Diverse Economies and Alternative Channels of Consumption

A couple of months ago I went to a fascinating conference/workshop organised by the Geography department at the University of Leicester. It was called ‘Diverse Alternatives: living, working and playing differently in the capitalist mainstream’ and followed the department’s distinguished annual lecture by Professor Katherine Gibson (of J-K Gibson Graham) which was held the previous evening. J.K. Gibson-Graham is a pen name shared by feminist economic geographers – Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham. Their first book ‘The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy’ was published in 1996 and I read it last year – much of it over a fieldwork weekend in Newcastle, sat very contently in various coffee shops around the city.

My discovery of J-K Gibson Graham came at the perfect time as I’d be struggling to conceptualise what second-hand shopping (specifically the nearly new sales I study for my PhD) was. Was it an alternative form of consumption? Informal consumption? Inconspicuous consumption? Ordinary consumption? Whilst shopping as an activity and economic action has been studied now extensively by academics, second-hand consumption had been studied only a little. It had been pushed aside, yet it’s so common (isn’t it?). It’s fairly ordinary, yet so complex – perhaps that is what made it difficult to study. J-K Gibson Graham came to the rescue with their map of the diverse economy, the concept of which inspired the workshop I presented at in Leicester.

Gibson-Graham argue that whilst capitalist firms, wage labour, and market-oriented production produce the dominant discourse of the economy, a whole host of hidden labours and systems of exchange construct everyday life. The iceberg economy visualised here makes visible all other economic relations beyond wage labour and economic exchange.

The Iceberg Economy reproduced from Graham, J. (2001) Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures. Socialist Review, 28 (3 + 4): 93-135.

The Iceberg Economy reproduced from Graham, J. (2001) Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures. Socialist Review, 28 (3 + 4): 93-135.

So much work goes into maintaining the capitalist economy and it often goes unrecognised. The work of Gibson-Graham calls for a new way to look at the economy – everyday people in everyday places can be part of re-thinking and re-enacting economies. A diverse economy might be a voluntary run community cafe, a car sharing website or clothes swapping parties. Second-hand shopping or the general procuring of used goods is often considered ‘alternative’. How though, I ask, is the daily provisioning of a mother for her family ‘alternative’? And how is people passing on used clothes ‘alternative’ when we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years? If we’re talking about what’s novel historically, going to the shops every Saturday to buy a new dress would have been impossible for most people just a century ago. Shopping should be seen as ‘alternative’. Calling such diverse economies alternative (like second-hand stuff) just means they are alternative to the capitalist system. And capitalism is just that – a system, or an institution. It’s not life, it’s not the only way, it’s just one way. For this reason I really like the term diverse; it’s less loaded than alternative. The nearly new sales I study are a diverse economy.

Renowned geographer David Harvey has published a new book ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’. In it he says ‘the economic engine of capitalism is plainly in much difficulty.’ I haven’t read it yet but there is a section entitled ‘capitalism as a process or thing?’ and he calls for the need of an open forum ‘a global assembly, as it were — to consider where capital is, where it might be going and what should be done about it.’ Can anything be done about it? I don’t know. I’m not anti-capitalism, I just don’t think it should rule, but where capitalism is no other alternative gets a real look in. We just need to regain control of it as a system, not a way of life.

Post to Twitter

New Year Reflections 2014

Happy New Year! I hope you had a good Christmas. I certainly did, despite the fact that my parent’s house became a casualty in the storm that hit the South East. This was one end of my road when I was trying to get home on Christmas Eve, and when I did finally make it back I found the lounge under 8 inches of water and no power.
sussex flood
We spent Christmas at a house owned by the charity my mum works for – normally used as offices and a children’s centre – it accommodated us very well for two nights so we were the lucky ones. My thoughts were with all those who had nowhere else to go; the village next to ours were without power for days. Also very appreciative to all the engineers who worked hard over Christmas to get people reconnected.

