Discerning shoppers 'end the consumer boom'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE HIGH STREET sales boom may be over for good. Modern consumerism is on the verge of fundamental change, away from frivolity towards quality, personal responsibility and environmental awareness.

Consumerism has contributed to the 'growing paradox of wealth', which has seen rising prosperity coinciding with deteriorating public services, according to the latest issue of Consumer Policy Review, the quarterly journal of the Consumers' Association.

Stewart Lansley, a senior research fellow at the Henley Centre, the forecasting unit, says the boom of the 1980s - when consumerism, born in the 1960s, 'came of age' - exposed many of the limitations of affluence. With most basic needs satisfied, people increasingly bought goods - a pair of pounds 100 trainers, a Porsche - for their status value. But the jostling for position that followed the emergence of 'competitive individualism' left many groups behind.

Mr Lansley says the 1980s boom enhanced the sense of rejection of the young unemployed who refused to be denied trainers, tracksuits and mountain bikes. It thus contributed to a spiral of vandalism, drug addiction, crime and declining social stability.

Not only are the social costs of growth, such as congestion and pollution, threatening to swallow up the gains. The new competitiveness means that 'we need more money to stand still, with the side-effect that we have become less willing to pay the costs of social consumption'.

Between 1978 and 1990 private consumption rose almost three times as fast as public spending, growing from 58 to 65.5 per cent of gross national product. Rising prosperity has meant poorer public transport, more meagre welfare benefits and dirtier cities.

Four factors could signal a change, he says. Unemployment may have led to a more permanent denting of consumer confidence; people are frustrated with the 'time famine' created by prosperity as their lives have become harried and congested; a 'quasi-moral distaste' for consumption has emerged; and the better-off may be saturated with material possessions.

Society could be witnessing the rise of the 'discerning' consumer, less obsessed with image, more concerned with social and individual health. The 1990s may thus see more moderate expectations and weaker inflationary pressures; they may also require a different approach to political and economic management.

The rise in demand for recycled paper is linked to a switch in taste from gloss and 'glitz' to subtler matt finishes, a conference was told yesterday.

Recycled paper cannot match the brilliance of paper made from chlorine- bleached virgin fibre, according to a seminar organised by the Environment Council.

However, Michael Webb, of the Conservation Consultancy, said there was a 'move away from whiteness'. Anderson Fraser, a print firm employed by the Body Shop, said matt art work outnumbered gloss by 20 to 1: five years ago the proportions were equal.

Mr Webb added: 'In all sorts of areas whiteness is environmentally a bad thing.' Chlorine, used to bleach wood pulp, leaves long-lived toxic residues.