1001 Water- and waste-wise ways: The Great Consumer Frenzy

 Picture chosen for its soothing qualities: taken on a Thanksgiving weekend I spent in a tiny New England village three years ago.

Picture chosen for its soothing qualities: taken on a Thanksgiving weekend I spent in a tiny New England village three years ago.

So it’s Black Friday (I understand the genesis of the name, but it doesn’t make it any less unfortunate, if not downright tasteless), and all over the world, credit cards are melting.

I’ll never forget my first encounter with Black Friday (although it wasn’t yet called that) in the US. I had spent Thanksgiving with American friends in the wilds of a tiny exquisite island off the coast of Maine, and three of us were driving back to Massachusetts. Stopping for petrol, we noticed a gift “outlet store” on the far side of the freeway — a factory shop big enough to house planes in. Even bigger was the parking lot, jammed as far as the eye could see, with literally thousands of shoppers streaming in. Shuttle buses were running from one end to the other to scoop up those daunted by the thought of having to walk a few hundred yards. Special golf carts carried the elderly and the obese. Synthetic perfume from countless scented candles wafted across the highway. My friends explained to me that the day after Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season — and this was what “open season” in America looked like.

In past years, I’ve frothed about how we should boycott yet another commercial calendar event imported from the US and shoehorned into our lifestyles and cultures. But in the last few days, I’ve found myself trawling the web, thinking “Maybe it might be a good day to replace the 25-year-old mattress that’s making my back ache.” For those on tight budgets who’ve been saving to replace an elderly household appliance like a fridge or stove, Black Friday might indeed be very useful.

But the frenzy to buy, buy, buy stuff, almost all of it on credit, seems a particularly stark sort of madness in the light of the research I’m doing on waste. The more I read, the more my hair stands on end as I see the connections between the global shift of capitalist production from thrift to a throwaway consumer culture — and trashing the planet. “Jobs!” “Growth!” “The economy!” shriek the politicians and the corporates, bent on extracting a few measly years of profit at any cost from unique, life-sustaining ecosystems that have developed over millennia, and which will take centuries to heal from our depredations. Worse, so few of the projects dangled in front of us as “job creation” do what they promise: offer secure employment at decent wages and with safe working conditions, other than for a small group at the top.

But this always happens: the more I look for handy tips on recycling and waste-free living, the more my research takes me up against a bleak and often terrifying coalface, with flocks of canaries as far as the eye can see shrieking “Danger! Danger! STOP THIS BEFORE WE ALL DIE HORRIBLY!” At which my blood pressure soars and I have to go for a walk and watch swallows wheeling through clouds of midges and evening light pouring honey all over the mountains. Which takes me back to the determination to do something, anything, so that the next generation actually has breathable air.

Meanwhile, I was struck by a phrase I found that described the ways in which we relate to and store stuff: “organised hoarding”. And it occurred to me that one way to change Black Friday into Green Friday would be to take an hour today to clear out our cupboards — of stuff we don’t need or haven’t used in a while. Then another half-hour on the web researching local charities and NPOs that will come and haul our goods away. The good folk at the Saartjie Baartman Centre tell me that they take ANYTHING. Any NPO that has clothing, bric-a-brac or book stores will be thrilled if you take them a carload of stuff that’s literally a waste of your space: just in my neighbourbood, there’s TEARS, Help The Rural Child, hospice shops and more. And I always like to give Oasis a mention — they recycle AND provide employment for intellectually disabled adults (plus their bakery in Imam Haron Road sells great chocolate shortbread).

Stop and take some time to think today. By all means, get your kids’ sports equipment and uniforms for next year if buying them today will truly save your pennies. But please consider getting rid of stuff, instead of buying more and more and more more more more. And that goes for that consumer nightmare impatiently revving its engines off-stage — Christmas. But that’s a topic for another blog. Now please excuse me: I’m going to check mattress prices online.

 Another soothing pic from a Maine Thanksgiving.

Another soothing pic from a Maine Thanksgiving.

Helen Moffett