Global Consumption: Has it Shaped Who We Are Today?

Source: Christian Kaindl, Unsplash

Whilst sitting at home, we are all suspended in the bizarre period of a global pandemic. Yet, to me this time has a certain stillness about it. What is it about this new kind of everyday that feels so familiar?

On the face of it, nothing is going on in my home. Everyday is almost identical, the same routine and activities. We are eating food, watching tv, buying products online. It took me a while to break down this everyday to find something that everyone has in common. I soon came to realise that it seems our everyday lives are governed by the act of consumption. 

When I wake up, I reach out my hand to grab my phone. My day starts and ends with media consumption. I go downstairs to consume food. As I sit down at the table with a cup of tea there’s a knock at the door, it’s an Amazon delivery. I unbox it, open the bin and discard the cardboard packaging. It just takes reciting our everyday routine, and our patterns of consumption become visible. 

Although, to give the idea of consumption some over-arching societal meaning, it might be useful to provoke thoughts about how our everyday consumption drive ideas of culture, gender and social class in the modern world.

Instagram: Stay Home sticker

The idea of media consumption intrigues me the most. Its contemporary and popular nature has entered into the global sphere in such a short amount of time. Especially at the moment, there is a great deal of media consumption. What’s interesting about media these days is how tailored it is to the individual user. If I were to look at someone else’s instagram feed it would mean nothing to me, it’s not for me to consume. From personal experience, my encounter with social media is positioned around my gender, interests and age. 

It’s hard to describe in words how social media makes me feel. Everyone’s varying opinions of the platform is really just dependent on their age, usage and personal attitudes. The way we utilise it reflects where we live and our social groups. As I scroll on instagram it is evident that the feed is dominated by people’s self-portrait’s, more commonly known as ‘selfies’. This echos the socio-centric culture of where I live, adverse to collectivist countries. There’s a lot of to be said about the reasoning of why people take photos in this style. Some believe it’s because it gives us some degree of control of how we want to look, taking the photo until we reach our perfected self. Some, because it gives them the ability to plaster a fantasy of happiness online. This mundane everyday activity has become a portal into our society. 

I don’t know if you have ever tried to explain social media to an OAP, but from my experience it’s clear that there is a digital generation gap. Just like how each country employs a unique culture around social media, age also defines how the person consumes media. Something that has become quite prominent is the difference of who young people interact with online compared to the elderly. The older you get the smaller your online circle becomes. My Grandparents alone only connect with their family and friends online, not too dissimilar from days without media. On the other hand, I tend to find that people in my age group engage in many tweets/videos/posts from people all over the world, from those who are well-known or any ordinary person. Growing up in a globalised world to see such large amounts of content from people we don’t personally know doesn’t necessarily bewilder me. It’s sometimes nice in these solitary circumstances to have an outlet of social content outside of my own home.

Photo by Oleg Magni on Pexels.com

Food is the most important good on this planet. It fuels us; it keeps us alive. More than that food has become a part of our heritage and in many places food provides a platform to express social class systems and cultures. The UK’s social structure isn’t as prominent as other countries, such as India, although the consumption of food from a range of local supermarkets signifies a looking glass into class in the UK. Undoubtably UK supermarkets market on two things: price and quality. Within the UK, common stereotypes place informal class labelling onto people according to where they shop. A prime example is Waitrose, a middle class haven. Of course, this example doesn’t illustrate major class discrimination but it can just demonstrate how the act of consuming has the ability to separate the classes. 

A more extreme example is India, which has a more segregated class system, as previously mentioned. To me, the way you consume and cook your food means merely nothing more than personal choice, however in India the way rice is cooked is related to the caste system. Cooking rice as a person from a low caste for a person of higher caste means the rice must be fried and not boiled. Simple changes to food preparation techniques shines light onto the perilous truth of the Indian caste system. However, during the Covid-19 crisis food has started to establish rather novel and wholesome meanings. Spending more time at home, losing the daily commute, we have more time to cook. Certainly the empty home-cooking supermarket shelves display that. As a nation we have been baking more and more than ever we are cherishing home cooked food, a positive change to our food consumption to come from this time.

