Subscribe to Sharon Fraser Subscribe to Sharon Fraser's comments

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things that’s interesting — and often discouraging — about reading and publishing my archives is that much of my 20-year-old material is still relevant today. It happens regularly that I read a piece where someone is venting or explaining or speculating and I say, “Hey, that sounds familiar. I wrote about that 20 years ago!”

Here’s another example, this one from 1990. It’s almost seasonal.

February 27, 1990

I went out on the afternoon of February 14 to buy some ingredients for a special dinner and, I confess, I was astounded to see the shopping that was going on. There were lineups in the flower store and crowds in the card and giftwrap and candy stores. Every awful item that someone could think of to put a red heart on was on display. Valentine’s Day, it seems, has become a great occasion for consumerism — following on the heels of Christmas, occurring just at a time to give us a little shopping respite before Easter.

Easter? Well, apparently so. A few years ago, I was driving in my car when I happened upon a commercial done by one of those private radio guys who seems to be under the constant influence of amphetamines. He was talking about a mile a minute and I didn’t pay much attention but finally, he came to his point: “Come on down,” he gibbered, “and hurry! Remember, there’s only two more shopping days ’til Easter!”

Until Easter? I have to say this took me completely by surprise. Easter had never struck me as being a time for obsessive shopping. How long can it take, I asked myself, to buy an Easter lily and a chocolate bunny? But I made a point of looking around — I’m not a natural shopper and watcher for sales — and sure enough, Easter had become simply another day to sell stuff, another day in which we were encouraged to be somewhat mindless consumers.

The next day, I did a commentary on CBC radio about turning the most sacred observance in the Christian calendar into a shopping spree, in which I pushed the idea a little farther than the malls had; I suggested the merchants might advertise something like “Resurrection Reductions” or “Last Supper Specials.”

Some people in the radio audience weren’t amused and, predictably I suppose, they were more offended by me than by the sales themselves. They said I was sacrilegious.

All this came to mind when I saw the shopping crowds on Valentine’s Day and sensed the contradiction that’s going on in our lives. On the one hand, we’re supposed to be reducing what we buy as a favour to our environment. On the other hand, we’re being coerced by advertising and seduced by sales into buying luxuries with more and more abandon with more and more occasions being designated as gift-giving opportunities.

I am not optimistic enough to accept that business at all levels, from manufacturing to retail, is taking the environmental crisis seriously. I have very serious doubts that business, without strict government regulation, will take the necessary steps to be part of the solution in our present predicament. I don’t expect at the moment that the government will have anything to do with regulating how much people may buy or with what kind of persuasion is being used to increase that buying. But there are baby steps that could be taken immediately.

One of those steps? Why not start with packaging? We all talk about it, we all deplore it, and we continue to buy goods in it because we have so little choice.

I tend to leave little household purchases until special days, then I giftwrap them and make them into a little production. So this year for Valentine’s Day, I bought a grapefruit knife, an electric coil that boils water in a cup for making instant coffee in hotel rooms, and a small catnip toy. The entire purchase was under $15 but a large percentage of that must have been the packaging. Each small item was in a useless hard plastic bubble, mounted on glossy, multi-coloured cardboard. Don’t tell me I should have unpackaged them in the store — I needed the butcher knife to liberate them once I got them home. Besides, although that makes a point, it does nothing for the environment and I’m not a person who enjoys making a scene.

And don’t tell me if I shopped around I could have found the items unpackaged. That assumes that everyone who shops has a car and has unlimited time to search out environmentally friendly items. No indeed, the government should regulate packaging.

Before I went home on Valentine’s Day, I went to the Port of Wines store in Spring Garden Place. This is a provincial government business that didn’t even have a paper bag in the store and, except for the fact that I was carrying a shopping bag, would have used a large plastic bag for one small bottle of wine.

The time will come — it will probably have become a dire emergency — when governments will have to take a more active role in regulating consumerism but if they’re not inclined to do it just yet, maybe they could at least look around and consider how they might set an example.



Get Adobe Flash player