Shop till you drop (and ignore the true cost)

After all, if you've got some spare cash, do you want to put it in a pension that may turn out to be worthless?

Share

As the markets go crashing, the tills go on ringing. It looks as though people in Britain are too in love with shopping to stop just because of a little financial discomfort. While so many careful people who tried to invest in their future are sweating over how much money they are losing; other, less thoughtful, types are consoling themselves on the high street. Figures published yesterday underlined what we already knew, that never before has so much been owed by so many. They showed that people in Britain accumulated a record £68bn new personal debt last year, including sharp increases in credit-card lending and personal loans.

As the markets go crashing, the tills go on ringing. It looks as though people in Britain are too in love with shopping to stop just because of a little financial discomfort. While so many careful people who tried to invest in their future are sweating over how much money they are losing; other, less thoughtful, types are consoling themselves on the high street. Figures published yesterday underlined what we already knew, that never before has so much been owed by so many. They showed that people in Britain accumulated a record £68bn new personal debt last year, including sharp increases in credit-card lending and personal loans.

Shopping is a lot more to most of us than just a way of getting hold of things we need. That's especially true for women. I won't rehearse all the absurd factoids that surveys keep churning out about women's love of shopping. But do you remember the poll, published last year, that told us that 52 per cent of women would rather go shopping than have sex? Certainly an awful lot of women are looking for a lot more than a few groceries when they shop.

Because when people shop, they also dream. They dream of more colour, more brightness, more control over their lives. That colourful dream is surprisingly resilient. Every month we are told that consumer confidence is juddering, is terribly fragile, is about to crash. And then every month we are told that retail sales are up again.

Although the newspapers at the end of last year featured many nervous shopkeepers complaining about the level of their sales, in fact figures released last week show that retail sales, far from collapsing in December, rose by 0.4 per cent, taking the annual increase to 6.4 per cent. While the spectre of the falling stock market might be expected to put the brakes on this relentless desire to shop, in fact the trouble in the markets seems to be pushing many of us to spend even more.

This isn't as crazy as it might seem at first. After all, if you've got some spare cash right now, do you want to put it into a pension that may turn out to be worthless, an Isa that is falling in value, a savings account with a minimal interest rate – or something obviously worthwhile like a tasty meal or some shiny shoes? And even if you don't have that spare cash, while borrowing is so cheap it seems almost perverse not to indulge in it.

We are egged on in this desire to shop, shop, shop by the idea that, in order to keep going, the economy needs the bellows of consumerism to work harder and faster every year.

George Bush summed up the central tenet of our economic system, the need for continual growth, at the very start of his State of the Union address. Long before he got on to foreign policy, he laid out his vision for America. "Our first goal is clear. We must have an economy that grows fast... the economy grows when Americans have more money to spend... the best way to make sure Americans have the money is not to tax it away in the first place."

This view of shopping as a quasi-patriotic duty was first put about in the wake of 11 September. It may resonate with some people, but really it's unnecessary for politicians to egg us on. We don't need to be told shopping is good for the country. We shop because we like it. It's a way of dreaming about the future. Every new gadget is the promise of a more efficient life; every new book the promise of an imaginative escape, every new dress the promise of a transformation.

At the moment of buying, these dreams are all shining with promise; it's only later that they turn into duller reality. But as our debts rise, even while some siren voices are telling us to keep shopping, other voices tell us that reality is about to intrude, and the whole dream is going to collapse. George Bush may be encouraging Americans to spend, spend, spend. But here economists are warning that the economy may "overheat" as a result of so much consumer borrowing. Many doleful commentators, and not just our parents, are telling us that our current levels of debt are unsustainable.

Will we listen? Do we want to hear about the reality that lies in wait for us? Do we want to know what shopping really costs us?

On the contrary, we are very good at closing our eyes to the cost of our shopping. So good at it that some researchers from Cambridge University, earlier this week, published a report that purported to prove that half the population shows symptoms of financial phobia. That is, an inability to deal with finances – even if the person is solvent – manifested in symptoms such as a racing heart, dizziness and immobilisation at the prospect of opening a bank statement. Women are particularly prone, it is said, to this syndrome.

I could have told you that after seeing the success of The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic. That was an amusing little book which became a bestseller, whose appeal was based on the disjunction between a woman's ability to kid herself while shopping, and her real financial situation.

Indeed, we can be pretty sure that we will never have to face the true costs of our shopping. I don't mean that we can get away without paying our debts forever: in the end, we are forced to confront those debts, or our cards get cut up, the overdraft is not extended, the bailiffs move in, and the house is repossessed.

But even after we pay those debts, we still won't confront the true costs of our consumer habits. We never have to think about our shopping in terms of its toll on the environment or other people's lives. We do, really, live in a shopaholic's dream world. Reality rarely intrudes. If it did intrude – if we were forced, through paying the producers of our goods living wages, or by paying for the damage done to the environment – to face up to those real costs, then our weightless consumerism would suddenly start to feel very heavy indeed.

I felt that weight earlier this year when I met an extraordinary woman from Mexico. Josefina Hernandez Ponce had been engaged in a strike a couple of a years ago in a factory called Mexmode that produces goods for Nike. This historic strike resulted in improved conditions for the workers and the setting up of an independent trade union. Of course, it was above all the bravery of the – mainly female – workers that ensured the success of the strike, but it was also very much down to pressure from consumers internationally, through organisations such as No Sweat and Students Against Sweatshops. That pressure ensured that Nike stayed with the factory rather than running away at the first sign of industrial unrest.

This successful action was a rare instance of shoppers bothering to look behind the dream. I asked Josefina what lessons she had for consumers in the West. She said, "We wouldn't say, do not buy these products. We would say, buy them but demand the proof that they were produced under good conditions. Ask, where are these made? Ask, under what conditions are they made? Demand to know the workers' rights."

It sounds so simple, doesn't it? It is surprising, given the amount of knowledge that we are now able to access about such issues, that we tend to use our power as consumers so rarely. Yet all such action requires is for us to let a little reality into our dream worlds.

n.walter@btinternet.com

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own