When I sit down at the kitchen table and pick up my cup of tea, the scenario may come across as quintessentially British. Nevertheless, the history of tea and how it has weaved its way into British culture is darker and a more sombre story. It would be hard to ignore, whilst talking about consumption, capitalism and colonial histories. The majority of tea trading was managed by the British East India Company. This stereotypical British tradition originated from the east and brought to Britain as a luxurious commodity in the 17th century. The history of tea not as simple as it seems.

Photo by Dina Nasyrova on Pexels.com

Tea has become much more about the act of drinking it and more about the feelings and social situations associated with it. It often that when I go to a coffee shop, not that many people order a standard tea anymore: breakfast, builders… Hot beverages have become complex, flavoursome, sickly and more creative. Of course, the coffee shop is always wanting to create novel ways to drink a hot drink to sustain a thriving business and to suit the more youthful generation, but why has the classic tea been left behind? 

In my eyes, despite my age group not falling for tea like the people used to, it still remains a large part of our culture. The act of asking someone if they want a ‘cuppa’ in itself shows a caring attitude towards someone and helps build social networks between us. Moreover, a tea still has connotations of being warm, snug and sheltered. Like the photograph above, where the drink is only one of two subjects and the photo can still possess an understanding of the feelings associated with it. Merely the aesthetics of a warm drink has profound significance.

That is only a fraction of what consuming tea means to the individual, society and nation as a whole, and that’s before I took a sip.

It would be nonsensical to talk about all things consumption and not mention what happens to the rest of a product after you consume it. We live in a throwaway society, litter accumulates in every crack of the outdoors, filling ditches, shrubbery, and landfill. As I opened the Amazon delivery, the packaging is chucked in the bin as a matter of muscle memory. The photo below was taken from a litter pick around my local area, where a group of three of us discovered what filled our town’s enclosed areas, next to roads, in the bushes or buried deep under the dirt. We found objects of all sorts, including wallets, shoes, and computers. Most litter picking days went by uneventfully, bags spilling out with plastic bottles and metal cans. However, one particular day comes to mind. I wouldn’t say it was a profound turning point in how I viewed the value of waste, but what happened was primarily led by curiosity getting the best of us. As we scrambled down a ditch, where what felt like depths where no litter picker should ever go, we came across the underside of a bridge. Along with bags of what we considered no-good rubbish, were shoes, a chair, and a table with miscellaneous items placed on top. After taking a closer look and inspecting the area, we later naively realised that it was the dwellings of person. At the time, our main thoughts were regarded as concern and the notion of helplessness that we felt.

Litter picking in the local area: November 2018

What this short story has to offer in this context is the dynamic value of items and what that means for different people. As aforementioned, most of the litter that we picked up was of no use to us, apart from the odd broken number plate that hangs on my bedroom wall as a symbol of aesthetic rather than anything of value. Although, unique circumstances may mean that ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’, an old saying that demonstrates how malleable the value of an item is. The idea of culture defining the value of items is portrayed in North and South Korea. An observation made by a North Korea defector was how South Korean’s threw away many objects of value. She couldn’t believe that someone would leave an item, such as a television for landfill. As a voice for western culture, this is certainly the case. Why are we so wasteful? The functionality of capitalist societies is partially to blame for our wasteful behaviour. The expectation that an excess of waste is a sign of lucrative production. This alone says a lot about how we may want to amend these attitudes towards the value of ‘waste’ to adopt a more minimalist lifestyle, one that will not continue to degrade the environment and instead support the concept of ‘reusing’ items and redefining their value.

Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

Certainly, during a time of a global health crisis, time feels expendable, everyday similar to the last, but in a slightly contorted way I hope that this has acknowledged the ‘everyday’ not as ordinary as it may seem.

At the end of the day, consumption raises questions of fairness and unequal distribution. It has the capability to display differences between people, which only create a wider gap between groups, and individuals. However, distinctions in consumption patterns and personal habits creates a unique identity for every person. This is something that is heavily underrated in a world of 7 billion humans, most of whom are striving to be extraordinary in their own, unique way.

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