Tag Archives: consumerism

The Disposable Society

Imagine a time when you either wove your own fabric from skeins of wool or cotton, maybe even carding and spinning the wool. Or perhaps you bought the bolt of cloth and made your own garments by hand, or were lucky enough to have a foot treadle sewing machine. If you could you might have bought one fine dress and it was your Sunday dress or suit, worn for years until it wore out. Any garment you had would be recycled as it fell apart, the usable pieces cut out and either made into something else or used to patch a new garment. Nothing was wasted. You wore your shoes until they fell off of you, probably having been repaired and patched as many times as possible.

If you bought (or even if you butchered yourself) part of a cow, you would use every scrap possibly, make soup from bones. Even slight old vegetables or meat that was still good would be cooked or preserved in some way as soup, stews or pickled. Dish water might be reused several times or people would bathe in the same water. Everything was used until it could not be used anymore. Baskets or carts were taken to market laden with goods, and brought back again with different items.

Just think, only one hundred years ago, this was the norm for the average person. Before the age of industrialization it was very much the way and life consisted of one of existence and keeping a roof over your head and feeding you and your loved ones. Communities worked together and spare time was time to socialize because it was rare but everyone needed some fun and leisure.

Once industrialization began, machines could make things faster and cheaper, cutting down on labor (which caused its own problems in labor of course) and soon most people did not need to know how to sew or mend, could own a couple of pairs of shoes and could buy various items easily. As we progressed past the war years, we started to enter the disposable society. Imagine the rationing of World War II when everything from food to rubber was rationed so that the front lines had enough and that equipment could be made towards the war. This would never happen today because there are numerous supply lines from various countries and shipping through various forms of transportation.

You would have an outhouse and if lucky, perhaps a newspaper or magazine, that once read from cover to cover, would be used as toilet paper. If no newspaper, you probably had buckets of leaves. Water was gathered from a pump or a well and heated on a wood stove, the wood which you chopped yourself. You would probably grow many of your own vegetables, raise a few chickens for eggs and if on a farm, you’d be butchering your own meat. Bread was made from scratch as was everything else. What surplus you had was sold for items such as plows, hoes, shoes, ribbons, fabric, treats or other food that you didn’t have, candles, lamp oil, axes, horses, cows, chickens, maybe a book if you were learned and could afford a bit extra.

If you look at your life in contrast to someone’s of a hundred years ago you will have numerous clothes, good and casual, several pairs of shoes or more, and coats for several seasons. You live in a place with many books (if you’re into books) or magazines or newspapers. You have a TV, a computer, a land or cell phone (or both) and a host of other electronic devices that make eating, sleeping, working and leisure time easier. You don’t have to make all your food from scratch or even have a garden. Vegetables and fruit are available year-long, plus exotic foods that only the elite once ate. We throw out clothes when they go out of fashion or get a bit worn. We can buy new clothes for as little as a few bucks.

Most of us don’t even need to take our basket or cart to market, though more and more people are using cloth bags. And this in itself has generated an industry of plastics so cheap that you get a bag with every purchase. The bags are disposable, like the clothes, the slightly worn shoes, a computer three years old, a car that is five years old, a book, jewellery or food in such abundance that we let it go bad. But is it truly disposable? We throw or give these things away and once out of sight, out of mind. But many of these items end up in landfills or garbage heaps or somewhere where they will take a thousand years or more to decompose.

Imagine, in a thousand years we went from the Byzantine Empire to today. Religions were born, societies fell, cultures changed. And now, we constantly waste, all of us. There are countries in the world that are too poor to waste anything, but anyone in western culture, Europe or North America wastes, no matter how good we are at recycling. So that means we all have room to improve. And if we really want to take a look at the popular carbon footprint, then it does not just mean taking the bus instead of driving, or not flying. It means buying foods that are made locally, or grown yourself. These aspects we know, but where do our clothes and our shoes, our computers and iPods come from? How much carbon is used in the manufacture of these items and the shipping of them?

I believe every person could try harder to be less wasteful, which would preserve our resources longer, and really think about that carbon footprint. Money and resources flow through us as if the sluice gates were wide open.  The carbon footprint is everywhere, not just in food or transportation. It’s not an easy solution, nor a fast one and will take years of us looking differently at everything, but maybe we can change our society from being one of disposable and consumeristic to being one of conserving and re-using.

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T’is the Season…

…for gross consumerism. Once upon a time it used to be that Christmas began in December and actually meant something spiritual. (I’m picking on the Christian, sort of, holiday because I don’t know if other faiths go mass market this time of year.) Then stores decided it was best to put out all the seasonally afflicted merchandise at the beginning of the month. Soon, it seemed like a smart thing to put out the holiday decorations right after US Thanksgiving. Get all the turkey, fall and feasting goods done with, then there is room on the shelves for the next festivity. But someone decided that Thanksgiving wasn’t big enough or didn’t dent the shelves with related crap, so Christmas decorations and lights and cards started coming out after Hallowe’en. We’re now two months before Christmas and that hasn’t been enough. This year, I saw Christmas related crapola in stores in September. Soon, we’ll have it year round.

