To Charge it or Not: Reflecting on Our Culture of Consumption

Lalith GunaratneAs we moved to Canada this summer, our well-meaning bank manager told us to get a credit card and start using it to build up our credit record. This will then lead us to a mortgage and home ownership. With home ownership, the economy moves forward – construction, appliances and the TV urge us all to go shop and buy new things to keep up with the fashions. This credit trap is everywhere: even when I got a phone my lack of credit history meant a cash deposit of $200. On and on this web of credit for goods and services goes, as the cycle of consumerism continues unabated.

Then we bought all those nice goodies to furnish our home and to fill the larder. As the designated garbage man at home I was amazed at the amount of packaging that covers all this. What a waste.

Yet I know this is how our economic world rolls forward, by tempting us mere mortals through credit and advertisement: to keep those factories going; retail outlets full; providing employment; and giving a livelihood to people who already have a good standard of living.

I moved from Sri Lanka, where I was a minority – part of the middle-class “fortunate” enough to be higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Yet I saw many people at the lower end: rural farmers often without what we take for granted – electricity even. I was always astounded to find them happy with what they had and living with so little.

Rural Sri Lanka

I realised they did not know what was out there in the world to be tempted with, as they were not connected yet.
Back in the late 1980s, I sold solar panels to them so they could have lights and a TV. I remember pondering on how the TV would change their lives and was sad that they would lose their innocence, but happy that we were helping them connect to the promises of globalisation. The village I left at that time is now totally transformed not only because of electricity and TV: the credit culture has arrived and the internet is fast moving into these areas; adding to the Gen-X generation of new consumers. They will need refrigerators, irons, mobile phones, motorcycles, tractors and trucks which need more credit, electricity and oil.

This is music to the economists’ ears, as economics is about aggregates and sum total of GDP for both good things and not-so-good things, like cigarettes, which may give us cancer and then we go to hospital to get treatment – all this adding to the good of the economy.

But what about human well-being, the spirit and the soul, happiness, love, respect, compassion and community, and nature’s bounty that feeds us? Where do these get inserted into the economic equation? The consumerist train is gaining momentum, adding millions of buyers and those externalities, the real costs of getting these goods and services to people, the environmental damage and cost of broken human relationships as the rich countries’ scramble to secure resources at any cost goes unaccounted.

This is my life’s inquiry – how do we transform now from this material world to value quality of life, enduring relationships and beauty of nature, like the fall colours I see around Ottawa.

We have to focus on ourselves first and work towards ceasing our outward gaze for security, happiness and well-being. Then we may abate the need and greed; make choices to slow life down; buy fruits and vegetables from the neighbourhood; keep the old car running a bit longer by looking after it better; enjoy spending time around our children; get to know the neighbours better; and create a sense of community.

After all, the world of business is run by people like you and me. Business will transform when we change our habits and create a ritual for mindfulness: to be aware of and to really see what is happening around us and question, question and question….

An article by Lalith Gunaratne

To read Lalith Gunaratne’s chapter on Sri Lanka, see The World Guide to CSR: A Country-by-Country Analysis of Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility, published by Greenleaf Publishing.

Buy The World Guide to CSR direct from Greenleaf Publishing and receive a discount. Use voucher code WG917 at checkout.


3 thoughts on “To Charge it or Not: Reflecting on Our Culture of Consumption

  1. Great perspectives Leftie. And some big questions there to ponder. It is definitely about looking more inward, which gets even harder for people as there is more external ‘noise’. I cringed when you talked about credit rating. Such a daft thing.

    Well I wish you all the best in your new endeavours and look forward to working together to make some positive changes.

    Keep well,

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