This Friday (23rd November) is “Black Friday” a peak day of trading in the run up to Christmas, writes the Ven. Guy Elsmore.
“I shop, therefore I am.” Barbara Kruger’s memorable one-liner goes to the heart of an important aspect of life today. We live in a consumer society. The choice of goods for sale in the shops and online, whether shoes, clothing, electronic devices, music or video is simply astonishing. Shopping has become a significant leisure activity for many people.
A friend returned from a long spell working in a simple rural setting on a Hebridean Island and found herself standing dazed in the supermarket, wondering how to choose between thirty different kinds of toothpaste.
Looking deeper, consumerism isn’t just about the usefulness of the goods we buy. We make choices about the what we purchase for other reasons. The label or the brand of our goods has become increasingly important to us. Brand choice is a marker of identity defining our membership, or otherwise, of particular social groups. For instance, the identity of the North Buckinghamshire Country Gentleman (choosing products by Harris Tweed, Barbour, Farlows, Range Rover and Barker) and the style conscious 17-year-old woman from Slough (opting for Forever 21, Urban Decay, GHD, Vans, PLT). When I was a curate in a Liverpool outer estate parish in the early 90s, a story went around our curates’ support group that one of us had conducted a baptism. The child’s first name was given as “Reebok”.
The plethora of choices available to today’s consumer is a sign of the enormous range of human creative spirit. Many of us owe our livelihoods, directly or indirectly to the diversity and creativity of the consumer marketplace. The consumer market in branded goods drives creativity and innovation at an exhilarating pace.
But there is another side to consumerism. We live in a planet increasingly polluted by the plastics which are an essential part of the consumer market. Global warming increases because of the international supply chain and international market for the plethora of consumer goods. The consumer brands we most covet, both electronic goods and clothing may have been made in sweatshop factories where labour conditions are a world away from the glossy and aspirational “brand values” which attach to the objects of our desire.
Many people on our planet and in our nation are less defined by “I shop therefore I am” than they are by a lack of even the basics (food, clean water, shelter). In my last parish in Liverpool we had to be really careful when opening the outside bin in case someone was sleeping inside it – brand choices must seem like an unattainable luxury to those on the breadline.
Some people have become so alarmed by the culture of mass consumption that an organised alternative is springing up. As we approach Black Friday (23rd November) there is a radical alternative on offer. Rather than following the crowds, the “Buy Nothing Day” movement advocates spending it as a day completely free from shopping. On 23rd November, we are encouraged to escape the “Shopocalpyse” and to buy less, live more to switch off from shopping and tune into life.
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” Colossians 3:12.
St Paul’s clothing store sells the Christ brand – unavailable in the high street or online. When St Paul helps us to put on Christ brand clothing we are no longer defined by what we think we ought to wear or the pressure to conform to the market-place. Instead we are defined by what we are, in Christ, and by who we are, to others: compassionate, kind, humble, gentle and patient.
The Christ brand St Paul is offering us gives us a rooted identity which might enable us not to be swayed by the readymade identities available for sale in the marketplace and which gives us the security and the perspective to make reflective, ethical choices about what we do buy. Clothed in Christ, we might find ourselves making decisions like giving more to charity than to Amazon, choosing goods with a Fair-Trade label, counting the carbon footprint of our next essential purchase, buying second hand or even repairing an old item.
Whether you join the Shopocalypse or observe Buy Nothing Day on Friday 23rd, perhaps some of the following resources may be helpful to you if you would like to explore alternatives to consumerism as we approach Christmas:
The Ven. Guy Elsmore is the Archdeacon of Buckingham.