It’s that time of year again: the world’s favourite tech company has released yet another updated version of its ever-trendy smartphone. No, in fact, two versions, the iPhone 5c and 5s. Once again, Apple has asserted its dominance over the headlines, the web, TV air time and advertising billboards, bombarding us with the thousands of reasons why we should dish out another few hundred dollars to replace our now obsolete iPhone 5’s at the ripe old age of eight or nine months. After all, don’t we all need that latest version of iOS, the latest processor, the fingerprint sensor, as well as every other new feature that the previous iPhone didn’t come with?
No, we don’t. We are taught from birth by the people around us, by the mass media, by economists and by politicians to believe we genuinely need all of the cell phones, clothes, tablets, furniture – you name it – that we buy on a regular basis. That we are judged on the basis of the amount of “stuff” we own. That, in fact, the very purpose of life is to consume more than the people we know to show our superiority. But our desires for the latest gadgets, the latest technology and the latest fads are entirely artificial and manufactured – exactly like the products themselves. They are the result of a culture of consumerism that has taken the concepts of wants and needs and combined them into one.
But our addiction to shopping, contrary to what manufacturers and retail chains would like to have us believe, is neither good for us as consumers, nor good for those who make our products or those who live among the waste. And, perhaps most crucially, we simply don’t have the resources for each and every one of us on this planet to consume the way many of us in industrialized countries do.
For those of us consuming, there’s no denying the immediate satisfaction we feel when we get our hands on something new. Especially if that something is new in the sense of having just been released. But humans adapt and adjust quickly to their surroundings. The satisfaction dies away, and sooner or later we set our sights on something else we want. The result is that we spend our money on things that make us no happier in the long run while adding more items to our seemingly endless list of wants. It’s known as the hedonic treadmill – we have keep running to maintain the same level of happiness. Quite similar to tolerance in drug addiction.
Some of you may be familiar with the ongoing scandal over the multiple suicides of Chinese workers in extremely poor working conditions at the factories of Foxconn, the manufacturer of many of the electronic gadgets that populate our homes today. Or you may recall the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in April, with the loss of some 1100 lives. Both cases illustrate the fact that our addiction to consumption is dependent upon what has to be described as the exploitation of workers in developing countries. Another issue we hear less about is the dumping of toxic electronic waste in developing countries in Asia and Africa, where ordinary people are forced to live among them. Much of it is shipped from North America and Europe, where many landfills have filled up.
Lastly, we get to the planet. All of the products we buy need to come from somewhere. Metals and raw earth are extracted in mines, and plastics are manufactured from oil. The extraction of raw materials from the earth, the manufacturing of consumer products from these materials and the transportation of these goods from factories in southern China to Walmart in North America all require fossil fuels. The eight-month-old iPhone 5’s that we throw away require space in landfills. With raw materials becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to extract, and climate change running away, can anyone seriously argue that every human on the planet can live the same high-consumption lifestyle as those of us in the industrialized world?
My point here is not that we need to stop consuming entirely. Nor is it that we should all blame ourselves as consumers for propping a system that ultimately benefits none of us and that simply cannot be sustained on this planet. Corporations must also take much of the blame for profiting off our addiction while exploiting workers and depleting resources. The point, however, is that those of us who already have fully functional smartphones – even “dumb phones” for those of us who only need to call and text – don’t need another one. We need to cure ourselves of our addiction to consumption and, in the process, do ourselves, our fellow human beings and the planet some good. We are entirely capable of recognizing our desires as wants, not needs, and of giving them up. And yes, there is life beyond shopping.