In Buy Nothing New Month, is there such a thing as ethical consumption?

It’s hard to resist… antwerpenR

Melbourne’s myriad laneways are at one turn dark and lifeless cul-de-sacs, and at another, splendid window-front galleries. Exhibits of colourful ceramics, velvet tiers of artisan jewellery and delicate silk scarves give way to a showcase of imported shoes and elegant handbags that are a snap at $1,500.

But what enchants can also repel: down in the underpass a makeshift bed is not an art installation.

Such was my day of leisure. Having begun the day in one part on the CBD I end it in another that takes me to my favourite independent clothing store.

The sales assistant – let’s call her Candice – and I always have a good old natter about everything from the change of seasons to world affairs.

On this particular day I managed both, but these exchanges – the conversation and the purchase – were uniquely contextualised by the ethics of consumption.

As I picked through racks of clothes, passing on some and earmarking others, Candice explained that October was Buy Nothing New Month. She and her friends had taken the pledge and, to date, had resisted temptation.

Happily, they could still go out for dinner and drinks. Buying food and personal hygiene products is also allowed during BNNM. As Candice further explained, you can pretty much buy anything you please – books, CDs, and clothes – as long as they are second-hand.

As Candice enthusiastically espoused the ethical aims and ambitions of BNNM, I stood before her, a customer fairly itching to buy. The uncomfortable silence that risked settling between us was thwarted by my cash purchase of a floral blouse: cha-ching, cha-ching.

For many of us, life revolves around shopping. Take a break. yooperann

All of this got me thinking about the ethics of consumption and the underpinning logic of the Buy Nothing New campaign. The irony was not lost on me: if I had not gone into a shop to buy something — and a new something at that — I would have remained oblivious to the campaign. I resolved to learn more.

An initial Google search yielded a number of fashion blogs, the authors of which bemoaned their shopping abstinence while lauding themselves on their thrift.

One blogger admitted to embarking on a shopping frenzy in the last days of September. Another had committed to the pledge but added an exemption clause of her own that permitted her to buy beauty products and make-up. Others were happily compiling reward lists of what they would buy at the end of the month.

One could assume that the undertaking of these bloggers was a shopping galaxy away from that of Candice and her friends. But the concept of ethical consumption is always apprehended subjectively.

A similar observation can be made about Earth Hour. A good friend of mine who dutifully turns her lights off for an hour each year in the interests of saving the planet recently announced she is having an air-conditioner installed this summer.

Although Earth Hour may be an effective consciousness-raising exercise, for people like my friend it means they can ignore their carbon consumption for the remaining 8,759 hours of the year. If I asked my friend if she considered herself to be an ethical person who continues to do her bit for the environment she would unequivocally say yes.

So who decides what is ethical consumption? Indeed, who decides what is ethical? The very concept “ethical consumer” is fraught with complexity. One person’s ethical and moral compass can point in an entirely different direction to another’s.

What happens to your shiny new stuff when you get sick of it? Unlisted Sightings

The ethical consumer might be motivated by any number of different environmental, social or political concerns. Understandings of consumption – ethical or otherwise – proceed from a position of morality.

This moral landscape is inevitably the domain of the privileged. The call to consume less ignores the plight of the 2 billion and more who, through poverty and circumstance, hardly need to be told to curtail their consumption.

Logging on to the official BNNM website I was encouraged to sign up and take the pledge. Although I did so, I confess it was only in the spirit of research.

I learned that BNNM is neither about deprivation nor is it about never buying anything new again. Rather, it is challenging us to think about over-consumption and to think about the connection between declining resources and growing landfill.

In Australia, 20 million tonnes of waste goes into landfill. Australians spend more than $10 billion a year on goods they never use including DVDs, CDs, and clothing. Such mindless consumption should shock us all out of complacency.

It occurred to me that the three-minute short film on the website – which depicts the mountains of waste dumped in the backyards of developing countries – should be mandatory viewing in shopping malls.

Around the World in 80 Dumps, by Amy Hanson.

The website also has a congratulatory note about Alice Cooper taking his BNNM seriously for having purchased a jacket from the Salvos earlier in the month. This of course raises the moral question of whether that jacket might have been best left for the genuinely needy consumer.

But if this highlights the moral ambiguities of ethical consumption, it is the BNNM competition that truly confounds. Participants of BNNM can go into the draw to win $5,000. And the point? To go shopping of course.

The BNNM competition surely signals the campaign’s complicity with that which it seeks to reject. By implication, the project of anti-consumption becomes in and of itself, a commodity.

As BNNM draws to a close the world’s population has reached 7 billion. Does this mean we are to consume more or less? And so the ambiguities and complexities of ethical consumption remain just that.