To consume differently has become a political act


A growing number of citizens are looking for new alternatives to their consumption patterns. They are becoming aware that this can become a political act. Because the act of buying is a way of voting economically and participating in changing the world.

Alternative consumption can be a way to change the world, to change yourself and to vote with your wallet. Indeed, consumption guides the production choices of companies, some of which carry more weight than certain States in international social and environmental policy. This is why new consumers are seeking to buy and produce differently and above all to consume less, in order to change their own lives and to help meet climate and environmental challenges, to fight against rising stress at work and persistent unemployment.

The 6 dimensions of "cultural creativity
The new consumers are often among the "cultural creatives", who represent about 17 % of the French population.

According to Worms, there are 6 concomitant dimensions necessary to be called "cultural creative":

  • respect the environment and its health ;
  • the role of women in society (and that the values of cooperation should supplant competition) as important;
  • keep a distance from appearances, so prefer to be rather than have;
  • take an interest in personal development, even spirituality;
  • have a concrete societal involvement;
  • have a multiculturalist approach to society.

Individual self-limitation is one of the principles of "happy sobriety", as Pierre Rabhi put it, or of Burch's "voluntary simplicity" or Paul Ariès' "degrowth". Convivial poverty and happy sobriety therefore presuppose the satisfaction of one's physical, material and psychological needs.

Happy sobriety also aims at developing the psychological qualities of the human being (detaching oneself from the need to possess, to consume, to power, to forget oneself in activism...), qualities that it is necessary to acquire in order to be able to really implement this self-limitation, with a view to an equitable sharing of resources among all living beings.

In this sense, vegetarian consumption is increasing because eating less meat allows believers to improve both their physical and spiritual health, to contribute to the fight against animal suffering, to limit damage to the environment and the climate, and to avoid competing with food production in the poorest countries. Indeed, it is necessary to provide animals with seven vegetable proteins in order to produce one animal.

Work less to earn less, consume less and live better

This is one of the fundamental paradigms of some new consumers and in particular of the declining ones, such as Paul Ariès. It is therefore the opposite of "working more, to earn more", polluting more and stressing more!

In radical social ecology, people want to share work so that everyone is entitled to it, since there are too many unemployed. They try to work less to increase time for themselves and others.

The need to consume feeds on the fear of lack, generating the need to possess. Consuming allows us to try to give love to ourselves or to overcome the fear of material insecurity. But, in the latter case, this fear can lead to accumulating not goods but money and, conversely, to consuming as little as possible this time.

Another fear is that of not being recognized because of a lack of self-esteem. The latter is based on the fear of not being loved for one's skills, power, therefore the fear of being weak. It generates a need to consume in order to be esteemed in the eyes of others and oneself.

The Do-it-yourself Current (DIY).

It concerns activities aimed at creating objects of everyday use, technological or artistic objects by hand, such as knitting, sewing, handmade jewellery, ceramics... But also, recycling activities, self-publishing of works... or even the making of traditional medicines, such as phytotherapy. One of the first beginnings of this trend was the Whole Earth Catalogwhich was established in 1968 in the United States. It was a catalogue with a wide range of objects, such as clothes, books, tools, machines or even seeds, but did not sell any of these products directly.

Biffin markets" are another concrete recycling practice of the working classes. There are between 500 and 1,000 dealers in objects recovered from Paris garbage bins who come to the Porte de Montreuil to try to resell their discoveries.

Sober Practice Ideas
Here is a list of practices, voluntary or forced, of the working or poor classes, which are sometimes unknowingly inspired by the supporters of happy sobriety or DIY:

  • the predominantly vegetarian consumption (due to lack of means) rather than meat at every meal
  • public transport and cycling rather than driving a car
  • the force of animal traction rather than the tractor (especially in developing countries)
  • repair rather than throw away after use
  • salvage, resell (garage sales, website...), or buy second hand, rather than buying new
  • lending, or renting rather than buying exchange, for example with local exchange systems (LETS), rather than buying back
  • friendly or family mutual aid rather than payment to private service providers
  • mastery of simple technologies rather than reliance on advanced technology
  • self-construction of one's home rather than by an outside company
  • produce for subsistence rather than productivism aiming at endless accumulation
  • allotments and allotment gardens rather than the supermarket shelf...

The freegans are an even more radical movement: they intend to live only from the recovery of the waste of the consumer society. Both to avoid polluting and also to emancipate themselves from dependence on consumption and salaried work, which they consider alienating.

