Overconsumption and the environment: should we all stop shopping? | Shops and shopping

I fear I’m in JB MacKinnon’s bad books. Halfway through our Zoom interview, I tilt

I fear I’m in JB MacKinnon’s bad books. Halfway through our Zoom interview, I tilt my camera to adjust to the setting sun – but from this new angle, an e-commerce box can be spotted over my shoulder. Its barcode glows in the fading light, a totem of 21st-century materialism presiding over our call.

MacKinnon is too polite to say anything, but he can’t be thrilled by my cardboard companion. After all, the Canadian bestselling author and journalist is on a mission to get us to buy a lot less stuff. The Day the World Stops Shopping, his new book, explores what might happen if the world transformed into a society that does not revolve around purchasing, one in which our primary role is not as consumers and our credit cards are not our most commonly deployed tools.

His “thought experiment” plays out like a Ridley Scott sci-fi epic – or perhaps a scene from the pandemic. On the hypothetical day the world stops shopping, carbon emissions plummet; the skies turn a deeper blue; and with no ads polluting smartphone screens our minds become as clear as the bottle-free oceans in which whales swim merrily. There’s also chaos. Shops shut, production lines grind to a halt and millions of factory workers lose their jobs. The global economy nosedives so severely it makes the 2008 recession seem like a blip. “It would be a shock so great that it would seem to bend time itself,” MacKinnon writes.

The only thing fantastical about his vision is the timeframe: rather than ceasing all shopping overnight he thinks we should, in reality, restructure society over several years to support a sustained reduction in the amount we consume.

He sees this as an obvious, if difficult, fix to a big problem. Consumption – of fast fashion, flights, Black Friday-discounted gadgets – has become the primary driver of ecological crisis. We are devouring the planet’s resources at a rate 1.7 times faster than it can regenerate. The US population is 60{2f36692215c92488191f15c49f485bc8da437d4cca01014075d40c79880301cc} larger than it was in 1970, but consumer spending is up 400{2f36692215c92488191f15c49f485bc8da437d4cca01014075d40c79880301cc} (adjusted for inflation) – and other rich nations, including the UK, aren’t much better. “Many people would like to see the world consume fewer resources, yet we constantly avoid the most obvious means of achieving that,” says MacKinnon. “When people buy less stuff, you get immediate drops in emissions, resource consumption and pollution, unlike anything we’ve achieved with green technology.” That’s not to mention the impact materialism has on our mental health, inducing feelings of inadequacy and envy, and encouraging a culture of overworking.

Paper illustration, the issue with shopping and the balance of economy vs environment
‘When people buy less stuff, you get immediate drops in emissions, resource consumption and pollution.’ Photograph: Harriet Noble/Studio Pi

His is an impassioned call to arms, for the sake of our planet and our wellbeing. But how feasible is it for all the world’s citizens to swap Amazon baskets for a simple agrarian life? More pointedly, do we want to? Does MacKinnon’s vision represent an enlightened Shangri-La – or a primitive dystopia?

“This is the best opportunity in the past 30 years to bring consumption back to the centre of the political discourse,” says MacKinnon, speaking from his home in Vancouver. He’s pensive, with piercing blue eyes. Indeed, the pandemic has given people pause to think about “how they consume, what their relationship with stuff should look like and what is deeply valuable in their lives,” he says. “I don’t think anybody is going to say that having a bunch of home-workout gear was as satisfying as being able to have contact with friends, family and neighbours.”

Many of us still shopped – Amazon enjoyed record-breaking global revenues of $386bn in 2020 – but, stripped of opportunities for parading possessions in front of others, there was a widespread rethink in why we buy and wear things. “For women, particularly, the idea that they don’t constantly have to be messaging and positioning through their dress was interesting,” he says. “Women saying they’re never going to wear jeans or bras again – these are interesting individual reckonings.”

