Spent some time wandering around my local regional shopping centre yesterday. I haven’t visited more than a couple of times this year, which is not particularly COVID19 induced, it is more that I have not had a need to shop there or meet anyone there. Everytime I go I am struck by the energy of the place, lonely people wandering around to be in a place where they feel connected, families of Dads with their weekend access to their children stocking up on fast food credits to build favour with their kids; elderly people hooning around on their gophers; shop assistants doing all they can to smile and get a sale from customers who are really there to window shop. There is emptiness and fragility clinging in the air. I remember the main reason I don’t come often and that is it is not the kind of market place that draws me into the kind of community that will sustain me. Now I can see it is sustaining some of the people around me, but it is not for me. I notice all the plastics, the labels of Made in China, the disconnect of food from place, the eyes of children who seem to long for sunshine and impromptu surprises of adults who can co-create fun unenhanced by salt, sugar or technology.
It might sound like I am being judgemental and I am, I am judging the planners who thought enclosed malls were a good idea and the investors and shareholders who saw cash cows in retail laneways under one roof. I know that there are mini-communities hidden in these places – I have seen them too over the years. The group of walkers who meet and wander around to get their steps in together and then have a coffee at one of the chain coffee shops; the young shop assistants who befriend one another and have each others back when they take their first adventures into leaving home; the women in the clothing chain who have found a way to get the support they need for their fellow worker so she can leave her violent partner; the cleaners who get to laugh and talk in their first language and tell stories of their homeland. Yet, for me, these places are dying, they are signs of a used future, despite tiny attempts to bring a preferred future to birth with the red, yellow and green recycling receptacle choices in the food hall.
I love the market places that can be found outdoors or under tin roofs, and the shops that not subject to high rents and surrounded by acres of car parks. I love the places where the people where the people who work behind the counter live locally and can tell you the name of the place around the corner that sells what you are looking for. In this globally connected market, where online and fintech creates web-based shopping and community experiences, getting community to show up in the online economy and I noting down the cost of living in these spaces. Those words cost of living have been hanging in the air for me this week.
How about if we thought about the benefit of living? What if, we brought the benefits of living in a hyper local, hyper connected way to the fore and costed those into the experience of building community through our spend and economy? The cost of getting some products to market, literally can cost lives (think of the 1,134 Bangledeshi clothing workers killed in Dhaka in 2013), and the lives of other species (see the land clearing due to our chemical recipes for products as diverse as baby formula and toothpaste and impact on 10% of the planets reptiles, birds, mammals, insects). I am not sure where I am going with my thoughts on all this today, but I don’t think the meaning of life and I do think the cost of living is entombed in those western civilisation shopping malls. Finding measures for the benefits of living in ways that support and strengthen what it means to be alive, connected and knowingly held by our common efforts, however imperfect they might be will drive a new narrative. It might be recovering an old one too is going to be the best guide. Where community, economy and place were one, none of the dualism of retail and wholesale, home and away, us and them.
I have a sneaky suspicion that cost of (benefit) living market places might unite a number of activist threads – everything from banning single use plastic, to baby formulas made by local Mums, up-cycled and handmade garments circulating through and community co-op, online stores where the person you are buying from is someone you know or have met in your online community. I am wondering if the Sustainable Development Goals became as second nature to the planners, investors and marketeers we might all take a step closer to being in each others company and on this planet a little longer. Activating for impact one consumption at a time I guess is something the vegans and vegetarians have been doing for a while, I still have a long way to go, and think I will visit the mall once a month as a reminder for me to make better choices for the legacy I want to leave behind.