31st January 2022

Consumerism vs. climate catastrophe

Environmental sustainability requires a rethink of our consumption habits. Does trading standards have a role to play in combatting waste?


By Matt Allwright
Matt is a journalist and presenter of the BBC’s Watchdog and Rogue Traders
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Are we enabling exactly the kind of rampant consumerism that we should be trying to make a thing of the past?

Although last year’s COP26 summit led to little consensus on how to approach the future, one thing seems clear: we need to consume less of almost everything. As guardians of the people doing that consuming, what is our role in this? Are we even, maybe without knowing it, enabling exactly the kind of rampant consumerism that we should be trying to make a thing of the past?

Let me take you back a couple of years. A particularly interesting phase for Watchdog was when it was felt necessary to include a celebrity interview as part of an hour-long show. Ever wanted to know what kind of holiday insurance John Inverdale has? Well tonight we’ll tell you! The segment didn’t last long.

One of the more illuminating chats was when Anne Robinson asked former Labour spin supremo Alastair Campbell what his consumer gripe was. Curiously, his answer has stuck with me. It was something like: “My consumer gripe is people buying expensive things they don’t need and then complaining about them.” The collective intake of breath nearly popped the studio double glazing out of its frames. Had Cambo punctured, without punctuation, the very reason for our existence as a programme? Anne never really recovered from this moment, and left the series a mere eight years later.

I’ve often thought about what he said. I hope it goes without saying that I think it’s really important to fight to make sure that people are able to use their money to its fullest potential, within a legal and moral framework that ensures trust and confidence. The alternative is unenforced chaos, a wild-west of wide-boys and dodgepots. And of course it’s not just about money. It’s about being able to believe in a world where fairness prevails and we’re free to make informed decisions about how best to use our resources. So why did Alastair’s words still have the ring of truth?

I think it comes down to the difference between consumer justice and consumerism. There is no mistake about whose side we are on – that of the customer. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking the customer is always right, or that they always make good choices. I’m sure we’ve all felt instinctively when a complaint has strayed away from genuinely seeking redress, and into something else, entitlement perhaps, stretching our sympathies to breaking point.

It’s far too easy to buy with a single click now and regret later, and to mistake an injustice for what is actually buyer remorse. We need to save our energies for those cases where we can show clear and substantial damage is being done to people’s lives, taking chunks out of consumer confidence, and where fairness is in the balance. Otherwise we may have a hand in enabling the sort of mindless consumerism that COP26 has made clear we can’t afford any more and, worst of all, we may just have proved Alastair Campbell right.

On the brink of climate catastrophe

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