Nonetheless, as much of the world begins to reopen, there are rallying cries to boost the economy by opening our wallets. Shopping has been cast as a positive act, retail therapy a civic duty. “All the narratives are building around a new Roaring 20s, a hedonistic binge, taking revenge on the virus with our consumption,” says MacKinnon. “But I think a lot of us are going to feel uncomfortable and disquieted, to the point of despair, as we remember what the fully revved-up consumer culture looks like.”

He wants us to act on that discomfort. But he’s not suggesting we live entirely off the land. In his hypothetical model he applies a 25{2f36692215c92488191f15c49f485bc8da437d4cca01014075d40c79880301cc} reduction in consumption – a figure “modest enough to be possible, dramatic enough to be earth-shattering” – and while he won’t specify a figure when discussing what our real-world efforts should be in the coming years, something in this ballpark might well be the goal.

That doesn’t just mean fewer physical things; it’s also less electricity, travel and eating out. “Basically $1 spent is a consumption dollar; I’m not fussed whether it’s spent on a canoe or a powerboat,” he says. “If you want a rule of thumb for how much impact you’re having as a consumer, the best one is: how much money are you spending? If it’s increasing, you’re probably increasing your impact; if it’s lowering, you’re probably lowering your impact.”

How might a lower-consuming society look? Everything is reoriented because people, brands and governments are no longer striving for economic growth. Individuals are more self-sufficient, growing food, mending things and embracing wabi-sabi, the Japanese concept of imperfect aesthetics (think patched-up pockets or chipped ceramics). Brands produce fewer but better-quality goods, while governments ban planned obsolescence (the practice of producing items to only function for a set period of time), stick “durability” labels on items so shoppers can be assured of longevity, and introduce tax subsidies so it’s cheaper to repair something than to bin it and buy a new version.

Why has such an approach never before been attempted on a broad, society-wide scale? MacKinnon rejects my suggestion that perhaps consumerism is hard-wired into human nature, but says it is “deeply ingrained” in society and it’s “much easier for us to think, ‘Let’s make all these cars run on solar power instead of gas,’ rather than, ‘How do we end up with fewer cars?’” Plus, he says, “to some extent there was a point where we gave in to the idea that lowering consumption could not be a solution, because it inevitably results in economic collapse.”

Well, doesn’t it? Were we all to stop shopping overnight it would be disastrous, he admits, but if we built a new system, it could support a surprisingly robust economy. “If you’re producing durable goods, you still need considerable labour. Then there’s the secondhand market, the repair of products, taking items back in and recomposing them into new products,” he says. “Whether it adds up to an economy the size of the one we have today, I doubt it,” he continues, adding, with a wry smile: “I mean, I don’t see a lot of billion-dollar IPOs coming out of the drive towards a lower-consuming society.” But that’s kind of the point. “It would be a problem if it generated as much wealth – because ultimately, the reason we feel we need to be awash in wealth is to consume. Otherwise, what’s it for?”

Although MacKinnon imagines most of us will still be employed in the cash economy, in the new world order the hours will be shorter and the work often more satisfying because we’ll be “participating in the production of higher-quality goods.” With a smaller pot of jobs and money, some people will choose not to work and governments will provide universal basic income and/or services. Although MacKinnon avoids referencing specific anti-capitalist political systems, when pushed he agrees it looks like socialism – although “there’s probably all kinds of different ways you can organise society around principles of lower consumption, none of which I think necessarily exists right now.”

Most importantly, being freed from the corporate rat-race means our work-life balance shifts. We compare ourselves less to others and have more time away from screens. This change, rather than concern for the environment (“‘Saving the planet’ has always been a bit abstract”), is what he thinks will be most compelling to most people. We participate in communal activities, such as tending public gardens, engage in social movements and take care of children and elders. “It’s the balance most of us seem to want, right? More time to engage with friends and family and to have long conversations. There are lots of opportunities, I think, for people to genuinely feel they have a higher quality of life.”

