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Here Today, Gone Tomorrow - Whatever Happened To Being Thrifty? 
Stuart Macdonald on a global consumer society

When I was a couple of years younger - okay, well maybe quite a few years younger - my friends and I used to love nothing more than a good game of football. We would throw ourselves about the pitch, come rain or shine and we loved every last second of it. This feeling of joy was not, however, shared by our long-suffering mothers. More often than not, they would be faced with yet another hole in already severely patched and padded trousers, which required their immediate attention. As a result, an observer of any of our epic matches on the local pitches would have been privileged to note the origin of the phrase 'threading a pass through the defence'.  

As far as I can tell, today's breed of keen young footballers have somehow managed to slip through the net of such thriftiness. Kids have always wanted to emulate their heroes, yet today's breed does so to a degree which would have been alien to myself as a child. When I witnessed a recent kickabout amongst a group of children, not a patch or ingeniously placed team badge could I spy. Each child sported the full complement of their team's most recent regalia - I would have been at least several seasons behind the latest kit and probably squeezed into something several sizes too small.  

I am not for one moment suggesting any sort of meanness on the part of my parents (although that would explain a good many things), however, I feel that there is a crucial issue surrounding the readiness of the modern shopper to shop until they drop and then shop some more. People no longer reuse repair and recycle; they simply break, bin and buy over and over again.

Who is to blame for this wasteful culture? Are we as consumers simply irresponsible; or are we dancing to the retailers' tune?  A useful example is that of my parents' house, which has a number of electrical appliances that look as though they could well have hobbled in pairs from the Ark, yet they still work just as well as they ever did. Contemporary appliances tend to wear out within ten years and can often need replaced long before that. The reason for this is often (quite correctly) blamed on shoddy workmanship and design; however, it is worthwhile noting that the less durable an item, the more regularly it shall require to be replaced.

Far be it from me to accuse the world's companies of duplicity, but my earlier football example sheds light from another interesting angle.   The more often fashions change, the more us fashion and image conscious lot will jump to clamber aboard the latest bandwagon. The demand for football shirts has grown ever stronger from parents, eager to please children who in turn, have become accustomed to having things bought for them in order to keep pace with their friends.

This sort of consumer manipulation has gone on for decades and is largely what sustains the massive global fashion industry. However, it seems as though the new economy has recently caught on, with mobile phones becoming the most recent 'must-have' fashion accessory.   The great thing here as far as companies such as Nokia and Motorola are concerned, is that we are currently at a stage of human development where technology is advancing faster than we as consumers can keep up. This means that over the last few years, people have not only been buying their first mobile phone, but also their second and even third upgrades. In the space of a few short years we have gone from having phones which look as though they would build a sturdy wall, to ones which could slot into a cash machine, they are so thin and light. Indeed, to the companies involved, this is exactly what these ever-evolving pieces of technological wizardry represent - cash. Mountains of the stuff to be precise and we have all fallen for this ploy hook, line and sinker. 

Beneath the clouds of tear gas at the G8 summit in Genoa, a serious point was being raised by the vast majority of protestors who chose to campaign peacefully. We are all growing weary of the 'symbolic' attacks on McDonald's and various financial institutions by the mindless few and their decrying of the globalisation of capitalism. George W Bush counters this argument with talk of how no other political ideology has brought wealth to such a wide spectrum of the world's population and it is hard to refute this point. What it is possible to do is to question the practices of the aforementioned capitalist companies in terms of their business ethics and morals.   Do we really have to buy the latest version of Microsoft Windows or the newest and fastest processor yet from Athlon? Or how about that fourth pair of khakis from Gap? The companies involved would counter that they are merely supplying an existing demand. This has some merit insofar as today's consumer has an appetite for the new and the exciting which rivals that of the Victorians. However, the issue becomes serious when one questions precisely how that demand is met and in many cases stimulated.  

There have been various exposés of companies such as Nike and Gap, which exploit cheaper (and possibly often illegal labour (sic)) in poorer countries like Cambodia and Thailand. They continue to do this in order to feed the demand from Europe and America in as cheap and cost effective a manner as possible. What the protestors are really concerned about is the inherent greed which persists at the core of the globalisation of businesses and the incessant drive to improve margins in order to give shareholders a better return on their investment. This greed has driven many to create false markets for their products where none need exist.

It is a classic marketing trick to make the undesirable suddenly desirable. When you couple this with products which invariably last as long as the British summer, the big global corporations are onto a winner and the exploited workers end up at the bottom of the heap.  

We truly have become consumers of all goods and unwitting pawns in the struggle being played out in markets across the globe for our money. We could repair a broken washing machine, but what's the point when the parts are so expensive and the customer services department so unhelpful. It is usually far cheaper to buy a new one and be done with it. A market in spare parts is not nearly so profitable as one in entirely new washing machines. 

Right, I've finished this piece now so I think I'll head off down to the park and see if anyone fancies a kick about. I can wear my new football strip that I bought the other day and break in those new trainers. Hang on - I'd better not forget my new phone. And oh! I'd better check my email before I go and maybe buy that new thingamabob on-lineŠ

  © Stuart Macdonald 2001

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