Page last updated at 23:35 GMT, Thursday, 5 March 2009

A silver lining to the economic crisis?

By James Melik
Business reporter, BBC World Service

mother and child in Dhaka shanty town
The poor might benefit as people change their spending habits

Will the current global financial crisis encourage people to change their spending habits and thereby create a better world in the process?

There have been allegations that consumerism prompted the rampant spending that has led to the current dire economic climate.

One of the US's prominent preachers, the Reverend Jim Wallis, thinks the recession offers possibilities for beneficial change.

"The important question is: how will this crisis change us?" he asks.

"There is going to be a lot of pain and misery and that will all be in vain unless it changes how we think; how we decide things; how we live; how we do business."

Spending curtailed

But is the recession causing any change in attitudes about spending that might actually last beyond this global downturn?

We are stewards of fragile resources
the Reverend Jim Wallis

A group called The Compact describes itself as a flight from consumerism. They have all agreed not to buy new products of any kind and to borrow, barter or buy used goods instead.

"It's about personal empowerment and understanding the way I use my privileges," says founding member Rachel Kesel.

"We are talking about personal choices and the decisions we make in our individual lifestyles, do indeed have an impact," she explains.

Rather than going out and buying a book, she now walks around a store, makes a note of any title she wants, then goes to a library to borrow it.

She finds the experience very liberating.

"There is a lack of immediate pressure, the impulse to take it with you right now, that instant gratification," she says.

Martin Raymond, who founded a company called The Future Laboratory, which does market research to identify future trends, says that the web site Freecycle is another example of this move away from consumerism.

Hands holding dollar bills over pile of coins
People have changed spending habits as the financial crisis bites

Instead of simply throwing things away, people advertise their unwanted goods on the site and either give them away, or exchange them for something they need.

"This is how trends start," says Mr Raymond.

"Divorce was a small incremental thing when it started, now it is quite popular - equality among women was a small incremental thing, now we accept it as standard."

Signs of change

Mr Wallis believes the current financial climate offers an opportunity for people to change their habits.

"We must not let that chance go by," he insists.

People do not usually relinquish money, as we have witnessed with the scrabbling for bonuses on Wall Street even as the taxpayer is shovelling money in through the front door.

But there are some indications that people are changing their habits.

People are becoming more measured with their spending, more determined to compare prices
Martin Raymond
The Future Laboratory

"People are now understanding they are going to have to depend on each other - employees are deciding to take a day off work without pay, or even a pay cut, to avoid their colleagues losing their jobs - that's kind of a new phenomenon," says Mr Wallis.

He believes there is a growing sense of community.

"People are trying to understand that we are all in this together, not just in an idealistic, altruistic way, but in a practical way," he says.

He is also concerned about how future generations will look after the environment.

"We are stewards of fragile resources," he says.

"That conversion to a green economy is more than structural, it is also spiritual and that is the chance this crisis offers us," he says.

Consumer ethics

The Future Laboratory's Mr Raymond says key trends are beginning to show.

"People are becoming more measured with their spending, more determined to compare prices," he says.

Lambourghini in Park Lane
The flaunting of wealth has become less conspicuous recently

He indicates that people are more prepared to challenge and to barter, and consumers will go back and argue after they have made a purchase.

There is even a group who call themselves 'freegans'. They eat products that are just left around after other people have finished.

There are also housewives who call themselves Chief Household Officers, who say they run a house the way they would run a business - strategically and balancing budgets.

"A growing number of people are concerned with excess in terms of what they need to live, along with how and why products need to be produced the way they are," Mr Raymond says

Figures show that people are buying less, and also buying products which have a certain integrity about them in terms of sourcing.

"Look at sales of local produce in North America, and the revival of interest in corner stores which are now beginning to do better than supermarkets," he says.

"People not just shopping in terms of value, they are also asking questions about the origin of their foods," he says.

The desire to spend, and spend conspicuously, seems to have taken a back seat for the moment.

It remains to be seen whether this change in attitude, which ultimately might provide a better world for future generations, will be permanent.

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