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Wednesday, 13 May 2009 16:52

The new frugality is an old idea

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There’s talk all over about America’s newfound love affair with frugality. What Time magazine has dubbed the Great Recession is threatening the American consumer culture, pundits and writers say, forcing us to re-think whether we need the biggest plasma screen television or the newest and greatest cell phone.

But it’s not just the gadgets that we’re re-thinking. Read the newspapers and news magazines and they also tell you that we’re eating out less, going less often to the high-end grocery stores, keeping the old car longer and putting off repairs to the house.

This may be new lifestyle for many, but not at my house. My wife has always been the “bring it back down to earth” person in our family. She enjoys nothing better than catching me or one of our children talking about how we “need” to get one of those or we “need ” to do that. “Need?” she’ll ask, eyebrows raised. OK, scratch that.

My wife’s point is this: for too many of us, what we “need” and what we “want” seldom diverge. They are one and the same, and so gadgets and other stuff piles up in closets and under beds as we gobble up everything the retailers throw at us.

Who knows whether this new emphasis on frugality is a fad or a permanent change, but it is interesting to note how lifestyle choices like these ebb and flow with the economic times. I’m old enough to remember the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo of the early 1970s. Price spiked, lines formed, and all of a sudden the country’s consciousness about energy and where it came from were all over the news.

Then came the late 1970s and early 1980s and inflation, job losses and more focus on our energy. Both presidents Nixon and Carter tried to raise our awareness of the country’s need to change its policies, but even during those bad economic times Americans didn’t embrace a radical new lifestyle.

But there was a rising consciousness of what was happening. Those times did signal the start of a concerted, mainstream environmental movement. The idea of using less, recycling and saving energy became commonplace, even though we didn’t all embrace it. The 1960s subculture had fomented into a fringe movement that now had advocates all the way to the White House. I remember some guy in Fayetteville who taught at the college near our house, and we’d see him riding his bike to work even in the winter.

That memory came back to me last week when we wrote a couple of stories about farmers and retailers. One story was about the growing popularity of biking to work again. Companies like Mast General Store even pay their workers to bike, figuring the benefits to the environment and their employees’ health are worth the investment.

The other story we wrote was about Whittier farmer William Shelton who has begun selling his products to individual families in addition to maintaining a wholesale business. Sign up for a share and you’ll get fresh vegetables each week from his farm.

Many growers are doing this, but Shelton is the first we’ve heard about who has been on the farm for several generations and has changed his business model to connect with the growing demand for local food. The markets also influenced his decision. Farmers like Shelton find it hard to compete against huge corporate farms and foreign competition.

And so he and others have decided to sell their food to people like you and me, counting on our desire for fresh and tasty food rather than the bland vegetables available in our grocery stores. These growers are also counting on the fact we, the consumer, will work harder to get our food. The large retailers are awfully convenient, but — just like biking to work — the benefits of eating local food go beyond taste to helping create the kind of community that most of us want to live in.

Last week’s paper brought together several of the issues arising from this new way of thinking that this Great Recession is helping promulgate. The demise of a consumer culture changes the equation of our lives. Cheaper, faster and easier don’t add up to better. The truth is that we’ve always known this, but often it takes eating a little humble pie before we remember what our parents and grandparents tried teaching us a long time ago.

(Scott McLeod can be reached in This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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