Interview: J.B. MacKinnon Talks Consumer Culture and The Day The World Stops Shopping

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Award-winning Canadian journalist J.B. MacKinnon is best known for co-authoring the book 100-Mile Diet that ignited the conversation on eating locally as part of sustainability. Now, he’s written a new book, asking if all of us could just buy less stuff. Titled The Day the World Stops Shopping, MacKinnon argues that we simply need to stop consuming as much as we do if we are to have a shot at saving the planet, and what might happen if we really manage to put an end to shopping. Green Queen recently had the opportunity to sit down with the author to chat about his thought-provoking book, what he thinks is the way out of our obsession with shopping and how we all ought to live a little lighter on Earth. 

GQ: You’ve authored a number of books related to the environment and most famously coined the term 100-Mile Diet. What inspired you to write your latest book, The Day the World Stops Shopping and how is it different from your previous work? 

JBK: I think all of my work is related, almost all of the writing I do is environmental journalism of one kind or another. What I began to realise over time was that whatever environmental issue that I took a look at, one of the main drivers of it, or often the main driver of it was our consumption habits and consumerism. So I wanted to focus on that. I also came up against this idea, this dilemma we face as consumers, where on the one hand, it’s really increasingly clear that we need to consume less in order to do less harm to the planet, but at the same time, the economy really needs us to keep consuming more and more. So I wanted to find a way to look past that dilemma towards something that might be a solution. That’s what I set out to do with this book.

GQ: We’re now in a world where shopping is easier than ever – we can buy things at a click of a button, and e-commerce has surged since the pandemic. Many economies are even encouraging consumption as a way to rebuild from Covid-19. Do you believe it’s really possible to convince people to buy less stuff? 

JBK: I don’t know whether it’s possible. But what I think we have right now is an opportunity to open up that conversation about consumption. I think we’re actually at a point where we’re almost uniquely positioned to have that conversation, because of the pandemic. During the pandemic, I think a lot of people have an opportunity to reconsider their priorities and revisit their values and think about what aspects of consumer culture may matter to them the most. And what parts of consumer culture they hardly even noticed they had lost in the pandemic. 

My suspicion is that as the consumer economy revs back up to full throttle, and we’re kind of plunged back into consumer culture as it was before the pandemic, I think a lot of people are going to feel uneasy about that. Some people will probably feel despair about it. That gives us an opportunity, you know? That kind of clash of having gone through something where we had a chance to reconsider consumer culture and our relationship to it, and then to be plunged back into it with all of these powerful forces that are encouraging us to do so. It’s the perfect time to open up a public conversation about that relationship.

GQ: Right now in fashion, and also in other industries, we see a lot of Don’t Buy New movements – is this a way forward? Or is it not just about reducing the number of things we buy, but choosing more circular models? And then what should people do about things like underwear, which ideally people wouldn’t want to purchase secondhand?

JBK: I think in fashion, one part of the solution is definitely this model of buying fewer better things. The kind of buy less, buy better type approach. That applies to most or many products and certainly clothing. A lot of people are frustrated with how much of the clothing they buy is really low quality, and many people can remember when most of the clothes they bought would last certainly months, if not years, rather than in some cases, just a few wears. With things like underwear, I think the solution there is not necessarily to buy used or to buy out of circular processes, but simply to buy underwear that’s made well, and that you can keep for years and years. For each kind of product, there’s a different specific solution, but I think about durability in this case. As you said, there’s also circular models for other things – buying used, repairing and maintaining our goods too, and also building strong personal relationships with our goods to develop a deeper consumer culture. 

It’s the perfect time to open up a public conversation about that relationship.

GQ: Would you agree that realistically, achieving a post-consumerism world is going to require a dramatic overhaul of the entire systems – the global economy and the convenience culture and materialist values pervasive in almost every society today? How do we go from shareholder growth capitalism to a more circular or doughnut economy? Are we going to need regulation?

JBK: Yeah, I think we’ll need all kinds of different things. I think the model to look at are the kinds of large-scale changes that we’ve undergone in most of our lifetimes. The shift to a digital economy was a dramatic sweeping transformation of society that has touched every aspect of it and changed the way that we do almost everything. The shift towards green technology and renewable energy, as it is proposed, is similarly enormous, like just an absolutely huge scale transformation of society that we’re trying to picture. So the kind of terrain we’re in isn’t new in any way. 

If we start talking about moving away from consumerism, yes, it’s transformative at every level. It involves all kinds of different interventions in business models, economics, how we make products, how we interact with each other, how we build our cities, what values we bring forth in society, and which ones we want to try to tamp down. But we can do all of those things incrementally and gradually, and people can participate in that kind of change in whatever place they are in society. There’s lots of opportunity for regulation, there’s lots of opportunity to do business differently. There’s the need to create the kind of lifestyle that a post-consumer society would have. This is the kind of change that we’re already seeing from green tech and the digital world.

GQ: The New York Times just did a piece called “But Will It Make You Happy?” last week about the “work-spend treadmill” of capitalist/consumerist life. The article says “we’re moving from a conspicuous consumption — which is ‘buy without regard’ — to a calculated consumption.” Do you agree? 

