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Green, ethical... and mildly nauseating

Updated Thursday, 29th November 2007

Some seasonal observations on the Guardian's Christmas green gift guide.

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I walk down to the Post Office – we still have one – to buy a 'Guardian'. It's tinselled up inside the shop and I catch a glimpse of some Santas. What gets me down most, though, is the low background Xmas glitter.

As usual, this time of the year depresses me. I’m a media studies lecturer with an interest in popular culture. So theoretically I should like Christmas because millions of other people do. After all, you don’t even need to be a Christian. The big Xmas festival is above all a secular celebration of shininess, warm mouthfuls and giddying technology that just might keep away the mid-winter blues.

As it happens, though, I hate the whole thing. And I find myself for a few weeks each year almost agreeing with that doyen of cultural elitists, Theodor Adorno. Adorno condemned popular taste in the strongest possible terms, on the grounds that working class people enslave themselves through their obsessive consumption of media and the grotesque pleasures dished out by the ‘culture industry’.

Yet glancing at the ‘Guardian’ as I walk back from the Post Office it strikes me there’s nothing particularly working class about the Christmas consumption spree. A 16 page section clearly designed to appeal to that paper’s middle class readership announces itself as, ‘The green gift guide: Gorgeous! And ethical too’. There isn’t a shred of irony that I can detect. Instead the images of objects, each with a little ethical rationale and price tag, roll on for page after gushing page.

What was intermediate depression now switches to mild nausea. It’s just awful - the very idea that we can consume our way to a just and sustainable world. Preposterous! Surely the consumption on offer here is worse than the non-green norm. At least straightforward consumption isn’t about consuming people’s souls.

Then, quite suddenly, I start to laugh as I look at one of the featured products more closely. It’s a wooden elephant with bristles growing out of its side. ‘These elephant nail brushes make excellent stocking fillers. Made in India under fair trade conditions from wood found on the jungle floor; no trees are felled’. Well isn’t that convenient. Not only green raw materials but the workers are treated with dignity and paid … ? Well, they’re paid something.

As I look again it’s the sheer absurdity that strikes home. The mouse, ‘handmade in the UK and, crucially, stuffed with organic catnip’; some ‘babies’ doughnut rattles’ that ‘are fairly traded and handknitted’; and a pincushion made from old sweaters going for £21.95. Maybe the journalist is having a laugh after all. In any event I feel slightly better for giggling.

Ethical consumption isn’t really a joke of course. And I recognise the sincerity and good faith of the growing band of people who engage in it. But in my view it is an irrelevance at best, and a dangerous distraction at worst, given the major political task that we’re now faced with of building a fair and sustainable world for all.

Still, that’s probably enough finger wagging for one blog. There’s a limit to what people will tolerate in the way of a lecture at this time of year. Now where’s my box of baubles – I want that silver plastic pig with the pink satin bow. That’s what I call a Christmas decoration. It really gets you in the mood.





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