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Nothing new in politics of consumption

Buy Nothing New Month encourages consumers to think about what they really need, reduce the environmental impacts associated with overconsumption and wastage, and save money. At the same time, there are opportunities for building relationships with friends, family and communities through borrowing, swapping and repairing goods, and for supporting charities by buying secondhand. Seems like a good thing?

But events in Sydney in the lead-up give insight into the intractabilities associated with the politics and economics of consumption. In late June, the City of Sydney Council passed a proposal to allow Buy Nothing New Month campaign organisers to use the Customs House forecourt free of charge for 10 days for a sustainable house installation promoting re-use, collaborative consumption and upcycling. Council viewed the event to be consonant with the environmental objectives of the Sydney 2030 plan and to provide opportunities to support businesses in the re-use sector.

A backlash from the retail sector ensued, the Premier Barry O’Farrell called the City’s actions “nuts at a time when the retail industry is performing so badly” and NSW Small Business Minister, Katrina Hodgkinson, said the Council was “irresponsible” and “out of touch with the reality and hardships small businesses face”. The City of Sydney defended itself by referring to its millions of dollars of expenditure over the financial year supporting retail in the city.

The global financial crisis and economic downturn have reminded us that our economy is only stable if it is growing – that is, if consumption is growing. If it is not, unemployment rises. And yet, the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet looms ever larger. Ecological economists have argued that it is unlikely that economies can dematerialise quickly enough to avert disaster. New macro-economics for post-growth economies are needed – not just the actions of consumers. As well as encouraging more mindful and collaborative consumption, perhaps initiatives like Buy Nothing New Month can help to put these issues on the public policy agenda.

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