Bill Me Later, one of eBay’s fastest-growing businesses, offers credit to online shoppers, letting them pay a few months after purchases. Now, from a business point of view this is a fairly exciting update. The service will not only help eBay grow its sales, it will also help Pay-Pal evolve from a mere transactional service to a financial product. Though valid credit-risk issues exist. [Source]
But from a social perspective, it is a development which invokes two very different emotions within me. Firstly, I find it dull because it is nothing new; It is simply another way of offering credit to a hyper-consumerist society. Secondly, and for the same reason, I find it utterly disgusting; It gives us one more reason to consume beyond our economic and ecological limits.
India, traditionally, has not been a country where consumption is appreciated. Our religions, and ideologies, demand self control and discipline in the use of not just tangible material goods, but also intangibles like emotions and senses. Most of us, while growing up, observed our parents making the most of their money, running the household as efficiently as they could, yet spending adequately for important stuff like education or health, and still ending up with a handful of saving at the end of the month.
Why is it then, that despite such an upbringing, this generation, collectively, not only exhausts its entire income in the very first week of the month, but also has virtually zero savings. The situation would look normal, if our lifestyles were mundane. But on the contrary, we dabble in luxury; Everything about us (clothes, gadgets, entertainment, etc.) is branded and expensive. The reason why we do it can be explored upon. But, I want to focus on facilities and social artifacts like Bill Me Later which make it easier and “cooler” to spend more than we should.
The exhibit of desire!! Isn’t it weird that, unlike our parents, we never actually have a list of all the stuff we need when we leave our homes for shopping. We saunter into air-conditioned malls, pick a cart and walk like zombies along the aisles lined with stuff on both sides, filling our carts with not just things we need, but with also a lot of stuff we do not require. Even small shopkeepers have started opening up their display areas to invite customers in, enabling them to pick what they need. And here lies the first problem; The exhibition of stuff appeals to a mysteriously instinctual and very strong urge in human beings to hoard. It makes you believe in needs that you never knew even existed. Retailers are rapidly replicating this experience online, luring us by offering economically unviable rebates (Flipkart, we know what you are doing.). The ease of selection, payment & delivery makes it a better experience, and hence a larger threat.
The death of cash!! Now that you have filled your enormous carts upto the brim, it is time to pay. But you do not need a stash of currency, you just need to swipe your card [and in very near future, may be just tap your smartphone]. The absence of actual currency notes from our transactions numbs our sense of judgement regarding the amount of money we are spending. The use of credit cards worsens the situation as it makes our ability to shop agnostic to our liquidity, making debt an increasingly acceptable option.
The lure of approval!! Annie Leonard’s story of stuff [Link] is probably the best demonstration of the way the businesses use planned and perceived obsolescence to promote more consumption. But are we less responsible? Don’t we try to project ourselves through our snazzy gadgets to hide our imperfections and idiosyncrasies, substituting faster processors for slower wits and sharper displays for blunt manners. Do I really need to buy this thing? Can I find an alternate? Can I borrow it from someone? These are valid questions and we should ask them more frequently. Just because you can afford it doesn’t mean you should.
I am not advocating that buying groceries from small local stores, paying in cash, abandoning credit cards and justifying gadget purchases will magically rid us of our economic troubles. I am assuring that these steps point to a direction that leads to a debt and regret free future.