JBK: I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think that that may be true with certain segments of society, and it may be true of certain things that we pay for. But overall, the trend prior to the pandemic was very clearly an increase in consumer spending year upon year. For me, that’s more true. For example, durable products, major purchases and even things like clothing – more people are now saying I want to think about what values are under-represented in the processes that produced this thing that I might buy. That’s true, but at the same time, those same people might be taking more flights for travel experiences than ever before. So really, if we’re really going to be doing calculated consumption, I think we would need to be doing it across the board. And honestly, I think it’s very difficult for any individual person to try to perfect their consumption in that way. This is why we need to think about it as system changes, not just a matter of our personal choices.

This is a conversation we need to open up. Consumption is the greatest environmental problem that we face right now, and yet, it’s something that we rarely talk about.

GQ: The same article also suggested that the accumulation of experiences rather than things is what will bring true happiness. What do you think? Can our society revert to that way of thinking and living?

JBK: I’m sceptical of that idea. I think the problem with consumerism and consumer culture is that it tends to transform all of our hopeful paths that we start down and end up in a place other than where we hoped they would, because of the consumer mindset. So if we decide that we’re going to try and have more experiences and fewer things, but have more experiences, well, the same powerful commercial forces applied will try to compel us to do more and more dramatic and expensive experiences. Things like conspicuous consumption of experiences rather than goods. 

This is the feeling of needing to keep up with the Joneses, you know? Will your experiences be as exciting or even as fulfilling as somebody else’s experiences? And of course, experiences are also very easy to make visible on things like Instagram and other corners of social media. Without changing the mindset of consumption, I think experiences just ended up being a new problem. 

That said, the idea that we can replace highly resource-intensive consumption with experiences that are less resource-intensive is very much true. I think we saw a lot of that in the pandemic in cities, where people are sitting in parks and having conversations with their friends over pretty simple picnics. It’s satisfying and I think people are enjoying that kind of thing as they come out of the pandemic. But once there’s the freedom to do it when we open up, perhaps they’ll want to spend that time taking a flight to enjoy a city break instead of sitting in a local park. 

GQ: What’s the one takeaway you hope people will gain from reading The Day the World Stops Shopping

JBK: I think the main takeaway that I hope people will have is that this is a conversation we need to open up. Consumption is the greatest environmental problem that we face right now, and yet, it’s something that we rarely talk about. We rarely talk about how to change it either. And think it needs to be put back in the centre of the conversation around sustainability, because that’s where it belongs.

GQ: Why is it that things like green technology have gotten more attention than simply reducing consumption when it comes to climate action?

JBK: Because green technology seems to offer a way out of the dilemma of needing to consume less to save the planet, but needing to consume more to prop up the economy. Green technologies seem to offer a solution in a way that we wouldn’t even have to change anything we’re doing – that we can keep consuming in the same way we are. The idea that it would just make all of our environmental harms magically disappear. We’re at least 20 years into really significant progress in green tech and renewable energy, and I think we’re starting to realise that it’s very difficult to replace all of the consumption we do – and more and more of it every year – with green technology. The gains we make with green tech and clean energy are just being swallowed up by the endless increase in the volume of consumption.

GQ: Aside from overconsumption, what do you think is an issue that’s often overlooked when it comes to environmental or climate action? What about food consumption – adopting plant-based diets, for instance, as a way to lower our footprint on the planet? 

JBK: I just want to be clear that all of those things are important – all our lifestyle habits and things like green tech and clean energy are really important and they make great partners with our overall efforts to lower consumption across the board. When it comes to food, food stands out obviously because it is a basic necessity. But even food is very much affected by consumer culture. 

I’ve spoken to a fisheries biologist, for example, who pointed out that because bluefin tuna is mainly consumed in sushi and in restaurants, it’s now having a bit of a day because in the pandemic, there was such a decline in restaurant consumption. There was also a decline in the consumption of foods associated with things like a night out on a town. So the point is, even food is wrapped up in this attitude of consumption. When it comes to the types of food, meat is resource-intensive and it’s also very visible. It’s highly and closely associated with rising wealth and those sorts of things, again really closely tied to consumer culture. 

The gains we make with green tech and clean energy are just being swallowed up by the endless increase in the volume of consumption.

GQ: Are you optimistic about the future? Do you think we can ever really get past this consumerist-driven society and one where we live sustainably on Earth? Are you hopeful we will solve the climate crisis?

JBK: I think we can. I think whether or not I believe we will, kind of depends on the day. But ultimately the question of whether or not we can is crystal clear. There are pathways to do this. If we look through the history and the diversity of human life on Earth, we see plenty of examples of human beings taking a different mindset and a different mentality to their relationship with the natural world and with consumption itself. So there’s nothing hardwired about the way we consume. There’s nothing in our genetics that insists that we do this. It’s the culture that we have lived in now for decades, and perhaps a couple of centuries, but it’s certainly reversible.

GQ: Finally we always ask – are you team rice or noodles?

JBK: Oh, I’m team noodles. Decisively. 

The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves is available at Barnes & Noble, Foyles and other bookstores, and online via Amazon, Apple Books and more. 


Lead image courtesy of J.B. MacKinnon. 


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