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?

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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

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