Over the decades various communities have practised “voluntary simplicity,” whether by choice or necessity. For the book, MacKinnon visited, among other places, sleepy Sado Island in the Sea of Japan; a farming community outside Tokyo; and the suburbs of Seattle where, since the 1990s, many folks have embraced “downshifting” in reaction to the city’s conquest by the moneyed tech crowd (the most widespread rejection of consumer culture in recent times).

In general, these people buy few clothes, read library books, walk or catch buses, avoid social media and rarely listen to music or watch TV. When I ask MacKinnon whether he noticed anything distinctive about them his face lights up. “Talking to somebody working in corporate America versus somebody who’s been practising voluntary simplicity for three decades is night and day, in terms of the kind of human being they are. It makes you want to be the voluntary simplicity person very much,” he says. “They make time for people and have more depth and generosity of spirit. At times, it did feel like I was talking to a more evolved being.”

Such lifestyles sound very worthy, I say, but also a tad… unfun? Needless to say, I am not an evolved being and I cringe as I realise how shallow I sound. Yet in my former job as a fashion editor, I have seen consumerism at its most seductive. And the first place I visited once lockdown lifted was Selfridges – possibly London’s shiniest temple to materialism – to marvel at the displays. It’s undeniable that consumerism brings bright lights, dazzling outfits and lively nights out.

MacKinnon gamely fields the query. “I think there’s a grain of truth in it,” he says. “That’s the reality we need to confront, to some extent. We’re certainly not talking about a return to the Stone Age, but maybe we have to accept that a lower-consuming society isn’t an endless parade of distractions like the society we have today.”

Getting people to believe that this can be a satisfying existence will be the biggest hurdle. “When what you’ve known throughout your lifetime is what satisfaction you can draw from a consumeristic materialistic society, it’s very hard to imagine there’s an alternative that’s going to work as well or better,” he says. “But there is.”

He points to an uplifting case study from London. In Barking and Dagenham, one of the city’s poorest boroughs, the “Every One. Every Day” initiative brings together locals to cook, partake in poetry, craft and hair-braiding sessions, and spruce up common areas, all of it free. “For many of the people participating, it’s deeply engaging and profoundly affecting,” he says. “In a lot of places, if you don’t have the cash to consume, there’s nothing to do; the closest I came to tears in researching this book was watching people who were feeling isolated and excluded from consumer culture have an alternative put in front of them. That points towards the potential.”

Although a “cloak-and-dagger” culture still enshrouds talk about reducing consumption in most corporate environments – various interviewees would only speak to MacKinnon anonymously – there are some promising signs. Trailblazing brands such as Patagonia and Levi’s have made impressive strides in encouraging customers to question throwaway culture and “buy less but better” is becoming a more common refrain in parts of the fashion industry (even as the industry continues to grow exponentially).

Perhaps the book’s most startling comment comes from Abdullah al Maher, the CEO of a Bangladesh knitwear firm that produces for fast-fashion giants including H&M and Zara. He admits that transitioning to a lower-consuming society would be painful for his country: its 6,000 clothing factories would probably halve. But in this new system, the factories would provide better wages, pollute less and compete on quality instead of speed. “There’ll be no ratrace then,” Maher says, adding: “You know, it wouldn’t be so bad.”

It’s a striking statement from a powerful businessman in a nation that is a factory for the world. And it’s the sort of comment that gives MacKinnon confidence. “I’m hopeful that, coming out of the pandemic, people are going to have discussions that start to move the idea of reducing consumption back into the public discourse, from the fringes where it’s been for three decades,” he says.

Such conversations will involve tossing up whether we’re prepared to give up our vibrant, high-velocity, acquisitive lives in order to calm our minds and save the earth. Although we might not like the answer, and change is always uncomfortable, it’s tough to argue that there’s even a contest.

The Day the World Stops Shopping by JB MacKinnon is published by Bodley Head at £20. Order it for £17.40 at guardianbookshop.com