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Our Insights 19 Dec 2011

Christmas Past and Christmas Presents

By Geoff Lye

Sustainable consumption has been high on our agenda in recent months. Most recently, our latest report Signed, Sealed… Delivered? highlights the diminishing returns from sustainability labels and calls for sustainability to be ‘built-in’ rather than ‘bolt-on’ (or, in this case, labelled-on) to consumer brands.

So with my antennae sensitised for unsustainable consumption, I was stunned to flick through the Financial Times‘ Weekend magazine Christmas Unwrapped and read endless exhortation of excessive consumption. I’ve ignored the previous editions entitled How To Spend It, but should have guessed its editorial philosophy: how best to part wealthy FT readers from their massive salary and bonus pots.

Maybe I am unduly influenced by memories of my own childhood Christmases. Waking up then to three or four modest presents was a highlight of the year. It had little to do with value and everything to do with surprise and naive beliefs in reindeer and chimney visits from Father Christmas. Nowadays, I feel that giving is better than receiving and discourage my family from adding to all the material possessions I already own. It took a while to work that one out, longer for the family to give in.

So Christmas Unwrapped from the FT was unlikely to appeal. The reality, however, must appal anyone concerned by the current economic crisis and by the stark division between those who have and those who don’t. So flicking through Christmas Unwrapped, I read one shocking invitation to spend after another. Should anyone wish to commit to buy all of the featured items in this one issue, it would cost over £2,000,000. This includes an article with a sample collection of things that ‘bring meaning to people’s lives’. The displayed collection of five items comes at the meaningful price of £38,945.

So how appropriate that the same magazine has four pages devoted to Bhutan. Entitled On Top of the World, it refers to the King’s declaration of 1979 that GNH (Gross National Happiness) is more important than GNP. The article celebrates Bhutan’s absence of advertising hoardings; shop signs in standardised colours; and government policies on careful tourism management and environmental protection. Yet a new minimum tourist charge of $250 a day comes into force from next January and, as the article concludes, ‘just as the world was starting to sign up to the notion [of GNH], in Bhutan it has been hijacked by the marketing men’.

How long before we see a Bhutanese edition of the FT’s How to Spend It?

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Footnote: I think I have succumbed. If any reader of this blog would like to buy me the bracelet on page 19 (Must-Haves-For-Her) for €690,000, I will open up to my feminine side and embrace the Christmas spirit – just this once.

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