Christmas, business and the cost-of-living crisis

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By Dr Jennifer TyreeHageman and Dr Scott Taylor
Birmingham Business School

Decisions about how we make Christmas happen, whether we choose to support smaller local businesses, and the way they are leading us towards a different future, might even reduce some of those tensions we face.

The British Christmas holiday is always a time of tension – will the weather or transport allow us to get together? Will the food be good? Will everyone like their presents? Will everyone get on well on the day?

This year there’s two more tensions to add to the traditional list. First, most of us are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis – inflation at its highest rate since the early 1980s, mortgage interest rates rising, and the value of the pound decreasing significantly since the EU referendum in 2016, especially in relation to our main trading partners in the EU and the US, making many imported goods more expensive. Wages have risen on average since the start of the pandemic, but long-term trends suggest many are in a similar position to teachers and nurses: experiencing a real and considerable decline in wage value relative to cost of living. Second, all of the science we have suggests we’re moving fast towards catastrophic climate change, mostly driven by the way we live our carbon- and pollution-intensive lives in the Global North.

A cost-of-living crisis most visible in low wages, and the growing realisation that our consumption choices have real environmental impacts, suggest we should be thinking about how we can be more responsible and mindful consumers over the holiday season. But does it really make sense to encourage others and ourselves to support responsible businesses this December? Isn’t Christmas going to be even more expensive and demanding when we try to support responsible businesses that charge more for, say, a humanely reared turkey or clothes made in a well-managed factory? And on top of the extra cost, trying to be responsible, sustainable consumers requires more time and energy. Right now, most of us are under multiple pressures – concerned about our personal finances, our health, our job security, and the people we want to be with over the holiday. So don’t we have enough to worry about at the moment without feeling bad about buying stuff from Amazon/budget supermarkets/low cost factories in south Asia?

Yes and no. This isn’t just about criticising how most of us live – there’s a much more positive (Christmas!) message here. Over the last five years people working in the Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business here have produced a huge volume of research guiding us all towards more responsible practices, both at work in their recommendations for responsible management, and in our everyday lives in their guidance on responsible consumption. All of this work, freely available at the Responsible Business Hub, has been underpinned by one purpose – to show that if we don’t all make more effort to support responsible businesses, we and succeeding generations will suffer. Being more responsible, in our own work and in the businesses we support by buying stuff from them, isn’t an option – it’s an obligation. But, and this is the key Christmas message, it can also be fun, and if we’re careful and thoughtful, affordable.

Take the example of bread, as described in this recent report from the Open University. During the acute phase of the pandemic in the UK, bread took on a lot of importance (almost as much as toilet rolls). Many of those confined to their homes tried to make it; others were willing to stand in long queues to buy it; it became a significant small comfort, both physical and social. During 2020, bakers were one of the occupational groups working harder than they ever had, many making bread by hand using ancient techniques in small batches. This is the kind of bread that nourishes, feels good, lasts a long time, and is sometimes dismissed as overpriced and only for the middle classes. But buying good locally made bread has a long list of positive physical effects, it lasts for a long time, it has multiple uses in the kitchen, and buying it helps small businesses employ skilled people.

Or take the example of clothing. In the UK we buy more clothes per person than in any other country in Europe. The fashion industry (notably fast fashion) is under immense scrutiny for its poor sustainability performance. Problematic working conditions in supply networks and negative environmental consequences make shopping responsibly for new clothes a headache. But plenty of businesses are offering more sustainable options – and these are becoming easier to find, as this website shows. Well-run companies are introducing more responsibly produced items that are fair trade and/or sustainably sourced, while others remind us that fashion designers draw on past trends to create new ones so that sometimes it makes sense to go to the source. Giving vintage clothing and accessories or a gift card to one of these shops creates an opportunity for the recipient to curate a unique and individual style.

Or we may start thinking outside the box of stuff – giving ‘experience gifts’ rather than toys and gadgets. Researchers suggest that the richness of our experiences makes us happier than material things. Often we find that the satisfaction of buying or receiving a thing fades quickly as new and better products hit the store. Giving the people we care about an experience for Christmas also makes gifting less wasteful – less packaging, less resource intensive, and fewer things in the bin. So this year, consider giving tickets to a performance (supporting a local theatre company), a zoo pass, or a podcast subscription. Or, if you are the creative type, try making something yourself, like a painting, or a homemade video, or designing a treasure hunt. Giving experience gifts can not only mean spending more time with the people we care about but also improve our collective health and wellbeing.

There are lots of other examples like this, and they all lead to the same conclusion. Responsible management and business has to be supported by people making choices about where and what to buy for Christmas. Decisions about how we make Christmas happen, whether we choose to support smaller local businesses, and the way they are leading us towards a different future, might even reduce some of those tensions we face.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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