books consumerism

The day the world stops shopping, by J B MacKinnon

“The 21st century has brought a critical dilemma into sharp relief: we must stop shopping, and yet we can’t stop shopping” writes J B MacKinnon in this imaginative book on consumerism.

The products that we consume drive the breakdown of the climate and the decline of wildlife. Even though the effects of this collapse can be seen and understood, the amount of stuff that is consumed in rich countries only continues to grow – well beyond the point of need. Waste, excess and obsolescence abound, keeping the consumer machine turning, despite the mounting destruction.

But if we stopped or even reduced our consumption, what then? Depression may follow recession, and the poorest would be hit hardest. It’s a genuine dilemma and MacKinnon has no easy answers.

Instead, The Day the World Stops Shopping offers a thought experiment: what if, overnight, we reduced shopping by 25%? What would happen?

The rest of the book explores some likely outcomes from a broad range of perspectives. What would it mean for fashion brands? What about the people who make those clothes in low income countries? How would it affect the advertising industry, or traffic rates? What would happen to the global economy, and to carbon emissions? Nature gets a look in too, with a chapter investigating the impact on wildlife.

Short chapters look at these perspectives, and MacKinnon interviews relevant authorities for each one. A vice president at Levis reflects on the impact on the fashion industry. Kris De Decker of Low Tech magazine features. Peter Victor runs the author’s scenario for him on his economic model. Ju/’hoansi gatherers show him what it means to live simply. In one fascinating section, he visits the owner of the world’s oldest business, a Japanese inn that has been run by the same family since the year 718. What can we learn from companies that are long term success stories with no ambition to grow?

Defenders of capitalism love to legitimise Western consumerism by claiming that it supports jobs elsewhere, so MacKinnon talks to the owner of a garment factory in Bangladesh.

Lots of the interviewees are normal people who lived, or are living, through times of decline. We visit Finland, which saw a massive economic contraction when the Soviet Union collapsed. What was it like? How did people cope? A chapter investigates everyday life on an island in Japan that has a shrinking population, and abandoned towns and streets. What do these places tell us about a world with less consumption?

Through this combination of consumerist critique, travel writing and reportage, the book builds up a picture of a world with less shopping, both the positives and the negatives. Along the way it considers the merits of various checks and balances to consumerism, from Sunday trading laws to the voluntary simplicity movement. The proposition behind the book, cutting 25% off our consumption overnight, is not a recommendation. (“Perhaps ashes and ruin are what a world without shopping would lead to”, the author muses at one point.) Neither are individual choices likely to add up to substantial change, if history is anything to go by. It will have to be larger scale change than that, still undefined but slowly taking shape through things such as postgrowth thinking or wellbeing economics.

I really liked The Day the World Stops Shopping. In terms of interesting questions per page, it’s probably got more than any other book I’ve read this year. File it alongside similarly thoughtful approaches to consumerism in Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things or James Suzman’s Affluence without Abundance.

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