Book Review: “The Day the World Stops Shopping” by JB Mackinnon

This book is a thought experiment in reduced consumption. It puts forward a dramatic and radical future of a world without shopping and backs it up with many contemporary examples. For this review I’ve pulled out information that resonated personally but I’m sure other readers will find many more nuggets to inspire them within the pages.

TitleThe Day the World Stops Shopping: How ending consumerism gives us a better life and a greener world
PublisherVintage Publishing
Publish Date3 June 2021
LanguageEnglish
TypeHardback
EAN/UPC9781847925473
BIC CategoriesSocial & cultural history
Environmental economics

Mackinnon states that when the human world retreats the natural world advances, so much of our consumption habits have unintended consequences for the ecology of an area and a lasting effect on biodiversity. For example, when we build a new shopping centre on a stretch of land, animals and insects don’t just move elsewhere – we think they flee when the bulldozers move in but they don’t, they just die or are maimed and slowly killed. 50 million Australian mammals, birds, reptiles die each year due to land clearing in two states alone.

Many of the current issues in the world are driven by human patterns of consumption that are out of control. The book begins by giving examples of societies that are not focused on material consumption, where life is lived within adequate environmental boundaries, such as the Ju|’hoansi, a tribe indigenous to Southern Africa. Mackinnon then works through a number of other examples, and highlights sleepy Sado Island in Japan as a contrast to high tech Tokyo. Ecuador is an example of a country where consumption is potentially within manageable limits, while still meeting the basic modern material needs of all people – such as electricity, TV, phones. There’s a strong sense of community, a lack of advertising and reduced shopping pressure within society.

Everyone Everyday

The brilliant Barking and Dagenham project, Everyone Everyday, gets a mention. The project provides residents with twenty opportunities each day to participate in a free activity with their neighbours within fifteen minutes of their home. It has transformed the outlook and raised happiness levels for thousands of people in these deprived London boroughs. It is a radically doughnut style project where people have become happier through occupation and community engagement. Quality of life can be improved for people without any money changing hands demonstrating that less consumerist, alternative lifestyles are possible and attractive.

All the C’s

Consumption is often driven by the ‘Three C’s’ – Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience. As a suggestion I would also add Comparison to this list.

Comfort – The temperature at which people keep their homes has risen steadily over the last century. In 1923 in the US, 18° C (64.4° F) was normal but this rose to 24.6° C (76.3° F) in 1986 dropping to 22° C (72° F) in 2014.

Cleanliness – how often we shower is a social norm. People used to bathe once per week but now every day is normal. Clothes are now washed five times more often than 100 years ago. People also buy new clothes when they think they look scruffy, this is driven by a fear of looking poor as status is often indicated by clothing.

Convenience – Various appliances, car journeys, packaged food, take-out, ready meals, take away drinks are all items on the increase that are driven by convenience. We are time poor but convenience rich, cutting back on consumption often leads to more time and so less need for convenience.

Comparison – Cars, holidays and houses are often bought with a view to impress peers and neighbours. Fashion also fits into this category. Being ’rich’ or ‘wealthy’ is purely defined by the habits and lifestyles of people around you. How do you compare to your peers?

If we consider each of these terms you can identify the main reasons for a large amount of purchasing. If we start to question this in our daily lives you can start to understand why we consume.

In my opinion we need to counteract all the consumption C’s with another one – Confidence! Confidence to behave differently from the norm and set your own agenda.

Back to the 70’s

The book mentions that technology keeps driving change without society stopping to think why. Why do we need wireless headphones or a bigger iPad? If we all went back to the kind of lifestyle people had in the 1970’s in the western world, we’d be fine. This would be a radical enough adjustment to make a difference to climate change. People didn’t have air conditioning, often our houses were freezing, we hardly ever ate out and presents were a real treat, not the norm. We also had tiny televisions and much smaller fridges. Life was OK wasn’t it? Most adults can imagine a period of less consumption and it should be possible to pivot back to those times. I think we can all agree that we need a washing machine (or easy access to one) and a TV but could we do without dishwashers and massive fridges? Can we go back to summer holidays without flying? I’m pretty sure we could.

Sufficiency

The book also raises the point that wherever money flows, it makes its mark. Even if you choose not to purchase physical items, spending money counts in simple terms. In the US, every dollar spent translates to an average of 0.25kg of green house gas emissions. Services also have a footprint although some are less than others. As we are all probably aware, the introduction of energy efficient appliances did not lead to lower energy use, it just meant we bought more or bigger appliances. They’ve found that an owner of an electric car may make more frequent short journeys than someone with a petrol car because they feel less guilty about doing so. Similarly, someone who choses to eat vegan may fly more.

‘Sufficiency’ behaviour is highlighted – this is when you genuinely start slowing down and radically cut back. These people are often as happy, or more so, than those with mainstream consumer habits. These people only buy groceries, they rarely buy new clothing, don’t own dishwashers, or take long-haul flights or extravagant holidays. They live a simple life of gardening and reading for entertainment. Researchers are trying to work out what makes some people embrace sufficiency when so many others do not.

A study by Maren Ingrid Kropfeld identified four types of people who resist mainstream consumer habits – environmentally conscious consumers, (people who try to live green lifestyles); frugals (taking pleasure in saving money), tightwads (people who hate spending money) and voluntary simplifiers (those who actively chose to spend less). The study concluded that the voluntary simplifiers had much more success than any of the other groups at reducing their consumption, it highlighted the issues with green consumption as not making much difference at all. People who live with less should be our role models not those who live green lifestyles.

We should make the prices of goods tell the whole truth, incorporate all the ‘costs’ such as carbon, transport, natural extraction, subsidised wages, within the consumer price tag and not shift or hide them elsewhere. The literal meaning of consume is to exhaust what existed before, to leave nothing behind. Instead of wanting something you don’t have, look at what you do have.

Rebound

There are two sides to every story and even the simplest solutions to consumerism – such as buying fewer things – can rebound. For example, you may buy a well-made expensive pair of shoes. This purchase involves others in the supply chain being paid a fair wage, but they may choose to spend it in ways that are not aligned with your values. You may choose to take language lessons and pay a tutor, thinking this is a low impact activity, but you have no control over what the tutor spends that money on. This is called the rebound effect, an important concept I had not come across before. There are not many ways to avoid the rebound effect, some suggestions are: donate to charities that directly reduce consumption – such as libraries or give to charities or agencies that meet people’s basic needs. You could eliminate your debt, purchase less harmful things such as camping gear to replace flights you will no longer take, you might demand a higher tax rate from government or you could stop accumulating cash by working less. It’s not easy.

Conclusion

Once pointed out in an engaging manner, the radical concepts within the book seem less so. It had not occurred to me that I could work less, earn less and that this would help me stop buying things. Maybe I should aim to pay off my mortgage much sooner rather than retaining disposable income? I think the book shows that change is possible, and people can be nudged in the right direction with good examples. As a Doughnut group I think this is within our power, we can set the scene and create lived examples.

The book doesn’t have all the answers, but it joins a lot of dots and makes some really good suggestions with real life examples about how we could forge a better future. It’s also an engaging and easy read and I highly recommend it. We can build a new economy that’s smaller and slower, of fewer but better things. People will earn less and spend less but in return will have more time and hopefully a much greater feeling of fulfilment.


Book Review: “The Day the World Stops Shopping” by JB Mackinnon