On Consumer Responsibility and Alternative Consumption

Operators are Standing By” by artist Jean Bevier. The piece of neon art flashes between “Buy” and “Eat” within the word “Beauty”. Consumerism and the quest for purpose and pleasure through compulsive material consumption have been the target of contemporary art’s critiques. (Source: Jason Kottke – https://kottke.org/11/02/beauty-buy-eat)

The sun shone bright as I arrived at FareShare’s warehouse in Deptford to spend the afternoon volunteering. I was expecting an active and interesting few hours: the charity manages 13,552 of the 1.9 million tonnes of surplus food wasted by the British food industry each year, redistributing it to charities that turn it into nutritious meals for hungry people. FareShare turns two evils – food waste and hunger – into something positive. Indeed, about half a million people benefit from this food each week. Yet, as I started to sort food arrivals from supermarkets, I couldn’t help wonder why this food was being overproduced in the first place and I started to realise that FareShare actually works with the adverse consequences of a much larger problem that lies at the heart of food waste and hunger: our consumer society.

When faced with the humungous amount of perfectly edible food being thrown away by supermarkets, one can only feel outraged, especially when some people have to skip meals. Jobs in the farming and food processing industries are becoming increasingly precarious with workers – going from those in the slaughterhouses to those in the canneries – struggling to physically and mentally cope with hellish production and delivery targets in exchange of below-subsistence wages. Moreover, we are reaching the ecological limits of the planet, cutting down forests, extracting water from depleting reserves, increasing fuels emissions and losing all respect for non-human life. And all this waste of human and natural resources just to produce food that no one will eat unless recuperated by charities like FareShare.

Volunteers at FareShare’s warehouse sorting surplus food. Fareshare recuperates 13,552 tonnes of surplus every year, yet another 270,000 tonnes of edible food still go to waste each year in the UK. (Source: FareShare – http://fareshare.org.uk/)

Upon reflection, it becomes apparent that we, as consumers, play the biggest part in this perverse trend. Many supermarkets discard food because it does not fit the cosmetic standards consumers demand: realistically, we don’t ever go for the awkward-looking potatoes. Food is also thrown away when it is out of date. This happens in large numbers as we all choose to avoid the yogurts that are closer to expiry. While we might think expiry dates are an official health and safety standard, they actually reflect manufacturers’ best guesses as to when that product will be at its optimum quality. Most food is still edible after their expiry date has passed but, by fear of consumer litigation, supermarkets would rather discard out of date food. Moreover, so much food goes to waste because supermarkets order more food than customers will buy. Why? No one wants to shop at a supermarket with empty shelves, or else we might think there is something wrong with that last-standing lettuce. Finally, billions of tonnes of surplus end up in the bin because billion of tonnes of food are produced to serve a demand that is well above our necessary caloric intake.

In sum, it is surely comforting to convince ourselves that the economy is governed by abstract forces beyond our control, when in fact, it is our preferences and choices that ultimately dictate its course. Firms merely serve our appetites, literally. While not an easy task, changing our consumer habits could reverse the trend of overproduction. If only we took the time to think whether we really need what we are about to buy, if only we ate ugly food and took expiry dates as mere quality indicators, some real progress could be made.

However, overproduction is not unique to the food industry; far from it, it is the most pervasive feature of our consumer society in which we constantly buy more goods than we need.  In fact, this whole experience brought back to my mind some old ideas that I believe are worth bringing back to light. Hopefully these will inspire us, at least at an individual level, to distance ourselves from the system of frenetic overproduction, overconsumption and exponential reproduction of capital that – as well as exhausting our planet – squeezes labour, deepens inequality and hits those at the base of society hard. It is not a matter of abolishing capitalism, nationalising factories, banks and corporations with the government administering markets. What these ideas suggest is an economic system that reconciles private ownership of the means of production, consumer spending and employment with consideration for humans, other animals and the environment in general; a system that is both profitable and respectful.

19th century poet and entrepreneur William Morris tried to find a synthesis that would allow for private production while encouraging reduced consumption, guaranteeing satisfying and meaningful work for workers and giving nature a break. Morris advocated that a good economy relies on the education of the consumer, in unveiling what it is we really need and want in our lives and why, as well as how much certain things are worth to us.  In Morris’ view, we should have nothing in our houses that we do not find useful, necessary or at least beautiful. While it might sound like Morris is trying to lure us into a life of austerity, what he actually wanted was to invite us to see our purchases as sparse and thoughtful investments. Consumers should learn to want fewer but better quality goods that reflect the dignity of labour, respect for the earth and the quality of materials that go into producing them.

A mug I bought a few years ago that uses a pattern by Morris & Co, Morris’ furnishings and decorative arts business he set up in 1861 to put his views into practice.

One doesn’t only find calls for reformed consumption in the romanticised ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; they actually lie right at the foundation of economics. Adam Smith articulated how as capitalist societies evolve and manage to get basic necessities covered, production should turn to satisfy less materialistic needs like education, self-esteem, social belonging or self-actualisation that require intense amounts of labour intelligence and work to fulfil. Instead of conceiving production in a purely realist sense and understanding its goal as the satisfaction of immediate wants with material means, Smith proposed a view of production that places a greater emphasis on buying and selling services and goods focused on our higher needs.

Maslow’s pyramid of needs, which he developed in 1943, echoes Smith’s distinction between individuals’ motivations. Above is a simplified version of his pyramid. (Source: Life and My Finances – http://lifeandmyfinances.com/2017/01/apply-maslows-heirarchy-money-year/)

The moral of these stories is that consumers need to be educated into wanting fewer, better quality and even less tangible goods. They should be encouraged to shop less often for quality and long-lasting products that respect the worth of labour and the planet. And if they are lucky enough to see their basic needs satisfied, consumers should be nudged into seeking fulfilment and pleasure not in the immediate realisation of material consumption but in the pursuit and consumption of products and services that appeal to our higher ideals.

The challenge is massive. The whole corporate and advertising structures that brainwash us into consuming negligible goods and plan product obsolescence would need to be questioned. What is more, we would need to rethink the contemporary understanding of economics that sees no goal beyond increased GDP and draws an inevitable relation between decreased production and unemployment. Such ideals are now gathered around the global Degrowth movement but remain marginal, being treated with contempt or at best, being regarded as naïve. Yet, rethinking the current socioeconomic system is an imperative that would need to be addressed sooner or later. These are interesting times for key social actors, be they policy-makers, politicians, economists, entrepreneurs or educators. In the meantime, while we wait for a consumption revolution that may never come, each of us can be proactive through our consumer choices and by engaging ourselves in initiatives like FareShare that try to build virtuous systems within the limited boundaries of the current socioeconomic order. As I left Fareshare, the sun was now setting and I recalled a heartening maxim: it comes down to us to be the change we want to see in the world.


Eugenia Bilbao-Goyoaga is a first-year Master of Public Administration student at the LSE. Originally from Spain, she graduated in 2017 from the University of Bath, where she read Politics with Economics. In between her degrees, she worked for a year as a Research Assistant at the Bank of England. 

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