This frantic marketing makes me less seasonally cheerful and downright grumpy. A festive occasion is just that, an occasion, not a year-long extravaganza. It takes the specialness of the time away when one is inundated with the same driveling songs for months, though I notice that the stores do hold off on the tunes or their employees would go postal. But seeing the ho ho ho bits and garlands and cards and hats and stockings and lights etc. really kills the feeling for me.

But what is at the root of all this? Obviously it’s greed, and probably the whole fear around the economy has whipped store execs into a froth where they’re pushing everything onto shelves early. Buy buy buy, more more more. Make it super duper very bright, large and festive and red and green. It’s enough to make all the reindeer drink until their noses are red.

The problem is that our society is based on a consumerism that is supposed to always grow. Sell more cars, sell more clothes, sell more everything or we can’t get bonuses and more money to buy more stuff. What happens when the quantity stays the same in consumer purchases? Take cars for example. You can’t price them out of everyone’s pocketbook, but there’s another way around it. Make them so they don’t last as long. A Model T Ford could run for fifty years but we’re lucky now if we get cars that make it to ten years. Planned obsolescence. Printers are the same. They cost less than a hundred bucks to buy but the ink cartridges that you have to keep using (and therefore should be cheaper because of mass consumption) are $60-$80. Not because ink is that expensive but because the company has to make money. Some printers are designed to eat ink every time you turn them on so feasibly you could use up a cartridge without printing a page (I got rid of that one fairly quickly.)

What happens when we have enough, when growth stays the same? Or what happens when the baby boomers stop buying and the next gen buys less? Panic. Maybe the economy fireworks didn’t have to happen right now but it was bound to happen sooner or later. I thankfully, have only worked for one company where “grow grow grow” was their motto mixed with a lack of understanding people. People left on stress leave and others were walked out the door almost regularly. I hear this company was bought by a company wich was bought by a company and that more changes are happening. I’d rather slide down razor blades into a vat of vinegar than work there again.

So be prepared. Those Boxing Day sales have become Boxing week sales and pre-Christmas/Boxing week sales. They’re about to become Christmas month sales and yet there will be more and more and more stuff. Costco has mass Santa suits that you can buy for cheap. Now every little Santa will look the same. How sweet. And if you think that Santa at the North Pole is kept busy with all his elves working over time because of the mass merchandising, think again. The little fellas have been laid off to cut costs and because everything was farmed out to a third world nation where the kids get to toil for twenty hours a day. Ho ho ho, enjoy the consumerism.

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Overpackaging and Biodegradable Items

I have a problem with buying “bulk” because often it is not bulk. Bulk items are in a bin and you pour them into one container, whether a bag or a bucket. Many items are classified as bulk but are really prepackaged: a 24-pack of chips, a box of cookies packaged into twos for lunches, mini chocolate bars in a wrapper in a bag. These are not bulk but packaged. What all these convenience items have in common is that they’re overpackaged. Instead of one bag, there are many bags, in a box, wrapped in plastic.

The items can range from dried foods, to light bulbs, to frozen foods, to you name it. Where do all the chip and cookie bags, the Styrofoam bowls, the plastic wrap and other packaging go? Into the landfill, often too toxic to burn, but can leak those lovely chemicals into the ground. Sure many landfills are lined to contain the chemical sludge but still, there is only so much space and plastics especially are nasty to create and take thousands of years to break down.

There are several ways to be more conscious of the impact our shopping makes on our environment. One is to not buy prepackaged foods but buy bulk. I buy my veggies and nuts and meat as bulk as I can. Then for lunch I take reusable containers and put my foods into them. (Never microwave foods in plastic containers as the plastic will do damage to your system. Keep a glass container on hand.) If I was to buy cookies, I’d buy a big bag and package them myself, or better yet, bake them. A big bag of chips parceled into a smaller plastic container is far better.

Some companies are working on lessening their packaging. You can now get the equivalent of Styrofoam “corn” packaging material, which is actually corn. If you don’t reuse it, you can wash it down the drain and it will dissolve in seconds. Corn is being used to make plastic looking forks and knives for fast food or deli outlets. I ran into these in a supermarket with a deli section in Kansas. Again, if the forks go into the landfill, they dissolve without leaving chemical residue.

I’ve always said that if necessity was the mother of invention, laziness was the father. It’s too bad that part of the state of our world and environment is because of convenience because of laziness. To package your own food doesn’t take that much extra time and I’m quite lazy about my lunches. I try not to buy items wrapped in plastic and bags and boxes. The worst to me are the tiny things (usually electronics) packaged in a hard plastic container that’s five times the size of the item. It’s unrecyclable plastic and useless. I understand companies have the problem of packaging and advertising something small so that it’s seen but not easily stolen. But if we ask and write and put pressure on them, more viable and environmentally solutions can be found.

Which makes me think it’s time to write more letters to companies.

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Filed under consumer affairs, Culture, environment, food, life, shopping