona. From this small start, the Freecycle Network has grown in just seven years to over seven million people who have joined nearly five thousand local groups in over seventy countries! Every day the network diverts around five hundred tons of waste from landfill. The group’s Web site, www.freecycle.org, points out that otherwise carrying away this volume to a landfill would take full garbage trucks piled five times the height of Mt. Everest, just for the last year! And they all feel good about giving things away, as the group’s site says: “By giving freely with no strings attached, members of The Freecycle Network help instill a sense of generosity of spirit as they strengthen local community ties and promote environmental sustainability and reuse.”

Sure, it’s easy to counter these examples of action with evidence of rampant consumerism elsewhere. Rick Humphries and I had those thoughts standing in Times Square. However, my point is not that these new approaches have yet become mainstream, but that they will. There is now enough evidence around the world of a slowly building backlash against consumerism to argue it will soon erupt firmly into the mainstream marketplace.

Shopping less is not the only type of creative consumer activism we are seeing. One of the more fascinating examples in recent times is that of “carrotmobbing,” which uses shopping as a positive lever for change. Rather than use the stick of a boycott, the organizers of the “carrotmob” use the carrot of promised customers to drive businesses to change. They approach a range of local retailers and invite bids on what action they will take in return for a sudden flood of customers; for example, “What percentage of revenue on a certain day would you spend on an energy-efficiency retrofit?” The best bid wins, and the organizers then mobilize the group through viral e-mails and the like, and that store suddenly finds a rush of new customers. People were going to buy that stuff anyway, they just changed where they did so on the same day for maximum visible impact. In one case, a local convenience store promised to spend 22 percent on an energy retrofit and the carrotmob delivered customers that tripled their normal daily revenue.

This is a powerful idea, especially if it could be applied to large companies as well. Imagine a global campaign to all buy products from one company for a month. As founder Brent Schulkin says about well-directed consumer power: “We are the economy, we decide who gets rich.”

Of course, examples of strong action like carrotmob and the Compact are only a small part of the story. While such approaches will not appeal to everyone, they are, like all bookends of a broader trend, indicative that a larger group is taking less but still significant action in the same direction. There are two categories of such broader actions—a trend toward less consumption overall, as previously discussed, and a shift in consumer expectations of the types of goods they buy and whom they buy them from. Good examples of these include Fair Trade coffee, which has become a dominant market player in many countries, and the rise in organic products.

Studies around this kind of shopping, what is sometimes called the LOHAS market—Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability—indicate a segment in the United States alone worth hundreds of billions of dollars per annum with appeal to over 30 percent of the U.S. consumer market.8 There is now a booming market for organic food and drink, with the U.S. market growing at around three to four times as fast as the nonorganic market.9 With such spectacular growth rates, organics have been picked up as a mainstream segment by most major supermarket chains and food manufacturers.

These trends are leading many major global companies to realize they have to find a way to access this market and appeal to these consumers. How can they deliver more value with less material impact? How can they shift their business model to one of services rather than physical products? How can they build their brand as appealing to these new consumers? How do they market to consumers who are anticonsumer?

My conclusion is that we have a major sleeper trend—one that can easily be observed and monitored by looking both at the bookends of the strong anticonsumer attitudes and in the middle of the trend with committed green consumers, well described by the LOHAS market. With the Great Disruption gathering steam, these trends will inevitably grow, with far-reaching economic and social consequences, including many substantial new business opportunities.

So what else is going to happen in this new economy? What will it mean for business, for communities, and for our working lives? And if poverty isn’t going to be dealt with via growth, what are we going to do about it?