How consumerism makes suckers of us all

We’re back in home school mode in England, and this week I found myself sharpening colouring pencils. It ought to be a simple job really, but in its unexpected frustrations I found a lesson in consumerism.

I don’t remember ever buying colouring pencils for my kids. They’ve all been acquired from one place or another. There are some high quality ones that were a gift from grandparents, and there are some junk ones that came free in activity packs or party bags. And it’s those latter ones that are the problem. When you use them, the lead snaps almost immediately. The wood then shreds when you try and sharpen them, and you get nowhere. These pencils are literally pointless.

This is a small problem in the grand scheme of things, but it is symptomatic of the wider issues with consumerism. These cheap pencils were not made to be used by children. They were not made to be used at all. They were made to be sold. And that is it.

A pencil is not a complicated thing. They have been around for long enough that companies can learn how to make them well. If they are making them badly, it’s because they have chosen to use inferior materials and processes. Just pause and consider the deep layers of meaninglessness behind a company knowingly producing a pencil that doesn’t work.

  • My son picks up the pencil to colour in his picture. The pencil snaps and he choose another one. His actions, with regards to this pencil, are futile.
  • The pencil came in an activity pack from a local group the kids are part of, a way of supporting children in lockdown. Great, but an unusable gift is pointless and their well meaning gesture is undermined.
  • The pencils were clearly bought in bulk from a discount retailer with low standards. Either they didn’t check the quality of their product, or they know that nobody is going to take back a pencil for a refund and so they don’t care. Either way, this betrays the basic customer transaction taking place. It also dishonors their own staff that make the transaction, and that stock the shelves with these items – their labour is meaningless and their time is wasted.
  • The pencils have been shipped from across the world. The fuel to do this was also wasted, and so are the carbon emissions.
  • Back in China, workers toil over machines making pencils that don’t work, almost certainly for an inadequate wage. Whether or not they know it, their working lives are an exercise in futility.
  • On a plantation somewhere, probably in Russia where most of China’s wood comes from, a tree has been cut down to supply the factory with the cheap softwood to make these pencils. That tree grew for nothing.

It seems trivial at the point of my frustration with a pencil sharpener in my kitchen, but there is a long trail of futility behind any consumer item that fundamentally doesn’t do the job. Think of the toys that break on first use, the fast fashion items that only stands up to two or three outings. Cheap tools or flimsy furniture, plastic household goods that will be in the bin in a matter of months. All of it is a waste of resources and of human labour.

It’s not a word I’ve used about consumerism before, but think of the loss of dignity involved. Nothing here has value: not resources or the natural world, nor people and their skills, not even the trade transaction. There can be no pride in work well done. It’s an insult to all concerned. There is only waste, and everybody involved is a sucker.

The only thing that is valued in the entire chain is the money, when someone pays the sticker price and money changes hands. It’s all one way, since the product doesn’t work and therefore has no real value. The money that is made is the only thing that matters. This is the moral emptiness of consumerism.

It doesn’t need to be like that of course. There are good pencils in that drawer too, made with craftsmanship and pride by people who were paid a living wage. They cost more, but they work and so they are worth the money. Quality items produce meaning and dignity all the way up the chain, and we can use our buying choices as a vote for that kind of world.

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