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

 

Gill’s new coat

By way of an attempt to explain the philosophy of our chosen lifestyle I offer you, Gill’s new coat.

Ta daa!

Ta daa!

There are many aspects to what we are trying to achieve with our simple way of life, but one of the components of it is cutting out waste. By that I mean not just wasteful packaging or throwing food away because we fell for that unbelievable value deal in the supermarket, but questioning everything we do and everything we buy and asking ourselves if we are being wasteful. Cutting out short term immediate waste by using less paper towels or switching off lights that aren’t required is obvious and just requires a little bit of willpower and a change in habits. What I call long term waste that takes years to manifest itself is harder to identify but Gill’s new coat is a good example of how we are trying to combat it.

She has had a variety of waterproof coats over the years and we used to go for what I would call reasonable quality at a reasonable price; maybe around £40. They usually last a couple of years before their waterproof qualities are gone and they stop being functional or components like zippers fail. Her new coat cost at least five times more than we are used to paying but per year it should work out cheaper. It is made by a really interesting company who genuinely don’t seem to want you to replace your coat every two or three years. The coat has a lifetime guarantee against faulty materials and workmanship (well workwomanship actually) and when it does wear out they will take it back as a deposit on a new one, promising to either find it a new home or using whatever they can from it to recycle into new materials. I have been following the growth of this company for years and recently I have seen more and more of their products both in the hills and on the high street so word seems to be spreading. They make some great gear but they are also making a real difference too. They are called Paramo and it’s worth looking them up and reading a bit about their philosophy as well as their products. 

P1030589

Owners of Paramo waterproof jackets often talk in terms of tens of years of life and of sending them back to the manufacturer for new zips to be fitted or damage to be repaired to extend their life even further. I know Paramo is not alone in this attitude to manufacturing and longevity but they are quite rare and I find it very refreshing. Of course it flies in the face of the whole materialism based infrastructure that our economy relies on but they are concrete proof that there really is an alternative way of doing things. So long as you can get used to the idea of wearing the same coat for ten or even twenty years it makes absolute sense. I can almost hear cries of alarm at such an idea but isn’t that exactly where we have gone wrong. We have fostered the idea of buying stuff for the pleasure of buying it, rather than to fulfil a need. We seem to have completely distorted the reason for shopping and turned possessions into a class A drug that will give us a short fix but will always leave us craving more. Gill’s new coat is all about the long term satisfaction that remains long after the buzz of the purchase is over.

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I sometimes feel like I am banging a lonely tambourine with this kind of post but then to my delight I saw a link today to an article saying almost exactly what I am thinking. If you are interested in buying less often by buying quality I can heartily recommend this post. I can’t vouch for the web site ‘buymeonceas I haven’t tried it myself and I’m not convinced by everything they are recommending but as a concept I think they are absolutely spot on.

“Less is more” – Robert Browning

 

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