Consumer choices in the frame - RSA

Consumer choices in the frame


  • Social brain

In my speech about pro-social behaviour (all reasonable speaker's fees accepted) I suggest we can group under three headings the ways we need to develop as people if we are to create the better future we say we want.

We need to be more positively engaged in collective decision making, we need to live in ways that are more self-sufficient and sustainable and we need to be find new ways of being 'other regarding'.

Under the second of these headings I mention the growing importance of our behaviour as consumers. The rise of Fairtrade shows that many of us (surveys suggest about two thirds) want to be ethical consumers and that this can make a real difference.

But if we want the overall impact of our consumption to be benign, we need to ask more questions. For example, what about our role as the consumers of financial products?

The RSA is intending to undertake a consultation and deliberative conference to explore whether small and medium sized investors know how their money is invested, if they care about it and are they interested in having more say over it.

I wonder whether we will find we are simultaneously investing in companies with a strong commitment to social and environmental responsibility and, indirectly, in aggressive investment funds which see overly generous corporations as good targets for takeover and asset stripping?

Some of us may be buying more ethically but nearly all of us are buying more. Yet, do we ever stop to ask whether we actually want or need the next gadget or luxury product?

The other day I was in PC World buying an accessory for my son's computer. I was fifth in line at the checkout and was intrigued that three out of four customers in front of me were buying variants of the same product.

The item in question was a digital picture frame. Based on this small sample I confidently predict this will be a chart topper in next Christmas' most bought present list.

Before getting to the meat of my argument I have to admit to an aesthetic (some might say 'snobbish') bias.

I can't imagine anything less appealing than an unattractive constantly flickering picture frame in my front room featuring an ever changing catalogue of family snaps taken from the picture files on my computer.

Imagine being at the house of someone with one of these. When they are speaking to you is the polite thing to look at them or to gaze admiringly at the slide show of family snaps scrolling by on their mantelpiece?

If an amusing photo of the kids in fancy dress pops up does one show appreciation by grinning inanely even though the conversation is about the situation in Darfur or the new outbreak of foot and mouth?

But behind this bias is something more serious.

As I understand the technology, a digital photo frame is designed to be always on (after all we don't turn ordinary picture frames on their face when we leave the room). The frames work by receiving a signal from a wireless router which we also tend to leave on full time. I'm not sure if the system also requires the computer to be on but it might encourage us to leave our PC always in stand-by mode.

If I am right about the spread of these new gadgets - that they will soon be seen as must-have objects - why not have one in every room?

So a new gadget, another thing moving around and flickering in our homes, another thing to make ordinary conversation more difficult, and most of all another way to use electricity and increase our already bloated consumption of carbon.

I am not saying we should ban digital picture frames, nor that we can, or should stop the endless pursuit of new consumer gizmos. But if ethical consumerism is to move beyond the top layer of our crowded supermarket trolleys, part of the process might be encouraging a more critical debate about whether every new consumer good is, well, good.

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