Saturday, October 29, 2016

Crazed Consumerism -The Webs of Illusion... Foule Sentimentale

Sickened by every aspect of the business world - experienced, studied or observed - I went for a bike ride and came across these beautiful webs – some of which were simply huge! I was just in total admiration of the craftsmanship involved and that incited me to want to crochet something that would resemble… a spider’s web! The toadstools emerged magically overnight too, looking like the props of a fairy tale. However, I think that was the only enchantment I encountered this week…

For some time now, I’ve been wondering when and why it was that we embraced this weird culture that is producing a rich crop of superficiality and boundless tawdry tatt. As part of my work, I’ve had to do research into various aspects of corporate social responsibility and have been trying to dispel the impression that such legal/ethical/ecological and moral intricacies are primarily concerns of corporate sphere alone. Endless cases of greenwashing amid all those dense-yet-empty CSR reports that are supposed to highlight the credentials and credo of companies have resulted in a certain fatigue and a marked disinterest on the part of some students. “We’ve already done this before” seems to go hand-in-hand with “We want to study something more in line with current affairs”. I’ve been puzzling over these remarks and have been asking myself why CSR is not considered to be central to ‘real life’. Surely it can’t be treated as a subject to be ticked off the syllabus - with the been-there-done-that-got-the-teeshirt certitude. Or can it?

How can we have been misled or actually have deluded ourselves enough to believe that the practices and production of the seemingly remote world of industry wouldn’t have a direct and ongoing impact on every aspect of our lives? The basics of economics with supply and demand, themselves grounded in our needs and wants, are the keys for survival in society and assure our social welfare and individual well-being. The society we live in reflects and forms these requirements with all their fluctuations, led by output which caters to demands, yet molds them in the process. Society and les sociétés that provide the goods and services that are essential to our existence are not separate entities, but are fundamentally interlocked on every level. Market forces drive spending habits, linked to our purchasing power, and the manufacturing processes that actually supplied these products in the first place have a profound impact on all of us, end-user or not. Ultimately, we are all stakeholders of every business, whether we consume their products or not. Externalities – positive and negative – spread across the board.

The squandering of ever-scarcer resources, excessive energy consumption , unbridled waste production, ill treatment of the work force, dire safety measures in the work place, non-respect of consumer protection norms and wilful flouting of environmental protection laws have become ‘standard’, to a greater or lesser degree in many supply chains. This is especially apparent in the aftermath of 2008’s Credit Crunch when corporate survival indeed meant that the end justified those very means to squeeze prices while maintaining fat profit for privileged links in the chain. Downsizing and restructuring have led to closure and dismissal, but the repercussions of our consumer economy will catch us all up, sooner rather than later, and not merely on the work front. Perhaps if we concerned ourselves a little more with the supply process and all the links and loops therein, we would have a greater understanding of the power of demand, and vice versa. Above all, we might see that the GDP of a country cannot be the sole measure of the well-being of its people. The condition of our community – local and global – and the state of the environment have to be factored into the calculation of wealth, both domestic and international. The bottom line of a financial statement surely cannot be the figurative bottom line in Life itself, can it?. In many ways, many of us have indeed, “never had it so good” (Harold Macmillan 1957), with a certain material prosperity, but in others we are in a growing state of unprecedented impoverishment. The acquiring of things is not the best thing in life; we just haven’t realized this yet.

Economists may believe in the “invisible hand” (Adam Smith) that balances the market, but whilst we turn a blind eye to the uncomfortable truths of 21st century production and consumption surely there will be no real grip on market forces. You cannot have infinite supply to cater to unfettered demand when resources are themselves limited, and yet we trash the planet in our quest to do so. The only thing that can ‘give’ in this equation, is demand itself, but with our current consumer pattern, that seems unlikely. US Retail Analyst Victor Lebow had stated in 1955 “…we make consumption our way of life… we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption”; to a large degree this has been realised. However, even if 20th century ‘affluenza’ affects the majority of us, the means to satisfy this contagious addiction for the acquisition of consumer goods and services is dwindling for many of us. The images of wealth abound, but seem to underline the inequalities and inadequacies in an age (not unlike Lebow’s) wherein “The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns”.

