Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 9, 23 August 1999

Consumerism in Central and Eastern Europe C O N S U M E R I S M:
"We have learned the freedom to consume very well."
An interview with Yvonna Gaillyova

Andreas Beckmann

RNDr Yvonna Gaillyova, CSc, is the director of the Veronica Environmental Institute in Brno, Czech Republic. Veronica was established in the mid 1980s around the magazine of the same name by a group of scientists and artists interested in linking culture with nature protection and developing popular awareness of environmental issues. Since 1989, Veronica has developed into one of the most respected environmental organizations in the Czech Republic, with extensive activities in eco-counselling, watershed protection, nature conservation in southern Moravia and sustainable development in the area of the White Carpathians.

Yvonna Gaillyova is one of the leading figures in eco-counselling both in the Czech Republic and Europe as a whole and has served on various government commissions, particularly ones focused on eco-labelling. She holds degrees in solid state physics and optics from Masaryk University in Brno. She is married to an astronomer and has two sons.

Many people have noted a wave of "consumerism" that has come over Central Europe since 1989. What do they mean by this?

We could go into a long discussion about the various nuances of the word "consumption." In the pejorative sense in which it is often used by social critics it refers to consumption for the sake of consumption rather than need.

Aren't you making a very subjective distinction - one person's need is another person's want? Isn't it the right and freedom of people to decide how they want to lead their lives - to create their own identity and lifestyle? The clothes they wear, the places they live, the food they eat are all expressions of their personality and identity. Precisely at the time when Central Europeans are finally able to shape their own identities more than ever before, you want to limit them!

Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, a strange part of the itinerary on the rare visits of people from the East Bloc to the West was the so-called shopping time. The opportunity to choose from a wealth of goods intoxicated even those who considered themselves to be above such things. It is no wonder then that the flood of goods from all over the world that came here after 1989 became regarded as a necessary part of freedom. Everyone could buy what they wanted to buy. And so they did. At a time when serving customers was clearly a burden for shop assistants, who could know that the free market depends on demand for its products in order to survive - in short, that the market trains the consumer.

At a time when the beginning consumer feels like an Alice in Wonderland among all of the products that are on offer, training them is easy. If the consumers themselves do not know what they need, they are simply told what they need. Their laundry can be cleaner than clean. Their cars can be faster, their skin smoother. What is more, there are many things that are on sale now which will surely come in handy at some point in the future. We have learned the freedom to consume very well.

But in the same way that in former times of repression we were used to having "them" be responsible for everything, it is very difficult for us now to take on responsibility for the consequences of the production, transport and consumption of the goods that we buy with such relish - for the consequences that negatively impact not only on our own environment, but also very often on the environment of the planet as a whole. Considering the raw materials for the goods we buy, how they even got here - such considerations are very complicated. In fact, if we wanted to know details, it would not be possible to get concrete information. On the other hand, it should be at least somewhat clear to everyone that unnecessary consumption limits not only their own right, but also the rights of many other people to a healthy environment.

Is there anything particular to consumerism in Central Europe?

The conditions of the period of transition in which we Central Europeans presently find ourselves are undoubtedly very different from those in which consumers (hopefully) learn to orient themselves in more stable countries.

Czech consumers, who until now have considered ads to be a source of information, are perhaps beginning, gradually, to look for independent sources of information. But practically no one here has or provides such information. Consumers here also do not have any place where they can learn what they should look out for when they go shopping. We are missing good consumer associations that monitor the production, sale and quality of products. We are missing any kind of consumer-oriented state policy which, for example, would at least give a basic indication of products that are relatively less damaging to the environment. We are missing specialized consumer organizations that could increase popular consciousness not only by pointing out clear environmental aspects of products, but could also draw attention to the distances these products have been transported to the consumer, the origin of the raw materials they contain, the shelf-life of the product, its special design for easy repair and so on.

I am convinced that if people are confronted with such appeals, they cannot not think about things; they cannot continue shopping without thinking.

But people here already buy toilet paper made from recycled paper and make sure that their soft drink bottles are returnable...

Of course, I do not want to naively maintain that an informed and educated consumer is automatically no longer a "bad" consumer. That is far from the case. Producers are very adept at responding to so-called "green" consumers who have only a superficial consciousness. Such consumers, for example, purchase with great satisfaction products that are recyclable, and they are particularly pleased by large amounts of packaging which they can throw into special containers. Truly "green" consumption has yet to reach the Czech Republic.

Superficiality and inconsistency are traits of our society that make our path to independent decision-making regarding what we want and what we need much more difficult. In combination with the feeling that everything was denied to us in the past and that we are so poor compared to other Europeans, we are quickly willing to forget the information that we have gained about the harmful effects of using some product and reach for the cheapest one or buy, yet again, something we don't really need.