Similarities between happy sobriety, poverty and popular culture

Economist Thomas Piketty has shown that in 2015 the 10 richest % individuals on the planet (which includes a large part of the western middle classes) emit 45 % of CO2 emissions. Consequently, it is the poorest who pollute the least, contrary to what we hear in the dominant discourse, simply because they cannot afford to pollute much?

From an ecological and social ethical point of view, the decline in consumption should start with the richest individuals, as they are the ones who generate the largest ecological footprint, and therefore have the greatest burden on the environment and natural resources.

While the poor are fragile, Jean Robert and Majid Rahnema assert that there is a "power of the poor" in their book of the same name. That is to say, an ability to detach oneself from dependence on unlimited consumption and the need to "appear", thanks to a culture of happy sobriety.
However, with regard to the latter, there are two risks of drift: on the one hand, confusing poverty with misery (which is the failure to meet basic needs) and, on the other hand, developing degrowth to allow the richest to consume for longer. Between these two excesses, there is a third way: the social policy of happy sobriety or social ecology, including a policy of redistribution of wealth and a policy of environmental justice (preservation of the environment also for the poorest, the polluter-pays principle, eco-taxes, quotas...).

Fair and ethical labels

These solidarity labels are a form of North-North fair trade. Fair trade represents only a tiny part, with about 0.04 %, of world trade. Nevertheless, its usefulness lies mainly in raising citizen awareness, one of the main interests of fair trade. NGOs that intend to reconcile fair trade, ecology and economic autonomy seek to import products from the South, limiting themselves, for example, to local handicrafts (art objects, clothing...), so as not to diminish the food crops of producers in the South or, for certain products, not to compete with small producers in the North. They only import food that cannot be grown in Northern countries, such as chocolate or coffee. However, even this type of food can limit food agriculture, since local populations cannot feed themselves mainly on coffee, for example.

Codes of conduct are developing

These are voluntary commitments by companies to respect at least minimum labour standards. In the absence of regulation of social standards by the sanction of public international organizations at the international level, it can be considered, in a way, that ethical instruments represent a relative advance in terms of the "moral responsibility" of transnational corporations. However, moral commitment is less binding than strong sanctions exercised by a State. However, organic or fair trade labels and codes of conduct do not have a truly independent verification system because the verifiers are paid by the very people they control. For example, the European Clean Clothes Campaign has repeatedly denounced the non-respect of codes of conduct adopted by transnational companies.

There are many commonalities between the consumption practices of proponents of happy sobriety, voluntary simplicity, degrowth, social ecology, cultural creativity and popular culture, especially with individual self-limitation. They often seek to work less in order to earn less, consume less and, above all, live better. Indeed, the "need" to consume is fed by two main fears: the fear of missing out and the fear of not being recognized.

Solidarity and proximity labels

Traditionally, fair trade has been considered to be about North-South relations, however the Minga Association Considers that South-South and even North-North relations must also be developed. The Max Havelaar Association Considers that, given the very great differences in working conditions, such as child labour, it would be better to create a "solidarity label" for North/North trade and a "fair trade label" for South/North trade.

At present, "solidarity labels" are being developed, such as "...". Ecocert Solidaire ", or " Bio Solidaire "These guarantee the social standards of certain products that are part of the solidarity economy (which promotes economic democracy, non-lucrativity, support for the excluded, etc.) and the local economy.
The latter includes the Amap (Association pour le Maintien de l'Agriculture Paysanne), which consists of the creation of a consumer association to buy directly from the producer. This reduces the middlemen, thus increasing the profits of small producers. It allows them to no longer be exploited by the large distribution companies in a situation of oligopoly. Indeed, the latter become rich thanks to front and back margins that are so high that small producers no longer manage to earn a decent wage and end up disappearing one after the other. This also makes it possible to relocate production, reduce transport, thus reducing CO2 emissions and global warming, and to humanize the consumption relationship by creating a direct link with the producer. Finally, it can reinforce the transparency of sanitary quality, the reliability of organic farming and its traceability, since it is easier to go on site to observe the producer's practices. However, this is not an absolute guarantee as the consumer is not present all the time.

Winter and summer sales periods are generally more financially attractive. As a result, the less fortunate may make almost all of their non-food purchases during sales. However, doesn't this pose a problem in terms of the environment, especially overproduction? Indeed, low prices often push the consumption of sometimes useless products, which swell the already well-stocked cupboards! In thinking we make money, we sometimes lose money in useless expenses.





Co-author of " 6 paths to a solidarity-based degrowthThierry Brugvin et al, Editions du croquant - Chronique Sociale, 2017

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Première publication 02/03/2020

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