The desire to display one’s material assets, aspirations, power and prestige is nothing new, of course, as Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) had already coined the term ‘Conspicuous Consumption’ in the late 19th century. What does seem to be new, however, is this avid drive for binge-consumption, a craving to consume, regardless of the quality, or intrinsic value of the consumable. Sustainability and durability play little or no part in this consumer game; consumption alone is largely sufficient. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” ("Je pense, donc je suis") in his Discours de la méthode (1637) could now be expressed at “I don’t want or need to think, therefore I buy” as the existential crisis is created by and reflected in the frustrated wants of today’s jaded consumer. To comfort a confused sense of identity and self-worth, and calm the nervous tensions that arise from unbridled desires that cannot be met, the consumer binges on worthless junk. However, a cycle of drive and disatisfaction is just one of the consequences of cheap, cheerless consumption.

I think that the multi-billion-dollar apparel business highlights this phenomenon of crazed consumerism in every aspect, yet takes it to a whole new level. The manufacture and sale of items of clothing, accessories and footwear generates trade and revenue on a global scale. People seek a spending ‘high’ as they purchase articles that will showcase appearance and physical attributes in a world where image is all, and indeed proves to be very profitable. Whilst the wealthy few may display their financial assets in the procurement of the very priceliest of items, others have to settle for a more modest approach. Within the industry itself, the far extremes share common ground. The retail goods of the lowest quality/cheapest prices and the high-quality/premium-priced articles of the big-brand labels both source their merchandise in developing countries. In so doing, production costs are slashed, labour is plentiful and manufacturing deadlines are respected with minimal interference from troublesome technicalities such as codes of practice, environmental issues etc. This would appear to be a win-win situation for all involved, but in fact the price we pay has a far greater cost and goes way beyond mere corporate profit. Milton Friedman (2002) said the responsible corporation would “use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game”. All well and good, or at least good economic sense in the Free Market world. However, we have now signed up for a whole new ball game, one whose rules have become fuzzy and blurred; ripe for exploitation. Ultimately this is an exercise in which no one will score anything lasting, even those who are currently reaping the benefits.

To keep a competitive edge over the rivals, retailers will offer tantalising prices with which to tempt customers. Yet behind a juicy bargain price, lies another facet to the supply chain story which is far less palatable. To remain one step ahead of the competition, stores will cut prices, yet still apply a healthy mark-up for themselves as they squeeze the figures further down the supply chain. This triggers a downward spiral as prices tumble, but just how low can we realistically go?

Although the world of apparel has always been fast-moving, following or setting trends and tastes, a new phenomenon has swept through the trade at treacherous speed; Fast Fashion. In their insatiable desire to increase their rate of consumption, consumers find fleeting satisfaction in the purchase of cheap items that may be worn just once before being discarded in favour of another article, of similar price and destined to the same life cycle. When items are dirt-cheap, who bothers if these are not valued for anything other than being good value for money? Quality is a minor consideration as low-cost apparel is not made to be kept or cared about; it is simply there to be consumed, discarded and replaced as fast as possible in the ultimate consumer game.

