Tag Archives: consumption

Commodifying Christmas

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

It’s that time of year again; the decorations are up, Michael Bublé is on repeat, and there are mince pies coming out of our ears. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! But what does Christmas really look like? There are more definitions of what makes a ‘traditional’* English Christmas than there are children on Santa’s naughty list. One thing we appear to agree on, however, is what a German Christmas should look like. The romantic traditional German Christmas market has infiltrated English culture, becoming a staple of most cities’ festivities, and bringing with it Glühwein, beer, Bratwurst, sweet treats, and merriment (and, in the case of Birmingham’s market, a singing moose head!).

Standing in the middle of Birmingham’s German Christmas market, surrounded by crowds of people consuming German cuisine and buying gifts, I am reminded of a ‘classic’ paper by Peter Jackson (1999). Although 15 years old – not quite as old as the market itself – Jackson’s observations on commodification and consumption manifest in this commercial celebration of German culture. As Jackson (1999) argues, the commodification of Christmas, as well as the general globalisation of everyday life, have been strongly criticised, contributing to the somewhat marred reputation of ‘commodification’.

Since 1997, the market’s picturesque wooden stalls have spilled into Birmingham’s streets from its partner city, Frankfurt. Two recent articles on the BBC News website have, however, voiced a negative opinion of the city’s much-loved annual event. Writing for the BBC in November, Graham Young argues that despite the obvious boost to Birmingham’s economy, the city is ritually destroyed by the crowds, tourists, litter, and noise. He voices concern that in an attempt to recreate an authentic German Christmas, the traditional Nativity display is almost out of sight at the back of the Council House.

At Birmingham’s market, cultural difference is commodified, commercialized, celebrated, aestheticized, and fetishized. There is a strong visual and performative element to this; stalls are designed to ‘look German’ and stall owners shout and gesture enthusiastically, adding to the already excitable and festive atmosphere. However, in a further recent BBC article, the market is criticised for not being very ‘German’. Jackson’s (1999) article raises the question of authenticity, suggesting that it is sometimes produced rather than genuine. Birmingham’s market is clearly constructed and staged to create an ‘authentic’ experience, romanticising and exaggerating the appealing aspects of German culture. However, whilst many of the workers there are not German, the stalls are all German-owned and the products sold are the same as the ones found in Germany, creating an experience as authentic as possible almost 500 miles from home.

Birmingham's German Christmas Market captured last weekend!

Birmingham’s German Christmas Market captured last weekend whilst doing ‘research’

There is, however, one difference between German Christmas markets in England and the ‘real’ ones. In Germany, markets are more food-orientated, whilst in England the markets are altered for English taste, with a focus on alcohol and celebration. The market reinvents German culture, as Jackson (1999) would argue, tailoring and transforming it according to the ‘receiving’ (i.e. English) culture. Scrooge-like critics argue that adjusting the market to suit English taste makes it more enjoyable at the expense of ‘authenticity’, but is this necessarily a bad thing? Do we really want an ‘authentic’ experience, or do we just want to enjoy ourselves?  Geography clearly has an important role to play in addressing and challenging this notion of ‘authenticity’.

The market’s critics are, however, only a minority. Instead of saying ‘bah humbug’ to inauthentic German cuisine, Birmingham’s German Christmas market will be as busy as ever this year. And so it should be; after all, ‘tis the season to be jolly!

*I am aware this is a bit of a misnomer; many of our Christmas traditions – including the Christmas tree! – were, in fact, imported from Germany by Queen Victoria when she married Prince Albert. Perhaps we already celebrate Christmas in an ‘authentic’ German way?

books_icon Jackson, P. (1999). Commodity cultures: the traffic in things, Transactions of the IBG, 24: 95-108.

60-world2 BBC 2014 Birmingham’s German Market: Singing moose and ‘ugly huts’

60-world2 BBC 2014 Birmingham Christmas Frankfurt Market: How German is it?

60-world2 BBC 2014 In Pictures: How does Birmingham’s Christmas market compare?

