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Dig your own grave, but it's a life you can save
If you’re not completely happy with your Allbirds, just send them right back, no worries, the website reassured me. That's the way of online retailing today: dispel all qualms, all hesitation.
But when the shoes did not fit all that well, did I send them right back, no worries?
I did not.
Although I can be quite unlike my Dad — less patient, more noisy — in this respect we’re the same: don’t like to put anyone to any trouble, don’t like to be wasteful.
I sucked it up. The Allbirds and my feet gradually adapted to one another, we’re comfortable enough now.
It leaves me out of step with the modern world, though, it seems. The send-it-back business is booming, absolutely huge.
And if you’re picturing a warehouse where someone opens up a box and says Oh no! Dave says these shoes didn’t fit! I’ll pop them back in the stack for the next order!….Nope, not how it works. Also, I have discouraging news about the beloved family pet you were led to believe now frolics in a paddock full of daffodils.
How the system actually works is described in this helpful story.
The process of getting unwanted items back from consumers and figuring out what to do with them is time- and labor-intensive, and often kind of gross.
The odds that things returned to a sorting facility will simply be transferred to that business’s inventory aren’t great, and in some cases, they’re virtually zero.
Getting an item back into a company’s new-product sales stream, which is sometimes in a whole different state, can be logistically prohibitive.
Perfectly good stuff gets thrown away in these facilities all the time, simply because the financial math of doing anything else doesn’t work out; they’re too inexpensive to be worth the effort, or too much time has passed since they were sold.
What sort of volume are we talking?
Mountains. A return rate somewhere between 15 and 30 percent. In 2020 U.S. retailers took back more than $100 billion in merchandise.
What an appetite for destruction we have acquired, in the name of convenience and mindless consumption.
Less Is More, Jason Hickel’s excellent exploration of the idea of degrowth, adduces a great deal of evidence in support of this assertion. But working to the maxim that you should never try to eat anything larger than your head, let's begin with a single piece of data.
If you tally up the total weight of all the stuff humans extract and consume each year, including biomass, metals, minerals, fossil fuels and construction materials, what do you get?
Over the first half of the 1900s, it doubles from 7 billion tons per year to 14 billion tons per year.
But in the decades following 1945 it goes absolutely nuts.
35 billion tons by 1980.
50 billion tons by 2000. You remember 2000, eh? Feels like just the other day.
In the next 17 years it went roaring up to 92 billion tons.
Scientists estimate that the planet can handle a total material footprint of up to about 50 billion tons per year, writes Hickel. That’s considered to be a maximum safe boundary. Today we’re exceeding that boundary twice over, and we are on course to be using more than 200 billion tons of material stuff per year by the middle of the century.
And, he continues, virtually all of this overshoot is being driven by excess consumption in high-income nations.
This hellbent consumption is the sort of thing I have in mind when I write about red-lining; the destruction of habitats, the soil depletion, the ocean dead zones, the collapsing biodiversity, toxins in our rivers, plastics in our seas, ever more cars and ships and buildings burning ever more energy.
The thing about capitalism, and the seemingly innocuous expectation of 3% growth economists happily recommend, is that it compounds to an insane and quite unsustainable volume.
It stands to carry us over the brink, just happily clicking and ordering and amusing ourselves to death.
An unquestioning appetite for growth is turning out to be an insanely dangerous thing. But we are, so very many of us, either refusing to accept that things need to change, or feeling helpless in the face of so much resistance from vested interests, and just assuming nothing can be done.
Neither of those positions are sound or warranted. There are other better ones.
Might the one I’m about to endorse be Degrowth? It might indeed. Will I be laying out a comprehensive summary here today? Sorry, no. Working to the aforementioned don’t-be-trying-to-eat-anything-larger-than-your-head guidance, I just want to get the ball rolling today. There’s a whole lot to explore, in many coming editions.
But let me leave it here today with this from Less Is More, for a general sense of the degrowth prescription and promise.
People who live in highly unequal societies are more likely to shop for luxury brands than people who live in more equal societies. We keep buying more stuff in order to feel better about ourselves, but it never works because the benchmark against which we measure the good life is pushed perpetually out of reach by the rich (and, these days, by social media influencers). We find ourselves spinning in place on an exhausting treadmill of needless over-consumption.
So, if not income, what does improve well-being? In 2014, the political scientist Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn conducted a review of existing data on this question. He found something remarkable: countries that have robust welfare systems have the highest levels of human happiness, when controlling for other factors. And the more generous and universal the welfare system, the happier everyone becomes. This means things like universal healthcare, unemployment insurance, pensions, paid holiday and sick leave, affordable housing, daycare and strong minimum wages. When people live in a fair, caring society, where everyone has equal access to social goods, they don’t have to spend their time worrying about how to cover their basic needs day to day – they can enjoy the art of living. And instead of feeling they are in constant competition with their neighbours, they can build bonds of social solidarity.
Hello new Prime Minister! Can I interest you in some thoughts for your first speech?
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