The fact that so many of these tatty, throw-away garments are trimmed and lined with real animal fur that was certainly procured in the most inhumane, unregulated manner possible is hard to bear. However with such low price tags, this clothing is easy to wear and does not weigh on our conscience for more than a fleeting instant. We shed off these concerns just as quickly as the clothes themselves. Too bad if some dumb animal had the fur ripped from its skin, if it enables us to be smart consumers, ever able to get our hands on the latest bargain. Fast consumerism seems to cost the shoppers little. The ultimate fashion victims here are not the ‘slaves’ who are hooked to the latest trend, but the people who manufacture these articles in the worst possible conditions, not dissimilar to those of the animals bred on the factory farms. Great brands and retail stores earn big bucks, but the actual workers in the sewing sweatshops get paid a pittance. Many suffer physical and mental hardship, some are maimed whilst simply trying to escape a basic life of subsistence and all live in fear of another Rana Plaza tragedy. Yet the collapse of such death-trap buildings reflects the cracks in the whole structure of our flawed consumer society. Our greedy way of living and unsustainable economic system will soon come crashing down. Life itself is already under threat; land grabs, over-extraction and pollution have depleted our natural resources in the land, sea and air, but all the alarm bells are shrugged off as extremist, Leftist or just eco fear-mongering and ultimately are simply ‘bad for business’. All these concerns are peripheral; after all, business is business.

In our culture of shiny surfaces and swift spending we do not see the ugly belly behind the bright wrappings of the goods and services that we consume. Production is often far-away and the conditions are far-removed from what we encounter in our own professional and personal lives. If we do suddenly get a glimpse of an unfortunate incident in some remote country, our brain seems programmed to switch off from such troublesome issues which are well out of our scope. We are then ready to channel our thoughts back, as always, to a new consumer experience which will no doubt be high in feel-good factor, albeit low in any intrinsic value. Like comfort eating, shopping will be of limited gain to the mind and body, but offers a synthetic ‘hit’ to comfort the soul. Who needs to think about nutrition when you can binge on junk, again and again, and take selfies in the process?

I don’t have a solution to anything of the above, but I do believe that we should have faith in our power to make changes, even if relying on the 'Butterfly Effect' to bring that about. Opening our eyes wider to the realities of other people’s worlds – past and present - enables us to appreciate the world about us to a greater degree. Once you lose sight of the realities of life and overlook the rights of all living things to life itself, you lose humanity. We need to keep in contact with nature and the natural, whenever and wherever possible in order to keep our fingers on the living pulse. Taking time to think and reflect, rather than leaping towards constant stimulation would bring lasting benefits that would be far more enriching than cheap-thrill instant gratification. That really would be quality time. But I wonder if we haven’t already lost part of that ability.

I was very shocked to hear last week that Archaeology and History of Art have been ditched as ‘A’ level subjects in the UK. How can that be? Can we truly understand our current trajectory if we haven’t got a clue of the paths we have trodden in the past? Why not get rid of the study of Classics too, while we’re at it? And sweep out all that dusty, out-dated literature too? These are all well past their sell-by date and are obsolete on every level. Musty old material has never generated a fraction of the revenue of the present-day blockbusters, many of which are thoughtfully adapted to the consumer expectations of our current chuck-away culture. Just as I was thinking that things couldn’t get a whole lot worse, I saw that teaching hours at my place of work are to be honed-down to suit requirements. All of this will be in the quest for relevant quality, of course. Oh, and profit… No one takes the time to figure out what will be lost during this sexing-up and dead-heading of the profession. It doesn’t matter if students cannot actually write professional English, just as long as they can communicate sufficiently to make themselves understood using the spoken language. I came to the cynical conclusion of why even bother using words; a selfie speaks volumes today.

Here is Alain Souchon's take on consumerism - Foule Sentimentale.

Oh la la la vie en rose                                                
Oh la la! Life through rose-tinted glasses                                                            
Le rose qu'on nous propose
In the shade of pink that they propose
D'avoir les quantités d'choses
And that means having loads of stuff
Qui donnent envie d'autre chose
That makes us crave for more
Aïe, on nous fait croire
Ouch! They make us believe
Que le bonheur c'est d'avoir
That true happiness is having
De l'avoir plein nos armoires
And to have our wardrobes full of it
Dérisions de nous, dérisoires car...
Mocking us, but we can mock that because...

