Many, many years ago as a young student activist campaigning against the apartheid regime in South Africa I learnt a lesson about consumer politics that has stayed with me to this day. At the time we were handing out leaflets outside of a high street brand that was known to sell jewellery made from South African gold, at time when there was a voluntary boycott in place. The store manager came out and politely but firmly asked whether we knew the provenance of the clothes we were wearing, whether the conditions in the factories were ethical and whether there was any abuse of workers in the supply chain.
1-0 to the store manager.
The fact that almost thirty years later I’m still rehearsing the arguments I should have used is in some way testimony to the massive contradictions and tensions that exist in consumer politics. It is almost impossible to be entirely clean. There is always a trade off. And yet that shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction or used as some moral get out of jail free card.
Every action, every purchase is in some ways a political act. The topic comes to mind as I think about the preparations for the Christmas period. I’ve written before about the treatment of shop workers by angry Christmas shoppers. Young people who are paid minimum wage, not provided with proper training or uniform and then pushed out in front of the masses who are busy, anxious and pressurised. How we choose to act towards them is a reflection on ourselves and not them.
But it also relates to our arguments about the demise of the High Street as we shop on our phones. How we rage against work insecurity and zero hours contract as we wait for the same day delivery. How we worry about single use plastics as we order unnecessary and unneeded presents for people we don’t really like.
Of course no-one can be entirely righteous and one persons actions can’t change the whole, but we can choose to act in line with our own moral compasses, wherever they may point, and challenge ourselves when there are contradictions between our beliefs and our choices. Simply, we are defined not by our words, but by our actions. And at this time of the year too often we act in a way which falls short of our own moral standards.
All in the name of Christmas.
And on that thought I’m going to check out for a couple of weeks and come back at the beginning of the new year and the new decade when I’m sure there will be countless articles on new years resolutions, “look aheads” and “look backs” to rip into. In the meantime, however you choose to celebrate (or not) this Christmas time, I wish you peace, love, kindness and safety.