Is non-consumption a threat to the economy?
I recently took part in a panel discussion on sustainability and fashion where I talked about my efforts to be a non-consumer. One of the audience members, let’s call her Janet, raised the question of what would happen to the economy if everybody lived like me. Janet argued that, without the demand for new things, the economy would soon be in ruins. It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption but I instinctively felt that Janet was wrong so I did a little research. What I found out is that Janet is kind of right. But mostly wrong!
Janet is kind of right
Consumerism has been the beating heart of Western economies for generations. Traditional capitalist economies rely on the exploitation and consumption of natural and social resources. Without the consumption side of this model, the whole thing falls apart. Consumer researchers argue that we are already moving away from the consumer model that has dominated since the second world war and that we are seeing an increased ambivalence towards consumption itself. People are buying less especially in the clothing industry where we (particularly millennials) seem to have gotten the message that this shit is not sustainable! This, of course raises some questions about how our economy will work in the future.
So, Janet has a point. But Janet’s response to this challenge is to do what we have always done—shop until we drop! I, however, think there are much more imaginative ways to answer the question of how the post-consumption economy will look.
Janet is also wrong
Traditional capitalist business models are linear. Resources are extracted, processed, sold and consumed. Waste is disposed of. Circular business models create wealth without necessarily exploiting natural resources. Waste products are recycled into new products and the life of existing products is extended by repairing them or creatively reusing and repurposing them. Furthermore, by sharing and swapping, circular models reduce the amount of products that need to be created in the first place. A circular economy is better for the environment because it reduces the demands on limited resources, reduces the pollution created by manufacturing new items and reduces the amount of waste that needs to be disposed. A circular economy is also totally economically viable. With a little creativity and imagination we can continue to create economic value without linear models of consumption.
If you still haven’t grasped what the circular economy is, here are some examples of circular and sustainable business models created by brilliant women (and some men):
At Readorn London, Louise breathes new life into old and broken jewellery, that would otherwise be thrown away, by making it into new pieces for sale. People who donate their scrap jewellery get a discount when they buy her upcycled creations. Tatty moo founder, Julia, uses scrap material that would otherwise be thrown away, possibly in landfill, to create new and beautiful clothes. Julia and Louise create exactly the same kind of value for the economy as H&M do, but they don’t use new resources to do it. They create something from nothing. The economy is okay but the planet is also a little bit better off.
The ReTuna mall in Sweden implements the same idea on a bigger scale. ReTuna is a high fashion mall with an annual turnover of $1.3 million but everything sold there is second hand or upcycled from unwanted goods. Its location, next to a recycling centre, means that ReTuna is perfectly placed to create new economic value from unwanted things. Value is not created in a linear fashion but in a circular one, from waste rather than from limited raw materials.
Second hand platforms, physical and virtual, are another good example of circular business models. Stores like Swop shop, and websites like Sellpy, Depop, or Poshmark bring buyers and sellers of used items together so that things we don’t want any more can find new homes AND can generate an economic benefit for us. These are not just organisations that employ volunteers like the old charity shop model. They are thriving businesses that provide a service people need AND make a profit. Swedish fashion brand, Filippa K, has created a circular business model where they often manage to make money on each item of clothing more than once. As well as selling clothes through their stores and website in a linear way, they rent out clothes, and they also have second-hand stores where customers can buy preloved Filippa K clothes. Not only is this better for the environment (less resources, less waste, each item getting more use) but it is also a financially smart way to do business.
And Janet hasn’t even thought about services
Just because we stop buying newly produced things doesn’t mean we have to stop buying altogether. Consuming services is a great way to support a local economy (which pay tax), that employs local people (who pay tax) rather than giving your money to international conglomerates like Amazon (which often employ teams of lawyers to ensure that they pay very little tax). In other words, when you pay a tailor to repair your jeans instead of buying a new pair from Asos, or when you take your kid to a wildlife park instead of buying her a toy from Amazon, the money you spend is circulating around your own local and national economy instead of being siphoned off into offshore tax havens. Better for the environment AND better for the economy.
Don’t be scared of change, Janet!
Some people have always feared change and believed that the way things are is the only way they can be. When steam locomotion was invented, many were convinced that travelling at 50 miles per hour would make women’s uteruses fly out of their bodies! There was plenty of skepticism about online shopping too and some companies stuck to their old business models for far too long before realising that it was too late to catch up. Those who didn’t get on board with the digital revolution in retail suffered bankruptcy as a result of their unwillingness to change. The risks of not trying to change our business models now are much, much higher than that. We are talking extinction, not bankruptcy!
A 2018 report from the IPCC, suggests that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming: extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice. We must act now and make systemic changes before it is too late. So please, don’t be a Janet! Have faith in the creativity and ingenuity of your fellow humans. We can do things differently!
Photo: @mrblairfraser via Unsplash