Buy items for refugees in the Choose Love shop--& leave with nothing. Anti Black Friday? Or just more consumerism?
You’ll probably have noted the “Black Friday” phenomenon of tech consumerism today - scenes of mad scrabbling for new versions of the same old informational devices.
Someone has created a pop-up shop in London, Choose Love, which is an attempt at an intervention in the consumerist frenzy of this day, “Cyber Monday”, and the whole Xmas blow-out. From the Guardian article:
The pop-up store off Carnaby Street has been set up by the charity Help Refugees and invites visitors to “shop your heart out, leave with nothing, and feel the love”. Shoppers can buy a range of items for refugees, including sleeping bags, emergency blankets and solar lamps.
“Christmas is a time of giving in abundance, but it makes you think about people who aren’t as lucky as we are,” said Josie Naughton, the chief executive of Help Refugees. “When you look at the stats of how much money is spent on Black Friday and compare that to the need in the world, it’s quite shocking. We just really wanted to show there was another way to look at consumerism and another way to look at Black Friday.”
Nestled between high street shops advertising this year’s latest deals, the store is split into three areas, each exploring a different stage of a refugee’s journey: survival, shelter and the future.
As well as emergency relief items, shoppers can pay to give a refugee family legal support, helping with family reunions and mental health care.
It is the second year Help Refugees has run the pop-up store, while this year it has also opened a similar store in New York. Last year, the London store and its online equivalent raised £750,000, which helped provide refugees with 800,000 meals, 3,556 nights of accommodation, and 25,000 essential winter items for adults.
“We could never ever have predicted the success of the store. The way people have responded to it was amazing. People were coming into the physical shop, see a child’s boot and burst into tears,” Naughton said. The store showcases children’s shoes and coats to humanise a refugee crisis that’s largely spoken about in numbers, she said.
Narrowly this is worth doing. But other than the obvious objection - you are buying objects for refugees, but not relating or conversing with them as living, breathing humans - what’s interesting about Choose Love is the way it sits within the overall function of consumerism in our lives.
We turned back to one of our favourite essays on consumerism from 2015, by the sustainability economist Tim Jackson. In “The Iron Cage of Consumerism”, Jackson holds that consumerism is what keeps us feeling “at home” in our societies. It used to be religion that was “this socially-constructed framework…thought of as the set of assumptions, understandings, rules, maxims, norms, taboos and rituals which together bring order and meaning to human lives.”
The sociologist Peter Berger called this “the sacred canopy” - meaning “all what keeps us from despair, from anomie, from the dark chaotic and meaningless void that threatens constantly to overturn us.”
Now, says Jackson, the “sacred canopy” is the civilisation of shopping. What we seek in this realm is a “theodicy” - a story that can help us cope with “the discrepancy between our ideals and visions, and the reality of the world with which we are daily confronted”.
What is usually clever about consumerism is that it tantalises us with ideals and visions, glimpses of a better life through its designed commodities, while it also blots out the real world - which easily brings us news of death, injury, privation and destruction.
Choose Love attempts to break that circuit, on a number of levels. The act of consumption doesn’t result in you possessing your desired object (but you can see how the desired object will fit into someone else’s life). It intensifies and separates out the “gift” principle buried in consumerism - the desire to bring joy and fulfilment to the receiver.
Yet doesn’t Choose Love just reinforce the structure of the consumerist behaviour that we know, deep down, is burning the planet? That depends how deeply down our consumerism goes.
Jackson at one point talks about sacred goods:
“Hollow hands clasp ludicrous possessions”, wrote Ernest Dichter in 1964. “Because they are links in the chain of life. If it breaks they are truly lost” But material goods also facilitate consolation. Sacred goods remind us of those we love, of dreams we hold, of our hopes for the future. At a more mundane level the seemingly endless availability consoles us for the temporary nature of our lives, for our disappointments and failures. It assures us that society holds out the promise of better lives (for us and for our descendents) in the future.
…If consumption plays such a vital role in the construction and maintenance of our social world, then asking people to give up material commodities is asking them to risk a kind of social suicide. People will rightly resist threats to identity. They will resist threats to meaning. They will ask quite legitimate questions of the motives of the moral persuaders.
Jackson goes on - as much of his work does - to suggest that prosperity can be alternatively defined. Meaning a “wealth” of strong relationships, meaningful work, civic engagement, “more fun with less stuff”. But his account of how deeply down consumerism goes into human nature is powerful:
On the one hand, the profit motive stimulates a continual search for newer, better or cheaper products and services. On the other, our own relentless search for social status lock us into an escalating spiral of consumerism. Novelty plays an absolutely central role in this dynamic.
One can hardly says there is no social “status display” in the happy queues leading up to the “Choose Love” store. Nor that it doesn’t run its own riff on the consumer novelties that surround it in Carnaby Street.
At the very least, in terms of Jackson’s thesis, we might call it a Puritan moment of reflection in the iron cage of consumerism. Jackson sums this concept up well, and let us close here:
The relentless pursuit of novelty stirs up a spirit of anxiety that undermines social wellbeing. Individuals are at the mercy of social comparison. Firms must innovate or die. Institutions are skewed towards the pursuit of a materialistic consumerism. The economy itself is dependent on consumption growth for its very stability. Governments who preside over instability soon find themselves out of office. The ‘iron cage of consumerism’ is a system in which no one is free.