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Are you a consumer or a conserver?

Advertising encouraging us to consume is everywhere, everyday, all the time, from waking to sleeping, from cradle to grave. Imagine our surprise to see an ad in London that said: “ask yourself if you are happy being described as a ‘consumer’? One definition of a ‘consumer’ is ‘someone who squanders or wastes.”

We’ve become used to the idea of being consumers and its often used as a euphemism for a customer. But in reality we actually consume very little. Most of what we consume we drink or eat, the rest we simply ‘use’ until we throw it away – and we actually throw away a good deal of the things we’ve bought not long after we’ve bought them.

This applies to much of our lifestyle. The UK Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP) variously calculates that we throw away [in the UK] about a third of the food we buy, much untouched and still in its packaging*.

We know that in Australia wasteful consumption (funds spent on goods and services that are never or very rarely used) amounts to over $10.5 billion dollars annually (not including wasted consumption on excessively large houses, rarely used holiday homes, caravans and second cars). By way of comparison, this amount exceeds spending by Australian Governments on universities and roads.

Annually Australians throw away over $5 billion in unused food, more than 13 times the amount donated to overseas aid agencies. Despite this waste, most Australians believe that they do not have enough money to meet all of their needs, including half of those on the highest incomes.

Most people are proud in the western world to be able to consume and have all the material attributes associated with success – or the version of success advertised relentlessly across all media. But what if education and living mindfully became more prominent, even in the world of advertising?

What if there was a concerted campaign by numerous people and organisations to encourage people to become unhappy with being a consumer. What if ‘consumer’ became a dirty word?

The ad we saw goes on to say if you are surprised by the amount of wasteful consumption then you are not alone – “we’ve become locked into a way of ‘consuming’ that is convenient for us. Correcting or changing our behavior so we can reduce the consequences of consumption is the key to a more responsible and healthier way of living.”

So are they right?

What if we all stopped consuming things we don’t need and buying food we don’t eat? What if we reduce consumption patterns so that the very system of greed that promotes consumerism begins to crumble and we have to redefine new ways of living and collaborative economic processes that redefine capitalism itself?

As Peter Buffet writes on a related matter (The Industrial-Charitable Complex in the New York Times 26 July 2013):

“I know we don’t have the answers, but we do know how to listen. As we learn, we will continue to support conditions for systemic change. It’s time for a new operating system. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code. What we have is a crisis of imagination. Albert Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it. Foundation dollars should be the best “risk capital” out there. There are people working hard at showing examples of other ways to live in a functioning society that truly creates greater prosperity for all (and I don’t mean more people getting to have more stuff). Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market. It’s an old story; we really need a new one.”

So are you a consumer or a conserver? It’s a question that cuts to the heart of how we live in the world and how we respond to mindless greed.

And when we answer it honestly, perhaps there is hope that the old consumer story will die away and a new story will emerge – for the common good, the environment and the future of the planet.


*Copy from an advertisement for Ecomerchant in the UK.

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