At Sinplástico we are a shop that fights against consumerism, even though it sounds contradictory. We know what an impact irresponsible and thoughtless buying has on the environment, on waste and on people’s happiness.
Therefore, as of last year, we have closed our shop on Black Friday as a type of protest and we do not join in on the regular sales (you can read about our philosophy here).
So, we did not want to let an opportunity like this pass us by, to delve deeper into this topic with one of the greatest experts in critical consumerism in the country: Laura Villadiego.
Laura is a journalist who specialises in work rights, human rights and the environment and co-founder of the collective “Carro de combate” (“Fighting trolley” in English). She also carries out research, about where what we buy comes from, and what social and environmental impact these production chains have.
She is also co-author of the book “Carro de comabte” that has just been republished by Clave editorial.
For those of us who have never given much thought to our buying habits, could you explain to us what the relationship is between thoughtless buying on the one hand, and the climate emergency and social inequalities on the other?
The relationship is super close. If we start to analyse what the causes of the climate emergency and social inequalities are, we find many are related to our production model.
The north-south relationship has carried on for centuries in which the production centres are all located in certain parts of the planet. The so-called “developed” nations took advantage of this unbalanced relationship, that has been around since the time of colonisation. It is something that continues today.
With the climate emergency upon us, it is more evident than ever. All the emissions are related, in one way or another, to our production and consumption. If we talk about energy consumption it becomes clear. The use of fossil fuels is the main cause of global warming, but if we break down the different emissions across the sectors we can see them in more detail. In our research “Rubbish fashion” we see that the fashion industry is the second highest producer of greenhouse gas emissions and not just due to the energy used by the factories, but also due to the transport of raw materials. In the end, all the production chains work the same way. The chains are very long, they require a lot of transport, and are very inefficient when it comes to the level of emissions because they use a large amount of fossil fuels.
It could seem like it’s not all that important when you buy a tshirt or some food, but in reality behind each and every one of these products there is a story that affects us all, it may seem as if it doesn’t have an impact, but the impact is there.
The name of our collective “Carro de combate” (Fighting Trolley in English) suggests that shopping is more than just an exchange of goods and services for money. Does buying from a company justify it’s actions?
I don’t believe we are justifying these actions in a conscious way, because often we do not know and we have no other alternatives within our reach. However, it is true that we allow the current situation to continue.
We think that consumers don’t have to punish themselves if they have to opt for an option that does not meet the critical consumerism requirements, but within the realms of possibility we do call for positive boycotting. Don’t focus so much on punishing certain companies, but instead on helping alternatives to exist and flourish.
Because, if we don’t establish this framework, in the end it will not be possible to change the system because an alternative model will not exist for us to follow.
In one study they asked a group of young people about what they believed was needed for a good life, and then they returned 16 years later and asked them again. What happened was that the scale of their desires had grown. Previously it was a car, later on it was a sports car. In psychology we call this “hedonic adaptation”, also known as “the hedonic treadmill”. On a consumer level, how can we change the system, starting with our own wishes and decisions?
I believe that those desires or wishes are part of our social environment. That is to say that socially we are told to think that this may be desirable. In the end, advertising plays a significant role.
One of the main strategies is to try to isolate oneself from this. It is challenging, but we can be critical of publicity an advertising that we receive, and be aware that advertising is no longer what it used to be: that recognisable advertisement. Now advertising is everywhere. In social media like Instagram they are selling lifestyles, that create these desires or needs because we too want to live that way.
So, one of the first things that we can do is, to be more aware that we live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with advertising and that this is prompting our desires and wishes. We also need to be critical of our own desires and realise whether the desire is coming from a real need and, if it is really going to make us that much happier.
You have spoken about the power that surrounds us. During the first lockdown a lot of people realised just how little they need to live. Do you think this is a trend that will last or that it is just a consequence of the collective momentum?
I think that it will not hang around, because the economic system as it stands need the wheel to keep turning and it will do everything possible to make that happen. All this indecision about whether bars should close, or if they should not close, yes they should close… what will result in the end, is that the wheel doesn’t stop turning or that it stops as little as possible.
It is true that it’s complicated, because given the system we currently live in, if people end up out of work, and this wheel is not turning, as we need money to lives, a lot of people will end up suffering from the consequences of the wheel stopping.
The problem is, we need to start thinking about how to live without this wheel constantly having to turn so fast. Because in the end what happens is, that the wheel turns so quickly in one direction and then it stops dead and starts turning the other way. We live through cycles of continuous crisis. We turn the wheel so quickly that it ends up flying off its axle.
How can we stop the wheel?
I don’t know if we are capable of this, but if we want to do so, one of the steps is re-localisation. We cannot keep living with a system in which everything we consume has travelled 10,000 or 15,000kms and in which the economic sector and the production processing sectors are so specialised that when one of them has a problem our whole society comes to a halt. This is what happened during the pandemic in the countries that produce textile products, as there were no orders millions of people ended up on the streets.
