Shopping smarter, the BBC way.

There was an interesting program on the BBC last night. It wasn’t completely original, I saw something similar last year but I am intrigued by the message it is giving out at prime time and the assumption that there is sufficient interest in the subject. It was titled, ‘Shop well for less’, but I don’t think that title tells the whole story of what it was about.

The basic premise, if you didn’t see it, or can’t be bothered catching it here, was to take a family that shop really badly and consequently overspend, throw in a bathroom project in their house that has been unfinished for years because they are short of cash and show them how much they could save by shopping smarter. I’m not here to comment on the detailed content or quality of the program but I am very interested in what it had to say.

I suppose there are several ways of viewing this kind of show; you could see it as a useful educational tool that explains the value of shopping more thoughtfully and questioning not just how much you buy but also what brands and whether or not you are getting value for money. On the other hand, you could view it as an anti-consumerism message and thus part of a small historic movement that has always questioned the whole concept of acquiring stuff simply because we can.

On a different level again you could say the program was encouraging us to fight back against the fierce onslaught of the advertising industry. There was an element of blind testing revealing that top brands aren’t always the best value and neither is price an indicator of quality in all cases. To the producer’s credit they also acknowledged that sometimes paying more for quality works out cheaper in the long run.

The biggest unanswered question that it left in my mind though, was would such a program have any impact? I doubt it myself. The program lasted an hour and during that time it appealed to people to think before buying and to question the claims of advertisers. In the same period, on a multitude of commercial channels, tens if not hundreds of hours of advertisements were broadcast. Millions of sales e-mails were dispatched and in the same time thousands of minds were dreaming up new ways of convincing us to buy things that we may, or may not, need. Then there are the magazines we read, the bill boards that assault our senses every day and the mountains of junk mail that pile up behind our doors. All this verses a one hour TV program; it’s hardly a fair competition is it?

I do believe there might be a glimmer of hope in all this though. The fact that it isn’t the first program of its kind is encouraging, but more important still, is the time that it was broadcast and its position on a major channel like BBC1. The cynic in me believes that its main appeal might be in its voyeuristic intrusion into another family’s life so that we can all enjoy gasping with incredulity at the stupidity of the mum and dad that go out to buy winter coats for their boys and come home with bedding and clothes for themselves and the children but not the coats that they went for. Having said that, it was pretty hard hitting when it came to advertising and there were some strong messages about buying what we actually need rather than what the marketing gurus tell us we need. It’s not going to bring about the death of consumerism or drag the advertising industry to its knees overnight but it’s an encouraging step towards questioning the whole crazy business of what we buy and why we do it. There are plenty of examples of consumers winning victories over suppliers and turning the tables on who is in control of what we buy. In the 1970’s the large UK breweries were determined to phase out unprofitable and unpredictable real ale in favour of cheap-to-produce and stable keg beers. The Campaign for Real Ale was formed to combat this move and by people power alone they reversed the strategy of the suppliers completely. It is now almost impossible to find a pub in the UK that doesn’t serve real ale. Admittedly what we are talking about here is different; this isn’t just a suggestion that people should choose to buy a different product but that they actually refrain from buying a lot of things completely. That’s a much bigger ask, I agree.

Most people I talk to understand that unrestrained consumption, by an ever increasing population, on a planet of finite resources doesn’t add up. I am hoping that a program like this, being broadcast on a mainstream channel and at prime time is an indicator that challenging thoughtless consumerism isn’t quite as off the wall as it used to be. It’s only a very faint glimmer of hope but it’s better than total darkness.

Buy one get one free. If only that was an option

Buy one planet, get one free. If only that was an option

 

Desperately seeking justification

newspaper

I know, I know. Having nailed my colours firmly to the mast and banged on about living a simpler life in the last post, I had better deal with the very obvious elephant in the room, namely a brand new car that we will be picking up next week. With all this talk about the freedom of owning less stuff it might strike you as slightly at odds to be burdening ourselves with a car on a finance deal. I confess that I am not entirely comfortable with the decision but it’s made now so I suppose I ought to at least try and justify it.

Sometime last year I watched a TV program about people living in basic shelters in the woods. (Before you start, we have discussed getting rid of the TV on many occasions but for now, at least, it’s staying. Get over it.) They were off grid, living partially self-sufficiently and completely shunning the modern, materialistic way of life. No car, no TV, no electricity etc. etc. I admired them. What they were doing was extreme and frankly, not for me, but it doesn’t mean that they weren’t pioneers; challenging the status quo and giving us all something to think about. I see them a bit like the fashion designers that flaunt their latest creations on the catwalks of Milan and Paris. Nobody actually expects the average man or woman to be walking the streets of Nottingham in a space suit with a tambourine on their head next year, but some faint echo of the designs will filter through to everyday fashion for sure. It’s the same with people that take ways of living to the absolute extreme; we don’t have to copy them but we can take ideas from them and adapt them to our own lives. Gill and I are not ready to abandon our limited possessions and build a tree house just yet, and neither are we prepared to live without a car; but it’s not so much the car, as the brand new car, that I am having trouble adjusting to. This is how it came about.

Our previous car was fourteen years old and, a bit like me, it was suffering from fatigue. It was probably more of a perception issue than anything but we seemed to be getting overly familiar with the staff at our local garage. There was no doubt that what the car really needed was a new owner. Preferably a mechanic. Having put it up for sale on the Autocar website I began typing in the parameters of the kind of car we were looking for at a price we could afford. Well if websites could laugh this one would have been doubled up in stitches, rolling about on the floor and wiping its eyes; probably with an oily rag. I don’t know what possessed me but in a moment of madness I looked to see if we could get a 0% finance deal on a new car instead. I won’t bore you with the details of the sums involved* but they went a bit like this:

The cost of owning the old car over three years, taking into consideration purchase and sale prices, and adding in tax, insurance, repairs and servicing came to about £96 per month.

The new smaller car on 0% finance, including servicing and being exempt from vehicle tax, would cost £94 per month.

Factor in the £2500 deposit we have to pay (which effectively stays in the residual value of the car) and which might have generated about £110 in interest at current rates in an ISA, and you can see that the new car is no more expensive than the old one and hopefully it won’t want to spend half its life in the garage. It’s also a bit greener. (In a bright red kind of way.) Despite everything we were trying to do to be less materialistic we just couldn’t deny the maths and whilst desperately trying to convince the salesman that we weren’t really new car kind of people we signed on the dotted line and slunk out of the showroom trying ever so hard not to grin like a pair of Cheshire cats.

And here is my feeble attempt at seeking justification for our decision:

Whilst we don’t feel ready to give up on owning a car completely we do want to do less driving and make more use of the bikes, public transport and walking. The deal on the new car plays right into our hands because there is a limited mileage clause in the finance package which restricts us to an average 27.4 miles per day. Extra miles will result in a financial penalty at the end of the agreement. Enter stage right……… a spreadsheet! Yes I intend to monitor our mileage and use the mileage cap as an incentive to do more utility cycling and less driving. That way we get fitter and we save the planet into the bargain. Win, win.

I still feel uncomfortable though. Even more so because while I am sat at home writing this and listening to the rain hammering at the windows, Gill is at work. She went on her bike!

Hardy cyclist leaves for work

Hardy cyclist leaves for work

*If you really want to see it send me your e-mail address and I’ll mail it to you. (I promise I won’t tell anybody else that you asked for it.)

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