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Page last updated at 11:59 GMT, Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Should shopping be a patriotic duty?

Mock up of Alistair Darling as Lord Kitchener in the famous recruiting poster

Politicians and central bankers in the UK and across the world are battling to get you to spend more money on non-essential items so lack of demand does not send the global economy into freefall.

But even in the current hard times there are still dissenting voices who want to use this opportunity to tackle consumerism once and for all. They say our love of stuff we often don't really need and can't afford is what got us into this mess in the first place. Shopping became our god and must be toppled, they say.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of people who will stick up for shopping - as something to cheer us up when we are down, as a social activity, as an assertion of freedom and as the "vice" that could save us.


Neil Boorman, author of Bonfire of the Brands, an account of his rejection of a way of life dominated by branded goods, has made a film to support Buy Nothing Day, an annual protest against consumerism.

"There are millions of choices available to us consumers. But the one choice we seem to have lost is the choice not to shop," says Mr Boorman, who believes it's become "economic heresy" to stop spending.

"Consumer confidence, so the government tells us, is vital for the recovery of the economy. A splurge at M&S's one-day sale is the socially responsible thing to do, like buying bonds in the war."


Habits of the good consumer - Neil Boorman's video

Mr Boorman believes we have an absolute right to save rather than spend. After all, we worked hard to earn the money.

"Let's be clear what economists mean by the term 'consumer confidence' - it is the willingness of the public to spend money on luxury items - essentially products that we don't really need."

And while shoppers have racked up 1.5 trillion of personal debt, they have little to show for it, he argues.

"New cars halve in value the minute we drive them out the showroom, most gadgets become outdated or breakdown soon after their guarantee expires and clothes are virtually worthless once they're worn. These luxuries are all very exciting when we are carrying them home from the shops, but as investments they're worse bets than Woolworth's shares. Essentially, we are being ripped off."

Mr Boorman wants us all to take a holiday from the shops on International Buy Nothing Day, this Saturday.

Even in the good times there are dissenting voices over our buying habits

"Imagine if we all made a lasting commitment to consuming less - we could pay off those credit cards, save money, even spend less time at work. Faced with the choice - a new car or a four-day week - I know which I would choose.

"As an anti-consumerism campaigner, I'm frequently labelled as irresponsible when I encourage people to stop shopping. But the government is being much more reckless, when they ask us to shop our way out of the crash."

Over-consumption is also the root cause of environmental destruction, says Mr Boorman.

"If ever there was a time to rethink our reliance upon consumerism, when the economic rules are being re-written, it would be now. And it's worth remembering that we used to enjoy a buy nothing day every week of the year. It was called Sundays."


Lucia van der Post founded the Financial Times' glossy magazine How To Spend It more than a decade ago. An upcoming edition will feature a defence of shopping penned by her. Now freelance, she has been advising people on how to pleasurably use their money since the 1970s.

"I have never written about stuff that I just thought was mindless luxury," she says. "And I was never one for persuading people to spend money they didn't have. Micawber had it right. It's miserable to get into debt."

The way of austerity and only buying things we strictly need leads to Cambodia under Pol Pot, Afghanistan under the Taleban or China under Mao
Lucia van der Post

But the fact remains, she says, that in a capitalist society, people should be able to spend money - that they've earned and paid tax on - on whatever they like.

"Fun is an essential to us all - as essential as food and water," she notes.

"I am fundamentally libertarian. I will never be able to afford a yacht but I like to live in a world where some people have yachts. Do we want a world where no-one knows how to make a yacht or a fine watch?"

The UK is a country that has its fair share of people who look down their nose at the idea of enjoying shopping for non-essentials and spending large sums of money while doing it.

"Conspicuous consumption? It's when the other guy spends more than you."

But while shopping for non-essentials can be viewed as frivolous activity, there's an argument it connects us to the places we go.

People buying iPods
If demand continues to fall many jobs will be lost

"If you go to a place like India and you don't shop you don't engage with the local culture," says Ms Van der Post.

And for some, shopping can also be viewed as an assertion of freedom in a capitalist liberal democracy.

"The way of austerity and only buying things we strictly need leads to Cambodia under Pol Pot, Afghanistan under the Taleban or China under Mao," she concludes.


Amanda Ford, author of Retail Therapy: Life Lessons Learned While Shopping, has a lot of sympathy for the anti-consumerism campaigners.

"When we spend money on things that we do not need, or for that matter, really even want, we are contributing to a system that negatively impacts our physical environment, our political and social landscapes, and - most importantly, I would argue - our spiritual development."