Even in Spain, where we are very dependant on tourism (the only export industry that takes place within the same country). As we can’t export our beaches or make it possible for international travellers to come here, we have seen a good part of our economy collapse. If we continue to follow the existing system, where even what we eat is manufactured far away, it is really difficult to ensure stability in the system.
The fundamental thing is to relocate and consider the options within the regional limitations. Thinking about what the point of balance and the production potential of each region is. It is not necessary to go back to the 1900s, because technology has changed and we need to take advantage of that. However, right now we have the opportunity to create more efficient production systems, but they need to be local. We are not doing this right now, because it is less profitable and give a lower return.
Do you mean stopping the wheel with some type of relocalisation and diversification of production at a regional level, for example?
Yes, generally people talk about a radius of 60-100kms. When talking about food, up to 250km. Diversification is necessary because, using food production as an example, the system of single-crop farming that has taken over in the last 50-60 years is having a terrible environmental impact.
If we don’t diversify our crop production we will not be able to re-establish pollinator populations. This is something that is a hot topic currently with farming policy reform, which has caused properties to merge resulting in the amplification and concentration of monoculture farming. The result is that populations of bees, rats, amphibians… have dropped dramatically. If we do not have these pollinators around, this means that flowers will go unpollinated and therefore will not turn into fruit. If the flowers don’t develop into fruit we will not have food to eat.
The studies show, that within 100 years there will probably not be enough biodiversity in Europe to ensure the ongoing future of crop propagation via natural means. The crops will need to be pollinated mechanically and this is a lot more costly. We are looking for the maximum return, pushing the wheel until it comes off its axle and the system crashes again.
It’s a short-term approach…
Of course it’s a short-term attitude. The idea is to make the books balance at the end of the year. In the end, the system works in a way that ensures that your investments return a profit. Your priority is profitability, not the quality of your production. Not even how much you sell. Your number 1 priority is, wondering about the dividend that you will be able to give your shareholders.
We can see this in big corporations. E.g. Inditex was a textile company but now they have a large number of businesses in other sectors, as they look to increase the dividend for their shareholders.
If that is your number 1 priority, you are going to try and reduce your costs in all areas even when you can’t or shouldn’t, and you won’t be concerned if one of your sectors crashes (as long as it is not a critical one). In the end, whilst you can suck it dry… the idea is to extract what you can and then get rid of it. They do this with whole sectors.
On our blog we give advice and alternatives for living plastic-free and contribute what we can to living in a way that damages the planet as little as possible, but sometimes we feel like it is a good start, but that it’s not enough: What collective activities could we sign up to in order to help make a change in the current consumer model?
I think that one of the main ways is to give visibility to our claims and demands. And to target those who we think are making decisions that are harming the greater good. E.g. plastic in supermarkets: Which supermarkets are enabling and even helping the growth of the amount of plastic packaging and which are not? All these things are important because the companies are very sensitive to this type of demand from the public.
Another important part is political action itself. Demanding that the political authorities change the legislation and that these types of business activities are not part of companies’ CSR (corporate social responsibility), but are instead compulsory.
This has been seen with the legislation of single use plastic. Once the change takes effect, there is no other option. That is the important thing, what makes things change is strong legislation, but to get to this point has taken many years of raising public awareness.
Could you give us some examples (at a consumer level) that show the power of the people when it comes to making changes in consumer habits?
In Spain, there are a whole heap of examples, simply starting with the collective consumer groups that minimise the production networks required.
Another interesting example is what is happening in school lunch canteens right now. The trend imposed by the legislation of the autonomous communities is to subcontract the school canteens to big corporations, but there are a number of schools in Spain that are demanding to have independent control of their own canteens. This results in a on-site school kitchen and more locally produced food.
In the Canary Islands, for example, they are called eco-canteens or sustainable school canteens. There are also some that are double as interesting because they incorporate school vegetable patches, so that the children learn about where the food we eat everyday comes from.
We have one last question. What would you say to someone who is thinking about all these questions, about the current consumer system, and who wants to help by starting to do something positive?
I would suggest starting by taking a deep breath and by not being too demanding of themselves. This is the most important thing to remember, because in the end it’s easy to be overwhelmed and to think that it’s all too difficult and will not make a difference anyway. It’s better to try and take small steps in the right direction.
Probably the most encouraging thing to do is, to analyse what part of your daily shopping habits is the most important in your day-to-day, and to identify where and how to make some easy changes. You should celebrate each triumph and every little step that you take in the right direction, and don’t punish yourself if you have to take a step back. Remember that sometimes it is necessary to take a step backwards because we don’t have any other option, as these alternative are not available to us.
I would also recommend being clear about what you want to achieve, which can be difficult sometimes but it gets easier once you start putting those new habits in place
Thank you Laura for this interview, it has helped to clarify things enormously.
Would you like to create your own collective consumer group?
At Sinplástico we make it easy for you. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will tell you how to reduce the environmental costs of your purchases and save money at the same time. Simply by creating a consumer group with those around you and shopping at our e-shop.