The unintended consequences of ‘free’ gifts

Catherine Masterman on the cost of freebies, and the illusion of getting something for nothing.

The scale of our unintentional consumption is terrifying. I realised this recently when the school requested odd bits of plastic and recycling for an art project. I haven’t dared to ask what will happen to them, but took the chance to amass some bulging bags of bits that I won’t throw away and can’t recycle, some of which I probably moved across the continent with us, but for which I will never have any use.

What was revealing was how much of it I never wanted in the first place. Some was included ‘free’ for my convenience – plastic scoops that came with every packet of powder or individual craft-kit paint/glue containers. Then there were the ‘free’ toys from magazines or party bags/cafe lunches that you can’t refuse. And most ironically, there were the ubiquitous ‘free’ plastic wrist bands given out to help a cause.  All these items may have come into my house at no financial cost to me. But in no way are they ‘free’.

In fact, I’ve started to realise that anything you are given comes with an implicit statement from the giver.

“A part our planet has been used to make this item. I am now choosing to make it your responsibility to use, store and dispose of it. I consider that the goodwill I am buying from you is worth the planetary resource it took to make the gift.”

And when we accept the ‘gift’ for fear of looking awkward, or rude, we are implicitly agreeing with that judgement. We then use it, store it and dispose of it at cost to our own time and conscience. Frankly, thats often enough of a pain in itself.

But the cost is far more than that. Without meaning to, and with no evil mastermind of malicious intent, we are now in the situation reflected in recent reports by WWF and others: The unintended consequence of our desire to generate goodwill and convenience is to destroy our natural world and to create huge volumes of indestructible waste.

Madeleine de l’Engle, author of the classic “A Wrinkle in Time”, tells this story in one of her memoirs:

“A science-fiction story tells of a machine that was invented that could produce everything needed for man’s comfort on earth: food and furniture; refrigerators and radio; clothes and cars. There were a few wise men who warned people that one cannot continually take without putting back, or the supply will be depleted, but they were laughed at. After several centuries of the machine giving freedom from all material want, schools were teaching that the old myth that the earth was once larger than the moon was rank superstition. And at the end of the story there is one toothless old man clinging to a tiny and depleted fragment of earth.” (A Circle of Quiet p209)

I am not pretending that we are taking the atoms that make tigers, dolphins and bees and turning them into plastic tat. But frankly, we might as well be. It is one thing to exploit resources to sustain livelihoods. It is quite another to abuse them for no good reason. There is no question it is awkward to refuse stuff. Last week I had to apologise profusely when returning a halloween bag that came home ‘free’ from nursery. But we have to start somewhere.

We all know the value of our natural world is rarely reflected in the price we pay. Let’s start saying no to ‘free’ gifts that are costing the earth.

One Reply to “The unintended consequences of ‘free’ gifts”

  1. Thank you, great article. It’s so misleading when items are marketed as ‘free’ or ‘cheap’ or ‘value’. The cost is always somewhere down the line, either environmental or labour or both.

    Like

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