New perspectives on an aquacultural geography

Boy holding a pangasius catfish (photograph by Ben Belton)

Boy holding a pangasius catfish (photograph by Ben Belton)

by Ben Belton and Simon Bush

So how many people realise that more than half the fish eaten by human beings will very soon come from aquaculture? The answer may well depend on where you live, which raises a series of questions about the geography of where and how farmed fish are produced and consumed.

The rise of aquaculture over the last four decades has been as uneven as our understanding of its development. Our recent paper published in The Geographical Journal, explores this apparent deficit in knowledge about aquaculture by asking whether geographers have responded in any substantial way to a call to arms published by Barton and Stanifordt in Area in 1996 urging them to do just this.

Our results are not as positive as one might hope. While a potential global deficit in food fish has been averted by the growth of the industry, geography’s contributions to understanding patterns of aquaculture development have been less expansive. Work has focused largely on species exported from, and areas  exporting to, the global North, rather than on the more significant production, trade and consumption that occurs in the South. In other words, why focus on ‘booms’ in catfish from Vietnam or shrimp from Thailand which end up on dinner plates in North America or Europe, when other fish consumed in the South make up more than 90% of the world’s production? A geographical attention deficit is clearly evident.

What then should an aquacultural geography look like? In addition to the big questions of politics and trade that have been asked of export crops, researchers should be unpicking the intricacies of everyday food production and consumption. In spite of globalisation, domestic (often urban) markets in the South remain the main sites of global consumption. Overlooking the importance of these markets and the production systems which feed them, means ignoring some of the most important trends in food production for the coming decades.

Geographers are extremely well placed to develop a more considered understanding of what further growth of aquaculture will mean, not just in terms of export trade, but also in terms of both a growing urban middle class and marginalised rural communities. Given that the forecast is for a further 50% expansion of the industry simply to meet the demands of an increasingly affluent global population by 2020, the need for closing the knowledge deficit has never been greater.

The authors: Ben Belton is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at The WorldFish Center, Dhāka, Bangladesh; Simon Bush is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

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Belton B and Bush S R 2013 Beyond Net Deficits: New priorities for an aquacultural geography The Geographical Journal DOI:

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Barton J R and Stanifordt D 1998 Net deficits and the case for aquacultural geography Area 302 145-55

60-world2The New York Times 2013 Fish in the global balance 10 February

60-world2WorldFish and Conservation International 2011 Blue Frontiers : Managing the environmental costs of aquaculture June

60-world2BBC News 2011 Global fish consumption hits record high 1 February

Consumption, Behaviour Change and Sustainability

Taken by John O'Neill: View from lookout hill of Japanese Gardens, Cowra, NSW, Australia.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.Jen Dickie

On Tuesday, the House of Commons International Development Committee published a report on global food security.  Issues around the changes in the supply and demand of food at a local and global scale are discussed and calls for food wastage to be reduced, nutrition programmes expanded and a revision of agriculturally derived biofuels are some of the recommendations made.  However, in The Guardian yesterday, Fiona Harvey focussed on a more specific warning from the MPs’ report, stating that the British public “should eat meat less often, in order to help ease the food crises in the developing world”.  Although only one of many factors contributing to the global food crises, the MPs’ suggest that by cutting down meat consumption, pressures on agricultural land will ease, deforestation and obesity will be reduced and recent food price inflation will stabilise.  The report emphasises that this is not just a national issue but a global one, highlighting that China has doubled its average meat consumption per person per year from 20kg in 1985 to 50kg today; whilst high, this consumption level is still shadowed by the UK, who averaged at 85.8kg in 2007.  However, the report recognises that simply “urging the Western world to stop consuming meat is neither feasible nor desirable”, and instead suggests a campaign for behavioural change is needed where we see meat as an “occasional product rather than an everyday staple”.    

The timing of the International Development Committee’s report is of particular relevance as it was UNEP’s ‘World Environment Day’ on Wednesday.  The theme for this year’s celebrations is Think.Eat.Save, an anti-food waste campaign that encourages you to become more aware of your food choices and the environmental impacts they may have.  Sustainable consumption is described by UNEP as being about ‘doing more and better with less’, not just in terms of food, but for all renewable and non-renewable resources.  

