No Shame: Creative Consumers and the Ethics of Disposal
Consumer culture, with its ethos of ‘use-up’, ‘use-more’ and ‘throwaway’, encourages many taken-for-granted everyday practices that seriously threaten the long-term sustainability of life on earth. Yet, research into marketing and consumer ethics has focused almost entirely on issues associated with the (un)ethical acquisition rather than disposition of goods (Strutton et al. 1997). With the exception of recycling (e.g. Davies et al. 2002), other facets of disposal ethics, such as reuse of discarded goods, buying secondhand items from charity shops, car boot sales and online auctions (Lastovicka and Fernandez, 2005) have received little attention. In addition, from a consumer perspective, the disposition of possessions entails “the process of detachment from self” (Young and Wallendorf, 1989) and there is often a sense of self-identity threat or shame attached to the notion of ‘reuse’, a shame that makes us fear appearing mean-spirited in a world of excess, less than glamorous in this era of the luxury brand. In this project we argue for an ‘ethics of disposal’ that celebrates consumer creativity in the reuse of products and materials, and overcomes the sense of stigma attached to such practices. To make our points we will focus only on the reuse of discarded items, as a neglected aspect of disposal ethics and consumer/marketing ethics more broadly.
Our work will explore how consumers put discarded goods to new and often highly creative uses. Using a variety of media sources, including film, websites, internet discussion boards, documentaries and newspaper reports, we illustrate a variety of imaginative practices around scavenging, collecting, salvaging and recycling. Sometimes it is out of necessity, such as people who live in squatter communities or the homeless finding scraps of food and clothing from other consumers’ leftovers. At other times it is out of choice, for example, those who, for ethical reasons, live out of the waste food they find in supermarket dustbins, food that has reached its sell-by-date but is still perfectly edible. A growing number of people are calling themselves ‘Freegans’ and practising the art of 'freeganism' which is ‘the recovery of usable items, including food, from the waste of others’ (http://freegan.org.uk). Others, usually artists, search the streets for abandoned objects that inspire their muse, recrafting skirting boards, windscreen wipers, metal frames and other assorted bric-a-brac into sculptures or using them as subject matter for their paintings. Many artists now proudly claim that their ‘Junk Art’ (see photo 1 below) is helping to clean the streets and, at the same time, create beauty out of ugliness (see http://www.renkrn8.com.au).
Photo 1: ‘Squidfish’ by Steve Oatway, Junk Artist