OK, I know the Officer's Club is not the most successful and salubrious outlet on the high street, but is this scrapping the bottom of the barrel really likely to get people through the door...or is it actually a clever recognition that the bottom of the barrel is where their clientele hang out?
Via a post on the Living Principles blog (worth reading in its own right) I came across this thought provoking piece on materialism and sustainability (a pet topic of mine) by author, futurologist and designer Bruce Sterling.
The start point for his thinking is a belief that our relationship with 'stuff' is changing…
Firstly: in days gone by, material goods were difficult and expensive to produce, making many of the things we now take for granted scarce and so expensive to own. These goods therefore had a value (in the social status they imbued) separate from their actual usefulness: 'stuff' both signified your absolute place in society (the cultural objects needed for membership and acceptability) and allowed you to jockey for (marginal) position vs your peers.
But that era is now coming to an end. With cost of production tumbling across the board, such scarcity value is on the wane: if we ignore the obscenely rich, most things are now broadly (and quickly) available to most people in the same social/cultural context most of the time.
Secondly: even where the potential to 'flaunt it' does remain, with the aftermath of the global financial meltdown still so evident, material ostentation as a mark of status/success just doesn't hold the potency it once did. In fact, in an act of cultural inverse snobbery, it can actually be frowned upon (if you've still got 'it' you are probably at least partially responsible for the rest of us losing ours).
Finally: the majority of us are (hopefully) becoming more accutely aware that our runaway train of materialistic living is just not sustainable, damaging the world around us and (ironically) depleting the resources that our very stuff is made from in the first place (which isn't a good thing whether you are concerned about said stuff or the world).
So now we are coming to the realisation that stuff is just stuff, and having too much of it doesn't just have the potential to reflect badly on us socially (reversing the experience of previous generations), it can actually get in the way of the life we want to lead. Because, as stuff becomes so cheap and easy to acquire, we realise how it just so easily clutters, even overwhelms us. At last the truth is dawning: material consumerism doesn't make us happy.
As Strirling says: "the hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself".
But what's should our response be? How do we balance the stuff we own with the sustainability 21st Century living requires...and our own sanity?
One option is to go to the other extreme: to opt out of consumerism entirely, becoming what Stirling calls a 'hair shirt' green. But whilst a clearly sustainable position, his argument is that this oppositional stance is not just intelectually lazy (avoiding the search for a third way), but realistically impractical for most in the modern (Western) world...and actually just rather boring, truth be told (something destined to kill any movement no matter how important).
In seeking a way forward, Stirling suggests a different model of sustainability, using the positive value delivered by our possessions as a bench mark for decluttering our individual lives and society in general.
To do this he suggests catagorising the things we own in 4 ways...
Things of beauty
Things of emotional significance
Things of practical use
Everything else (which is just stuff, and the majority of what we possess)
Things of beauty Each of us will have a few possessions of true beauty (however subjectively defined this is) that we own and want to display. Not to show off necessarily (though there may be a bit of that still!), but more because we want to share the pleasure these things bring to us with others. And such aesthetic value can be seen as sustainability in a very pure form (beauty is eternal, after all), and not something to be ashamed of owning. But what of items that are attractive but not truly beautiful? Well, as Stirling says "then they're not really beautiful". They're simply more nice stuff cluttering up the 'everything else' pile.
Things of emotional significance As with things of beauty, we will all have items of emotional significance in our lives. But again, probably far less than we think. True sentimental value is not only emotionally important, but has a significance that can again be viewed through the lens of sustainability...both for you and for your family, now and in the future. In fact, in the sense that it is properly irreplaceable, an item of sentimental value is arguably the ultimate unrenewable resource.
But how many things in our lives truly have this significance? This is one thing Stirling really challenged me to consider: how many of our hoarded possessions have genuine emotional value, as opposed to simply holding us to emotional blackmail? Think, for example, all those presents from loved ones you never wanted but feel unable to throw away.
Again, in Stirling's words: "all of us have sentimental keepsakes that we can't bear to part with. But we also have many other objects which simply provoke a panicky sense of potential loss – they don't help us to establish who we are, or to become the person we want to be...Is this keepsake so very important that you would want to share its story with your friends, your children, your grandchildren? Or are you just using this clutter as emotional insulation?"
Things of practical use Then, finally, there are those things which Stirling sees as the most fundamentally important of our belongings. These are the tools we use in our daily lives. Rather than the fripperies, gizmos and (ex)status symbols we typical splash out on, it is on these seemingly mundane items that he believes we should actually be spending good money. And not only that, but that this expense is sustainable behaviour rather than us simply being flash with the cash.
Beds, shoes, frying pans, vacuum cleaners, whatever the things are that we use day in and day out, these are worthy of spending on the very best we can afford. Because to do otherwise, to buy cheap, is a false economy: all it usually means is that you have something which doesn't do it's job properly (often resulting in hidden personal costs) and which breaks or wears out quickly (requiring you to replace: both costly and unsustainable). Particularly so today, when many modern products aren't built to last, but are built with (the desirability of) disposabilty assumed: one of the fundamental flaws of modern manufacturing and consumerism.
And as a serial purchaser of cheap washing machines, until persuaded to splash out not much more on quality, I can speak from painful experience. But this also means being realistic about what ARE the essentials in our life, and what are just passing fancies or (clutching for) status symbols.
So spending 3 figures on a pair of high quality (not 'designer'), well made, comfortable shoes you wear every day (something I've never done), rather than spending a tenner at Primark (closer to my usual price point!), may actually be the right think to do. But do we really need an X5 when our driving doesn't go much beyond dropping kids at school and the weekly shop (no matter how much we might post-rationalise the necessity), when a Hyundai will be much cheaper and work just as well?
There you have it: you've identified what's truly beautiful, truly emotionally significant, and truly practically useful (and hopefully of lasting quality) in your life. What you now have left is 'everything else', and 'everything else' is just stuff. And stuff, according to Sterling, just gets in the way of life. So bin it, sell it, put it in to storage. But whatever you do, free yourself from its hold over you.
Which I have to admit I've not yet put into practice in my own life. But as a terrible hoarder, this is something that has genuinely got me thinking about the things I own.
And maybe these same criteria of sustainable, uncluttered living are things we should be thinking about in a work context as well. Are we contributing items of beauty, emotional significance or lasting practical use to the world.
Or just adding to the pile of pointless, disposable stuff?