Although the key to urban sustainability lies in the magic formula of living smaller, living closer and driving less, it’s also important to reflect on the impact caused by our lifestyles.
Christmas hasn’t even begun and we’re already feeling the aftershocks of the US shopping bonanza. This sad occasion, ominously dubbed ‘Black Friday’, is held every year in the USA on the day after Thanksgiving.
Now, amid the avalanche of consumers and virtual riots, its influence is being felt outside the western world. Developing countries are rapidly becoming new markets for this consumerist orgy, and Colombia is no exception. In a country overwhelmed by poverty and inequality, Black Friday has now firmly set up stall.
Gone are the days when the opportunistic few escaped to empty out the malls of Miami, only to fight the airline counter workers to push through their excess baggage. Now, you can buy online ad nauseum (and schedule shipments through local companies), or simply go to several of the local chain stores that have learned so well how to copy this promotion of promotions.
So what’s the problem with Black Friday? For many, this day represents the very definition of unsustainability. It’s simple: you try to sell as much junk as possible, as cheaply as possible, using the bait of very low prices. In turn this attract customers who usually buy something else (researchers from Penn Station and the National University of Singapore have published extensively on this).
The major problem lies in the – even simpler – fact that most items bought in this macabre commercial invention respond to false needs, i.e things we simply don’t need. The rest might comprise replacements for things we already had, but which strangely stopped working; phones that last no more than a couple of years, half-used printers, and other schemes of planned obsolescence. “You only get one bite of the Apple…”
The number of things we need to own to be happy is a very personal decision; but as our patterns of consumption directly affect so many other people’s lives, we need to shoulder our fair share of the responsibility. This means understanding the consequences of the miserable wages and working conditions of the children who produce so many of the items made to satisfy our ‘shopping momentum’ (just before Black Friday, 112 people were killed in a Bangladeshi factory fire, a country where more than 15 per cent of workers are younger than 15 years old). We also need to be aware of the materials that go into manufacturing this rubbish, which we then so quickly discard.
A recent report by ‘La Silla Vacía’ has begun to put numbers on the growing black market in coltan, mined in the Guainía region of Colombia. This rare mineral, highly sought after for the production of electronics, has generated misery and war in so many other places where it has been discovered. Coltan is now rising slowly to prominence in a country that has bet its economic growth on an outdated ‘mining locomotive strategy’.
Still, it’s not for me to condemn the 5 per cent of Colombians who don’t know what else to spend their money on; it’s not for me to criticize them for being sucked into this pathological consumerist binge. But if I could reach them, I’d say the following: buy fewer things that you don’t really need, drive your car less, and give more back to your city. Think before you Paint it Black!
by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 3 December 2012. Images: Flickr / Steve Rhodes / Tony Hisgett; Rob Lavinsky / iRocks.com. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.