Every year, Black Friday, the highpoint of the consumerist calendar, brings us scenes of shoppers falling over each other in a scramble for cheap deals.
But does it have to be like this?
How ads drive consumerism
Black Friday, and its companion Cyber Monday, encourages us to buy more stuff, particularly clothes and electronics.
But every year 2 million tonnes of electronic waste goes to landfill, and one quarter of items in the average Briton’s wardrobe have never been worn. That’s £200 a year wasted on rags we don’t even wear!
And still we’re pushed to buy more by ads like these
Wherever you go today you’re likely to see adverts. They’re on the TV, online, in papers, on billboards and beamed into our eyes from an increasing number of public digital screens.
Adverts tell us what to want, but even worse they tell us how to feel.
Think about an advert you’ve seen recently. Did the advert give you meaningful information about the product or did it just show you images of good-looking people looking happy near to the product?
Advertising manipulates us into wanting things we don’t need by marketing those things as the key to happiness and fulfilment, often at the expense of our actual happiness and fulfilment.
The cost of consumerism
We all love a bargain, and with the cost of living crisis we’re all looking to save a few quid.
But those Black Friday deals carry hidden costs.
We know that consumption is bad for the planet.
The global fashion industry is responsible for 8% of all global carbon emissions, more than aviation and shipping combined.
Cotton relies on massive amounts of insecticides, even as insect numbers plummet around the world, while synthetic fibres like polyester are a major source of ocean microplastic pollution.
But did you know that advertising itself is a major part of the problem?
Digital ad screens consume vast amounts of energy, each one using the equivalent of up to 30 average UK homes.
As you’d guess, all that advertising results in higher sales. If you add up the greenhouse gas emissions from those sales, advertising adds 28% to the carbon footprint of every single person in the UK.
The story of consumerism is a story of exploitation.
Take fast fashion. Before clothes arrive at the shops farmers must grow the cotton using carcinogenic fertilisers and pesticides, cotton pickers must perform backbreaking labour, and mainly women work in sweatshops making the clothes in dangerous conditions.
When thrown away, electronics can end up in gigantic e-waste dumps in places like Thailand, which receives 50 million tonnes each year from Europe alone.
As a report written for Adfree Cities last year put it: ‘Consumerism is not a trend or a way of life, it is a fundamental violation of multiple human and environmental rights and needs to be named as such.’
Advertising is less about satisfying existing needs than about creating new ones. It’s a game designed so that you can’t win, but you’ll keep paying to play again and again and again.
In The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser argues that the search for fulfilment through cultural values typically associated with advertising (money, possessions, image and social status) is undermining our wellbeing.
Impossible beauty ideals are used regularly in advertising which can result in anxieties about our body image and lower our self-esteem. Worries about weight loss, wrinkles and other natural signs of ageing are pounced on by advertisers and exploited to sell us products.
What you can do
Campaigns like Buy Nothing Day promote anti-consumerism and the pleasure of simply letting go of the need to buy things.
Adblock groups in cities like Bristol and Norwich in the UK are pushing their local councils to introduce bans on harmful advertising, and taking creative action to oppose advertising’s relentless promotion of consumerism. Find an Adblock group near you.
Adfree Cities also has a running petition calling on the government to switch off digital billboards at night in a bid to save energy and protect us from intrusive adverts 24/7.