Anyway, I was just reading back on the post I wrote this time last year. That’s the lovely thing about having a blog, it basically is a diary. You can read it too here. Work wise I’ve had a brilliant year. I’ve finished my fieldwork and had a very rough draft of one results chapter done before Christmas. Last year I wrote that my goal for 2013 was to get a journal paper published or in review and I’ve surpassed myself (if I may say that) by getting one empirical paper published, one commentary paper in press (due Jan/Feb) and being invited to write a book chapter. I travelled more this year than I have in a while – Amsterdam, Paris and Norway, Edinburgh twice, and for fieldwork I’ve travelled more than 4000 miles around the UK. Here is what else I did in 2013:

• In February I presented at the BSA Intimacies, Families and Practices of Consumption Conference in London. This was a lovely day and full of interesting talks. Following this the convenor’s Emma Casey and Yvette Taylor worked hard on developing a proposal for a book – “Intimacies, Critical Consumption & Diverse Economies” and before Christmas we found out this has the go-ahead from Palgrave Sociology so this is what I’ll be contributing a chapter too. I also wrote a commentary piece on “Second-hand consumption among middle-class mothers in the UK: thrift, distinction and risk” for Families, Relationships and Societies journal.
• I went back to Amsterdam in February to supervise the human geography undergrad fieldcourse. Being my second trip I felt a lot more comfortable and confident around the city and helping the students with their research projects.
• I co-organised the Ethical Fashion Futures workshop with fellow PhDer Ellie Tighe. It was a small but really successful event. We had great feedback on the day, giving people from a range of interdisciplinary backgrounds the chance to mingle and share ideas. It opened up more opportunities than I ever imagined, see below.
• After the workshop/conference day, Ellie and I were invited to give a talk on ethical fashion at the University of Southampton Multi-Disciplinary Week in March. This was recorded and is available to watch online (hence, it’s the most effort I’ve put into a presentation for a long time!). We also provided a brief interview and blog post.
• In July I was featured in the Guardian online, for my work on campus in promoting ethical fashion. This was really exciting, and mainly came about through the visibility of my blog and the coverage of the talks and events I’ve been involved with at Uni.
• In August I attended and presented at the Royal Geographical Society conference in South Kensington. I presented in the session “Economic Change and Children, Youth and Families: Current Experiences and Future Frontiers”. The RGS was really inspiring. I used to always call myself a ‘fake geographer’ but the RGS made me proud to say that I’m a geographer – I realised if I keep saying I’m a fake geographer people might start to believe me.
• I had the following peer reviewed paper published “Eco babies: reducing a parent’s ecological footprint with second-hand consumer goods”, International Journal of Green Economics.
• I launched Ethical High Street after months of consideration. Clearly the PhD is my priority for now but I’ll continue to add to EHS and hope that other people find it useful. I also had a bit of a brainwave today but I’ll mull over that for a while. The Christmas lull is good for developing thoughts!

2013 was the year I became surer of myself, academically. I’m never going to be the most intelligent but I’ve realised that within my niche I do know what I’m talking about. I’ve also realised that no academic knows everything within their subject – in fact, everyone is constantly learning and has to bluff their way through on occasions. A couple of months ago I attended a women in science and engineering professional development course. It was quite eye-opening, making me consider my goals, strengths and weaknesses and giving greater consideration to how I’m perceived. I think sometimes for self-preservation sake I play up to the fashion-girl image, I use the fact that I studied fashion for five years pre-PhD as an excuse. But as I’m leaving my department in a few months’ time, how do I want people to remember me? As the girl who sent round emails about tea and cake and wore leopard print jeans to work, or as a capable academic? I think I’d be happy with all of the above but not the former over the latter.

My PhD funding runs out in May! I hope to submit not long after and then move on to pastures new. When I started in 2011 I wasn’t planning for a career in academia but as the end gets nearer I find myself clinging on to that very option more and more. I really love research, I love learning, I love telling people about stuff and I love running my own schedule – where else can I do all that but as an academic? I’ve got a really busy six months coming up – thesis to write, book chapter to write, running seminars for two undergrad. modules (I had no teaching last semester) and I’m going to the Association of American Geographer’s conference in Florida!!

As for where I’ll be this time next year – well I could be sat at this same desk in Southampton or I could be half way around the world. Here’s to a great 2014 x

Post to Twitter