Value and valuing Christmas: towards a non-price-based theory of value

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By Professor John Bryson, Professor of Enterprise and Competitiveness
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham


In 2016 and again in 2017, I produced a Christmas blog that explored twelve economic impacts of Christmas. More recently, I commented on Small Business Saturday and the importance of responsible consumption during the December shopping Christmas frenzy. This year I am not exploring the economic impacts of Christmas, but I am interested in considering the value of Christmas. Value is too often taken for granted and perhaps it is too often assumed that value is equated with economic value or too simply defined as profit or revenue.

There are perhaps two ways of valuing Christmas. On the one hand, there is the commercialisation of Christmas in which one day of the year is given over to a moment of excessive consumption. This includes expenditure on consumer durables including unwanted gifts. It also includes the manufacture and consumption of many tons of plastic including microplastics that contribute to environmental pollution. The commercialisation of Christmas is also associated with stress and marital breakdowns. Christmas Day comes with so many expectations as we try to make it better, bigger or more memorable than last year. For many, this involves something more akin to a military campaign as they try to balance work, everyday family life with planning for December 25. For many, this period of the year is associated with credit-based consumption as they borrow to participate in the commercialisation of Christmas and by participating become indebted.

On the other hand, Christmas is a moment of celebration and reflection. It does not need to be associated with excessive consumption. It does not need to be associated with stress. This is to place another value on Christmas that differentiates between Christmas and commercialisation. This is to search for the real ‘value’ of Christmas. The problem is that value is difficult to define and is too often a debate about economic value rather than other forms of value. Value is too often determined by price. This over-emphasis on price makes it difficult to develop an alternative non-price-based theory of value. Such a non-price-based theory of value would highlight the importance of non-monetarised inputs and the role they play in families, communities and throughout society. If anything, non-monetarised inputs must be placed at the centre of Christmas. This is to replace the focus on commercialisation with one that emphasises making a wider non-monetarised contribution to society[1]. Money, via gift-giving, too often acts as a mediator or measure of the quality of a relationship or of the projection of a family’s status through acts of consumption. Relationships rather than consumption must play an important role in any discussion of the value of Christmas.

The key question for each of us to consider is what sort of value do we place on Christmas? What do we want to remember about Christmas 2018? Is this about a moment of excessive consumption, a memory based on the purchase, exchange and consumption of products or is it about something else? This is a difficult problem as we need to move beyond the current academic debate on value and to develop an alternative non-monetarised debate.

It is possible to differentiate between two types of commodities. First, there are market-based products or those that involve relatively little non-market time to produce and consume. These include most physical goods that are manufactured and sold for profit. Second, there are activities that are time-intensive and often involve the production of experiences. Such goods are produced, often co-produced or co-created, using comparatively limited inputs from the market but require significant quantities of non-market time. These are commodities that are time-intensive and may involve no financial exchange. They include looking after small children, engaging in everyday family activities, cycling, walking, chatting, gossiping and a vast array of leisure activities. Substitution can occur between market-based products and time-intensive activities; compare, for example, childcare undertaken by parents or paying for childcare or alternatively dining out or cooking at home.

We need a discussion regarding the value of non-monetarised activities and of activities that are time-intensive rather than market-intensive. There is a real danger that in today’s fast-paced consumer society that we substitute time-intensive activities with goods-intensive commodities. Christmas has become part of this process in which monetarised transactions appear to distort and, in many instances, dominate what should be a time-intensive activity. This is to fall in to the trap of monetarising relationships and of monetarising Christmas.

There is a tension here. A Christmas based on time-intensive activities with limited engagement with market-based products and services has a perverse consequence. Every act of consumption involving market-based products and services is also an act that creates jobs, sustains jobs and also destroys jobs. Thus, the true value of Christmas must be a balance between time-intensive activities versus market-based transactions. The problem is that, for many, the balance has shifted too far towards a Christmas that is centred on market-based transactions.  As far as I am concerned the value of Christmas 2018 will not be centred on market-based transactions, but rather experiences – those special moments that are based on the most valuable ‘commodity’ on this planet – time.


[1] This is a task that I explore in a recent paper that considers “Alternative-substitute business models and the provision of local infrastructure: Alterity as a solution to financialization and public-sector failure”. See: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016718518302021


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