David Smith interviewed Jonathon Porritt for The Observer:
'Fascism. Communism. Democracy. Religion. But only one has achieved total supremacy. Its compulsive attractions rob its followers of reason and good sense. It has created unsustainable inequalities and threatened to tear apart the very fabric of our society. More powerful than any cause or even religion, it has reached into every corner of the globe. It is consumerism.
According to Porritt, we have become a generation of shopaholics. We are bombarded by advertising from every medium which persuades us that the more we consume, the better our lives will be. Shopping is equated with fun, fulfilment and self-identity. It is also, Porritt warns, killing the planet. He argues, in an interview with The Observer, that merely switching to 'ethical' shopping is not enough. We must shop less.
Last week 3,000 people stormed Primark's new flagship store on London's Oxford Street before the official opening time, putting two staff in hospital and earning the description by BBC2's Newsnight of 'a plague of locusts'. There are, however, a growing number of dissenting voices such as the so-called 'Froogles', individuals who use the internet to seek a simpler lifestyle, and organisations and websites which urge people to kick the retail habit.
Porritt, chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission, has concluded that consumerism is central to the threat facing the planet, cannibalising its natural resources and producing the carbon dioxide emissions which result in climate change.
In a film for Channel Five, he points out that Britons throw away their own body weight in rubbish every seven weeks, with 100 million tonnes of waste pouring into the country's 12,000 landfill sites every year. If all six billion people in the world were to consume at the same level, we would need two new Earths to supply all the energy, soil, water and raw materials required.
'I think capitalism is patently unable to go on growing the size of the consumer economy for any more people in the world today because levels of consumption are already undermining life support systems on which we depend - so if we do it for any more people, the planet will go pop,' Porritt told The Observer. 'So in a way we don't have a choice about this: we've got to rethink the basic premise behind capitalism to make it deliver the goods. In the long run, when you really look at what happens on a planet with nine billion people and really serious constraints on the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we can emit, it's almost inevitable we will learn to have more elegant, satisfying lives, consuming less. I can't see any way out of that in the long run.'
'Shopping has become a recreational activity,' he continued. 'There's a lot of evidence that people really do see shopping now as an amenity pastime. We're well beyond the time where shopping was just a way of transacting what you needed in life. It's now all about identity and status and recreation and companionship, even about meaning in people's lives. There's always been a "keeping up with the Joneses" type thing, but it's now almost universalised and there is a sense of buying to be more like something or to get the image of somebody, particularly with clothes or branded goods, where there's very much that sense of, "If I buy something with this name on it, maybe a little bit of the magic of that name will rub off on me and I'll be a better person", whereas we all know you're exactly the same person just waiting to go out and make your next branded purchase.'
The Primark episode brings to mind what happened here when H&M opened their first HK store last month. Is there anything sadder than seeing hundreds of people queuing up for hours in order to walk into a shop and part with their hard-earned cash???