Whilst food consumption behaviours are the main focus of these activities, Meryl Pearce et al. report on the consumption and conservation behaviours of water in three parts of Australia in an article for The Geographical Journal.  They compared householders stated water use with their actual consumption and found that high water users knew that they were high consumers of water, and that location, household size and annual household income were good predictive factors for high per capita water use.  Interestingly, their study also found that having a healthy garden was seen as a “symbol of economic status in the neighbourhood”, and therefore more important than conserving water.  Pearce et al. suggest that successful behavioural change campaigns need to offer “alternatives that do not lead to any loss in social welfare or status” and that by promoting the growing prestige associated with sustainable living consumption behaviour could change for the better.             

books_icon Meryl Pearce, Eileen Willis, Loreen Mamerow, Bradley Jorgensen, John Martin, 2013, The prestige of sustainable living: implications for water use in Australia, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12016

60-world2 Eat less meat for greater food security, British population urged, The Guardian, 4th June 2013

60-world2 Global Food Security: First Report of Session 2013–14, House of Commons International Development Committee, accessed 4th June 2013

60-world2 United Nations Environment Programme, Think.Eat.Save.  World Environment Day, accessed 5th June 2013

Area Content Alert: 44, 2 (June 2012)

Cover image for Vol. 44 Issue 2The latest issue of Area (Volume 44, Issue 2, pages 134–268, June 2012) is available on Wiley Online Library.

Click past the break for a full list of articles in this issue.

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From Beginnings and Endings to Boundaries and Edges

by Josh Lepawsky and Charles Mather

The authors: Josh Lepawsky is  Associate Professor and Charles Mather is Head of Department both at the Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.

Lepawsky J and Mather C 2011 From beginnings and endings to boundaries and edges: rethinking circulation and exchange through electronic waste Area 43 242–249

[N.B.: This is the first open access paper published in the journal Area, which means anyone can read it for free rather than having to pay a subscription to access it]

In today’s unsustainable consumer culture, are young people part of the problem… or the solution?

by Rebecca Collins

Shopping Centre. Photo by Gordon Griffiths, via Wikimedia Commons

Most young people like to have new things.  This much has been true since the birth of the ‘teenager’ in the 1950s when young people were first recognised as a distinct – and influential – group of consumers.  In the summer of 2011, the strength of young people’s desire for the newest, most fashionable, most up-to-date material things was made clear with devastating consequences.  While there was certainly no single driving factor behind the riots of August 2011, the extent of the looting that took place has led analysts studying the events to point to an acquisitive consumer culture as a key factor – and one that has become even more potent in the context of dismal economic circumstances that are biting harder for youth than for any other group.

In recent months, more than 250 participants in the riots have spoken about what motivated their involvement.  70% have stated that “free stuff” was a key factor.  As one fifteen year old female participant said, “In our generation it’s important – having the nicest clothes, up-to-date things…”  The desperate ‘need’ for items from iPhones to Nike trainers reported by many of the looters paints a grim picture of the pressures experienced by young people as a result of contemporary consumer culture.

Admittedly, the events of August 2011 represent the actions of an angry, socially marginalised minority.  But they raise important questions about young people’s actions: on the one hand, how they respond to increasingly powerful consumerist pressures; and on the other, their capacity to take action in the face of perceived injustice.  In “A Tale of Two Teens: disciplinary boundaries and geographical opportunities in youth consumption and sustainability research”, my co-author, Russell Hitchings, and I consider how geographical research might uncover facets of young people’s consumption that get closer to the heart of what young people are actually seeking to achieve or experience when they consume material things.  We contrast the image of the hedonistic young consumer with the actions of other young people who seek to balance their responsibilities as citizens with their consumer aspirations, and suggest that geographical input into youth consumption research may help to articulate the profoundly social concerns that often underpin young people’s consumption choices.

The author: Rebecca Collins is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, University College London.

Collins R and Hitchings R 2012 A Tale of Two Teens: disciplinary boundaries and geographical opportunities in youth consumption and sustainability research Area DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01075.x

Topping A and Bawdon F 2011 ‘It was like Christmas’: a consumerist feast amid the summer riots The Guardian, 5 December

Area Content Alert: Volume 44, Issue 1 (March 2012)

The latest issue of Area is available on Wiley Online Library.

Click past the break to view the full table of contents.

Continue reading