Do We Really Need All This Stuff?
In Stockholm there has been a small local protest going on this winter in one of its inner city districts. (Small in size, but it actually reached the Financial Times.) The issue that has raised these heated feeling is a plan to build a new indoor mall in an area traditionally characterized by local shops, cafes and restaurants. The experience we have with gallerias in Stockholm is that chains tend to take over and the local shops around disappear over time. And apparently, the inhabitants just have had enough of H&Ms and all the other Swedish chains that are mandatory in every shopping mall around the country, and want to keep the local urban environment.
In another survey, Swedish citizens were compared with those of the US and Russia in terms of attitudes and values and the results showed that the Swedes do value money and income as much as the Russians and the Americans. People with high incomes were not admired to the same extent in Sweden as people with knowledge, people with a lot of leisure time and the possibility to control your own work situation, and people that are good parents. The conclusion of the survey was that this is because Sweden has reached a so called post-materialistic stage in which other qualities in life such as personal development, etc, are higher valued. And it is true to a certain extent, but whether it depends on an advanced development stage or if it is due to almost a century of collectivism, social democracy and an even longer history of the so called “Jante Law” according to which no-one should stick out too much or believe themselves better than others, is another discussion. Regardless, I am not sure if I have been to any rich country where people are so concerned about environmental impacts and values nature as highly as in Sweden. Even as a kid more than 25 years ago, I had environmental classes in pre-school were we learned how to act in the forest or by the sea in order to not harm the wildlife and to not leave any traces behind. Before Christmas, a Swedish news paper even gave advice on how people could tackle their stress about global warming. And yet, I know few countries that where the people consume so much.
Every time I come to Stockholm it strikes me how much people shops. All the time. It might be that the larger cities in Sweden are an exception, but walking around in the main shopping areas an ordinary Saturday or Sunday afternoon, everyone you meet seem to be carrying several shopping bags in each hand. And not only are people well-dressed, but people are trendy. And the thing with trends is that they change all the time. But it has been possible for us to follow them thanks to chains like H&M, Zara, and Mango. We can even change our homes according to new interior design trends thanks to IKEA. Bad quality of course, but most of the time, I don’t even think people expect things to last for a longer period of time. They only want it to last for as long as it is trendy. Or just to have something while they look for something better. And if things against expectations break before we are done using it, we just through it away and buy a new one. As opposed to here in Moldova where people cannot afford to do that. This summer, I bought a pair of Euro 20 made-in-China-shoes in one of the Swedish chain shoe stores. Nice but not very long lasting as they were made out of some kind of synthetic silk. They broke in the seams after a few weeks, and I planned to just use them as they were throughout the season and then through them away, while I promised myself that hereafter I would only buy high quality footwear. But when my colleague spotted my broken shoes, she asked me why I did not just take them to the shoe repairer across the street. So I went over with my shoes and ended up paying a dollar to get them repaired. While I was there, I saw persons coming in, repairing their umbrellas. The same types that Bengalis sell for four euros a piece at every metro exit in Rome during rainy days. Those that break at the slightest wind blow and you therefore end up buying a new one of every other time it rains. You end up buying a new one because it is cheaper to do that than to have it repaired. But I seriously think there is something this picture.
It is in human nature to strive for more and this strive is obviously what has driven development from the beginning of time to now. Good health, material wealth and not the least unprecedented opportunities are all given to us due to this. But what about all the negative effects? All the negative environmental impacts and in certain cases even violations of human rights, just because we need to consume? My only question is: do we really need all this stuff? Isn’t there anything else we can put our money on that still contributes to economic development across the world? Or will we have to wait until the costs of environmental externalities and the future value of natural resources are included in the price before we change our consumption habits?