Foule sentimentale,
We are a sentimental crowd,
On a soif d'idéal
Thirsty for ideals,
Attirée par les étoiles, les voiles
Drawn to the stars, the sails, the veils,
Que des choses pas commerciales
Just the non-commercial things

Foule sentimentale
A sentimental crowd
Il faut voir comme on nous parle
You should just see the way they speak to us
Comme on nous parle
How they speak to us...

Il se dégage
There emerges
De ces cartons d'emballage
From all that packaging
Des gens lavés, hors d'usage
Washed-out people, unfit for use

Et tristes et sans aucun avantage
And sad and without any benefit
On nous inflige
They inflict on us
Des désirs qui nous affligent
Desires that afflict us
On nous prend, faut pas déconner, dès qu'on est né
From the moment we're born, they take us, don't fool around,
Pour des cons alors qu'on est des...
For dumb idiots, whereas in reality we are...

Foules sentimentales
Sentimental crowds
Avec soif d'idéal
Thirsty for ideals,
Que des choses pas commerciales
Just the non-commercial things
Il faut voir comme on nous parle
You should just see the way they talk to us...

On nous Claudia Schieffer
They give us Claudia Schieffer
On nous Paul-Loup Sulitzer
They give us Paul-Loup Sulitzer
Oh le mal qu'on peut nous faire
Oh, the damage they can do to us
Et qui ravagea la moukère
Just as they ravaged the housewife

Du ciel dévale
From the skies descends
Un désir qui nous emballe
A desire that carries us away
Pour demain nos enfants pâles
For tomorrow, for our faded children
Un mieux, un rêve, un cheval
Something better, a dream, a horse...

Foule sentimentale
Sentimental crowd
On a soif d'idéal
Thirsty for ideals,
Attirée par les étoiles, les voiles
Drawn to the stars, the sails, the veils,

Comme on nous parle...
How they speak to us...


  1. What an amazing post,ok you lost me a couple of times but I so agree with what you are saying in this post.
    I see around me constantly the commercial programming of the younger generations( Im in my mid 50s) Thats what I call it anyway ,where the use of media has re-programmed the mind ,not to be happy unless they have the latest what ever.And if you don't have enough cash "don't worry ,just phone us and we'll give you the cash and you can get on with it...." to quote one of the money lender ads on the box.These minds are now programmed for instant gratification ,with no consequences and shortened attention spans.
    I am not an economist, Im not even that smart I buy what I need and my needs are simple.I do believe I am happier and more contented in my lifestyle then many are in theirs.
    I also believe that it will get worse before we see a change.I have no idea what or how the change will happen ,I only wish it will happen soon.
    Thank you for the post ,I hope you can understand my ramblings Cheers Faye

  2. Thank you so much for your ideas in return! The current situation horrifies me for the present and I really wonder what the future will bring. However, I do think that this will change, as a natural evolution, as things counter each other. We shouldn't bend to the force of this 'hedonistic treadmill' (I heard that great term yesterday), geared by money, and we really need to teach this to our children. I am so sad to see what these devices have done to their imagination, creativity and (physical) activity and mental well-being. I see this first hand. All these gadgets are such amazing tools but this hasn’t had the desired effect once in their hands and minds. Their general level of curiosity and overall attention span have taken a direct hit. I know loads of people find it mind-blowingly positive that kiddies, big and small, are so at ease with this gadgetry, but it seems to have closed down their young worlds or just opens up this world of false consumerism and disatisfaction with real life.
    Well, I like to ramble (and rant!!) because that too is part of a reaction to the culture of fast consumption. Why does everything have to be carried out in limited space and time, before moving on to the next thing, as if all life had to be resumed in the length of a text message?
    Anyway, enjoy your life in a rambly, leisurely, natural manner! Life is supposed to be experienced, with its warts and wonders, not filmed and photoshopped to show the others. All in all, I think that Bhutan is one of the only countries to understand what the real things in life are all about.
    All the best to you!


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