Harrods sale
Shopping has become an integral part of many of our lives

But the answer is to be found in shopping more intelligently she suggests.

"There is absolutely no joy to be found in mindless shopping. Less truly is more. When it comes to consumption, bigger is not better.

"Does this mean we should shove our money under the mattress and run around wearing clothes crafted of twigs and leaves from our back yards? No.

"I don't think we need to stop shopping altogether in order to cure our consuming culture, but we do need to shop differently."

The idea of lives ruled by shopping and a love of things must be stopped, Ms Ford suggests.

"We must stop purchasing things because we are bored, lonely, stressed or simply going through the motions of obligation and routine. We must support small, local shopkeepers, artisans and farmers. We must buy things that will serve a distinct purpose in our lives for years, not just keep us entertained for a season."

People should continue shopping, but do it with the state of the world at the back of their minds.

"We must not be afraid to our spend our money. Money is a tremendous force and even a little bit has power to create positive change. "Every time you shop, ask yourself, 'Does this purchase support or negate the type of change I want to see in the world? Is this purchase life-affirming or soul-draining.' Then take a deep breath, centre yourself and listen. I think you will know your answer."


For Michael Gutteridge, a business and social psychologist, shopping can act as a motivational activity.

In the UK, where people work long hours and lead stressful lives, shopping can be a way of rewarding oneself.

Queue for a sale
For many families shopping is a social event, a day out

"If people don't get rewarded by their colleagues or their bosses they give themselves a reward.

"It's about boosting your self-esteem and giving yourself a reward. We want to lift our mood," says Mr Gutteridge.

And in these times of atomised families, shopping has become an important social event.

"It's reinforcing shared social behaviour. You see families at shopping centres - it's like an outing. You spend the day there and you have a meal there."


And the most stark argument against stopping the shopping comes from Prof John Sloman, director of the Economics Network, the Economics subject centre of the Higher Education Academy, based at the University of Bristol.

The consequences of us completely ceasing to purchase non-essentials would mean that the people who create them would be out of work and unable to even purchase essentials.

Even if you were to take an anti-consumerist stance, a short sharp shock to the system would be a catastrophic way of achieving your goals, he suggests.

"It's a bit like a drug. If you suddenly come off a drug you have cold turkey. You have to wean people off after many years. If you have a sudden shock you are going to get serious problems - high unemployment, certain sectors going into freefall."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Seven years ago, I had a major flood due to a burst pipe and lost about 80% of my home contents and personal possessions. The clean up and insurance claim made me realise there is only so much "stuff" you actually need. Two years ago I found out I was seriously ill and it made me refocus on the more important aspects of my life. I'm now happy to buy just what I need, which is not things like widescreen TVs, iPods or luxury items. As long as I can cover my outgoings and afford the odd treat all is right in my world. Good health, family and friendships are far more valuable.
Linda, Kirkcaldy

"It's about boosting your self-esteem and giving yourself a reward. We want to lift our mood."

Heaven forbid we attempt to do this by spending time with our families, neighbours, and friends, joining social groups, doing community volunteer work, or spending time with our partners. After all, having stuff is so much more satisfying.
Kaz, Macclesfield, UK

Haven't we realised yet that we live in a world of limited resources? At some point we will by necessity have to stop overconsuming, whether our world order as we know it will break down or not. The credit crunch is a mini-demonstration of this principle; it felt like it went well as long as we could borrow more, but once the money runs out, it all collapses.

We are pushing a growing resource deficit in front of us - and one day our credit will run out. Is it right to leave that problem to our children or grand-children? We still have time to put the brakes on; if we do, it will be grim, but it will be nothing compared to the Ragnarok we run into if we do nothing. But who has the courage needed?
Jan, Swindon, UK

It's a tricky one to call but our concern is that unique and independent shops survive. Many studies show that money spent locally can contribute three times as much to the local economy and help preserve local jobs. It always makes sense to shop wisely and to make sure some of your spending stays local.
Sue Korman, Brighton

I love to shop. I'm disabled, suffer chronic pain, and am frequently bedbound. When I can get out and about, I love to browse through the shops, I find that shopping gives me a lot of pleasure. You just have to be selective. Buy things you love, and remember to take pleasure in them - and don't get into debt. My last "splurge" was a pair of great purple leather gloves. They make me happy every time I wear them. Money is just bits of paper or electronic data. It only exists so we can swap it for stuff, which is fun and more interesting.
Mallory, Reading, UK

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