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All I want for Christmas is an anti-consumerist backlash

Seasonal indulgence may be forgiven, but the ‘too much stuff’ message is cutting through

It's Christmas Eve, which means Irish consumers are tapping away another chunk of the €4.9 billion Retail Ireland forecasts we will collectively spend this month. Meanwhile, Pope Francis is likely preparing his usual midnight mass warning against the "virus" of consumerism.

Too late, you might say: by tonight, the shops will have been stripped bare of everything except David Cameron’s memoir and the last of the mistletoe-scented toilet roll.

Perhaps anticipating this timing issue, the pope also tends to use the first Sunday of Advent to plead with followers to “resist the blinding lights of consumerism”. This year, that particular candle-equipped starting gun for Christmas fell between Black Friday and Cyber Monday on the calendar of festivities, though it also came 24 hours after Buy Nothing Day, an anti-capitalist event that has been running since 1992 but by definition lacks the support of big advertisers to really take off.

Not all of us need to be reminded of the wrongness of "insatiable greed" by the Vatican. Nor do we necessarily have to wait until Buy Nothing Day to understand that letting ourselves be dazzled by a conveyor belt of retail frenzies can flag the spirit and drain the soul. Where is that down escalator anyway?

Even if we could agree on a definition of “insatiable greed”, which we can’t, we often reject such messages at Christmas, because Christmas still feels like a giver’s market. For most adults, it is less about crass expectation than it is about gratitude and thoughtfulness, balanced with the recognition that there are times when kids want to play with more than just the box.

How much indulgence is too much? British Vogue inadvertently provides a near-consensus answer in its freshly viral feature article “How Vogue editors are spending Christmas this year”, which involves an infuriating quantity of both air miles and precious metals.

Cynics huffed that they weren't surprised, as decluttering has always been about clearing the way for new stuff

Within the pages of Vogue, it makes sense to find an advocate for the “essential” need for a cashmere tracksuit and for the accompanying montage to suggest one costing €2,200. But divorced from its aspirational print context and published online where anyone could see it, the brand-centric paragraphs are an incendiary pile-up of elite consumerism, capped by the inevitable espousal of a seven-day “detox” somewhere food will be virtuously “scant”. Vogue has misread a room it forgot it was in.

Consumer backlash

Another curious and not unjustified backlash came last month when Netflix minimalist Marie Kondo launched her own online shop selling items such as quartz crystals, tuning forks, tissue box covers, room sprays and various products that are not, strictly speaking, "bath essentials". Oh Marie, fans lamented.

Cynics huffed that they weren't surprised, as decluttering has always been about clearing the way for new stuff, not living without stuff. Others defended Kondo, saying she had never told people to throw out their belongings, just the ones that didn't spark joy, and maybe people should save their ire for Gwyneth Paltrow instead.

These flashpoints recall a frequent complaint about anti-consumerism movements: that sometimes they seem less about refraining from consuming per se than they are about maintaining distance from the kind of consumption that the masses do. Only rich people, after all, pay to be deprived of food at beige retreats where dressing gowns are reinvented as “robes”.

Still, some products are clearly more harmful and some retailer practices more damaging than others, and it is a mark of a healthy society that consumers have never been more alert to this.

This Christmas has arrived after a year of heightened, heartfelt public anxieties about the climate emergency. Greenland is melting and the Australian fires can be seen from space. Alas, a great deal of the imagery around Christmas – from glazed, stuffed meat joints to single-use packaging – does not exactly scream sustainability. Some households that could well afford to go the full Melania with their decorations have approached the season doused with carbon guilt.

Advertisers have been adept for years at conveying the impression that to spend is to love and vice versa

But if the next decade accelerates the rejection of companies with insufficient regard for the planet, it should also usher in regular exposes of those brands that smugly trumpet “green” credentials in their marketing and design without any real justification for doing so.

The climate crisis won't be the only trigger for ethical outrages either. Nobody is going to confuse Tesco with their local independent craft shop, but if you buy a pack of charity Christmas cards from the supermarket giant, you still don't expect to find a message inside from foreign prisoners in Shanghai saying they are being forced to work against their will. A six-year-old girl in London did just that.

Tesco response

After the story was splashed on the front page of the Sunday Times at the weekend, it elicited a notably speedy response from Tesco, which said it would suspend production at a Chinese factory and insisted it would never allow prison labour in its supply chain. There was little attempt to explain away the horror.

Advertisers have been adept for years at conveying the impression that to spend is to love and vice versa. But illusion-shattering stories such as the alleged use of forced prison labour in China, combined with mainstream climate unease, can't help but jar with the warm sentiment that consumer goods companies steep their brands in.

This was the decade in which "unboxing" became a key video genre on YouTube. It's hard to claim with total confidence that anti-consumerism is in the ascendance. And yet many conscientious consumers will feel like they are only ever one headline away from feeling sick in the mouth.