A vote from the City of Sydney Council backing the Buy Nothing New Campaign has reignited the economy-versus-environment debate. On Tuesday, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote of Clover Moore and the City of Sydney’s decision to back the campaign, running in October, which encourages consumers to question their buying practices, along environmental grounds. The Herald largely framed the Council decision as a ‘boycott’ on Sydney retailers, and both NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and Small Business Minister Katrina Hodgkinson called on readers to ‘completely ignore’ the initiative.
There are two problems with the way that the Herald and the NSW State Government framed the story.
The first is by incorrectly describing the motives of Clover Moore and the City of Sydney. In backing this campaign, the City of Sydney Council has waived the fee to rent the Customs House Forecourt; an offer that has been given to many other organisations, including those that support pro-business initiatives such as Mercedes Fashion Week (yes – promotion of clothing consumption!).
The second is misrepresenting the central aims of the Buy Nothing New initiative. Will Buy Nothing New drastically change Sydney’s retail economy?
For those not familiar with the initiative, the challenge is to buy nothing new (with the exceptions of essential items, such as food, hygiene and medicines) for one month. Buy Nothing New doesn’t work on the premise of anti-consumption, rather it invites people to look at their consumption choices and rethink them in an alternative way – engaging in the local handmade or market economy, buying second hand, sharing, mending/repairing or collaborative consumption. It’s all about thinking where the stuff we own comes from and what happens to it when we no longer value its use. The problem is a broader retail culture premised on high throughput of quickly disposable goods – no more vividly captured than in the ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon.
Beyond the attacks of Clover Moore and her ‘anti-retail policies’ there is a bigger picture. We buy more than we’ll ever need – and in light of climate change there is an obvious need to rethink the amount of stuff that enters our lives. The Buy Nothing New campaign attempts real steps towards that. Rather than damaging the economy, Buy Nothing New is about protecting it – that is, if we define ‘economy’ not in terms of gross retail sales, but in the broadest, original sense as how people “access, use and value scarce material resources as moral and social beings”. By encouraging retailers and consumers to reflect on how people furnish themselves with the necessities and luxuries of life, Australia can be more resilient to the booms and busts that plague the global economy. This is about thinking outside the box to alternative ways of consuming.
Initiatives that urge us to consume less are particularly pertinent to me in the context of my PhD research. One of my research aims is to explore how and why people shop and how this practice is tied up in social norms, emotions and habits. The response to this SMH article has captured public admission of our obsession with stuff. Will the message of Buy Nothing New Month stick with consumers? Stay tuned – we’ll have to wait until October to find out.
Elyse Stanes can be followed on twitter: @elyserstanes