What makes a "good" consumer?

It depends on who you're asking, doesn't it? From the environmental perspective, a "good" consumer is someone who does not buy for pleasure. This is where it begins. He should also know something about the world and about the product that he is purchasing. In the world of shopping, though, environmental information is very complicated and usually practically inaccessible. At the same time, only complete information about the product - from the product's cradle to its grave - is of real significance to the decision-making of the consumer. To be able to really gauge the impact of a product on the environment, we need to know where and how it was produced, what raw materials went into its production, how far it was transported to us (and how), and so on.

Equally important are the social issues surrounding a product. Awareness of these issues has led to new movements, such as those calling for fair trade with countries of the Third World or those supporting organic agriculture, which have already appeared in the Czech Republic. However, such groups make up only an inconsequential part of the market and are completely overshadowed by the mainstream of consumers focused on thoughtless consumption.

You're appealing to people's idealism. Wouldn't it be far more effective to rely on their own self interest, their own economic calculations, by getting prices to reflect the hidden environmental and other costs of a product. If the price of bananas included the true costs of their production and transportation - from destruction of the rain forest to the real costs related to their transportation across the ocean - many more people would opt for locally grown apples.

True. And this is something that should be worked on - to introduce, for example, special taxes on goods or production processes that are especially destructive to the environment. But at this stage at least, achieving such "real" prices in the near future seems unrealistic. In our global society, all countries would have to jointly decide what the "true" cost of a product should be. Determining external costs is difficult in practical terms and even more difficult politically.

Look at the plans for introducing a tax on carbon, which may now finally be getting off the ground. Taxing sources of carbon dioxide, one of the main factors responsible for global warming, makes a lot of sense. But it is proving exceedingly difficult to put it into practice. Under these circumstances, I have greater faith in consumers making intelligent decisions. More people are motivated to quit smoking by the threat of getting cancer than the high price of cigarettes.

In North America, some groups promote "buy nothing days" - is this something that should be introduced here as well?

I am afraid that such events may have the opposite effect - that people buy in advance whatever they would have purchased on the day of the event and afterwards are pleased by how they saved the world. In some towns, cars with even- and odd-numbered license plates are allowed on the streets on different days. So people have two cars: one with an even- and one with an odd-numbered plate.

I think there are more carefully thought-out ways to make people aware of their own consumption and needs. Car sharing, for instance. People share the costs of purchasing and maintaining a car that they use for the needs of their family but do not own themselves. The car serves several families. Incidentally, apartment buildings here used to have common washing machines. They were used daily, did not stand idle most of the time in our bathrooms, as is the case today in individual households. Such solutions, for example, make it possible to buy an expensive but very high quality and efficient machine.

It is no wonder that people in the West who are looking for ways to escape the clutches of consumption are returning to such models. Of course there are many other examples of former customs that belong in the textbooks of sustainability: we still (at least in rural areas) go shopping with a shopping bag and use public transportation.

What is the way forward? Can you suggest a way to achieve more sustainable consumption patterns in this part of the world?

I have already spoken about the need for consumer information and education. I have also noted the behaviour of the state, which in the Czech Republic has had some pretty devastating effects: take, for example, state-subsidized energy prices, which in no way reflect reality and furthermore do not take into account damage to the environment caused by energy production.

On the other hand, a look at Western Europe reveals small islands of more intelligent consumer behaviour but still no general trend toward intelligent consumption. The special concepts and "non-consumption" oriented groups or communities that we hear about and visit in the West are really only experiments of a minority of very motivated people.

By no means do I want to doubt the significance of such groups. I think there are many people here who are still ignorant but would be willing to substantially change their behaviour. The decisions of such consumers can have a relatively significant influence on producers. At the very least, they make up an alternative segment (as for example is the case in the area of organic agriculture), which under certain conditions can take over a significant portion of the market. I also believe that committed consumers would gladly adopt what I call a "zero" solution - they would simply not buy a lot of things that do not fit their criteria (such as strawberries in January).

Educating and raising awareness of consumers requires a lot of work. Efforts in these areas are beginning to appear in the countries of Central Europe but are still developing very slowly. Controlled labels on products, eco-labelling, compete with labels that producers have "awarded" themselves in order to attract more discerning consumers. Products with unauthorized "bio" labels are everywhere. Legislation protects consumers, but it is so vague that no one dares to use it.

A big problem is that the public sector does not know how to give preference to environmentally friendly products and services. For example, towns do not know how to order a building with low energy use from a construction company, even though it is the town that will, of course, be paying the future energy bills for the building.

These examples are but one more indication of how little still we are able to influence what is offered on the market and how little we are aware of the consequences of bad consumer behaviour.

Interview conducted and translated by Andreas Beckmann, 14 August 1999




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