Always associated with increased affluence, what people regard as luxury has varied down the ages. What your multi-million pound earner regards as luxury purchases may be far cry from what you or I might regard as luxury; their new Aston Martin, or a property in Puerto Rico, might equate to our spa day and a special bottle of wine, but the concept is the same. The more expendable income we have the more affordable luxury items become.
I didn’t regard our family as poor: my parents both worked, and they owned their own home; we ate nutritious food and went on family holidays, usually in the UK. Chicken was initially regarded as a ‘special roast dinner’, and salmon was regarded as a luxury item, for special occasions only. As time passed, these products became more common fare and eventually we regarded them as everyday foods. Today these commodities are probably cheaper in real terms, than they were when I was young, but at what cost?
Today many things carry the ‘luxury’ tag: holidays, cars, confections, baked goods, even ready meals! Luxury has become almost synonymous with a higher priced version of a standard product, which may have similar ingredients, and was probably produced at the same manufacturing plant. I am not intending to write an expose of supermarket ready meals and their up market ranges, I’m sure there are plenty of examples already out there, I’m more interested in the concept of luxury itself; how what was a luxury product of yesteryear is an everyday product today. In many respects luxury and premium brands are no more than a marketing concept, appealing to our snobbery and one-upmanship; that desire to be better than our neighbours, and have the latest and the best, and maybe it was always thus.
In the 17th century sugar was a luxury afforded only by the rich, a century later tea was the same. It was only in the Victorian era with improved transportation, and industrialisation, that once expensive and difficult to obtain items became more commonly available and more affordable. Ironically in many places, although the poor had largely monotonous diets, the inclusion of home-grown vegetables, and the rarity of butchered meat , meant that very often the richer classes, who ate lots of meat and not many vegetables, had a nutritionally poorer diet than those with considerably less wealth.
Today that inverse relationship is even more perversely evident with the richer western societies consuming vast quantities of meat, refined foods and sugar, and suffering from type two diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer in epidemic proportions. We may have plenty of luxury chocolates, desserts and ice-cream, but our new found wealth is playing havoc with our nation’s health.
Many of the brands we associate with luxury, such as haute couture fashions in particular, are often made in poorer countries where people can work in dire conditions for meagre earnings, and the same can be said for many so called luxury products; the same sorry story of our luxury being someone else’s exploitation. The history of the empire, indeed of ‘the West’ is littered with conquest, sublimation and acquisition at the expense of indigenous populations. I’m not sure how far we’ve progressed.
At a time when population numbers are at an all time high, and we’re unsure about the sustainability of our present lifestyles, maybe we need to re-evaluate what we regard as luxury. If some of the nightmare scenarios actually come to pass, currency will lose its value, and food will again become the basis of exchange. In a future with little oil, luxury vehicles will have no value, and many of the products we currently regard as desirable will become as useless as a chocolate poker. You only have to go back to the rationing of the second world war to understand how people valued what had once been every day, but became scarce. The black market in sugar, eggs, meat and stockings is well documented!
I’m thinking that perhaps a time is coming when everyone, not just transition towns, the green movement, and climate change proponents, will have to start changing the way they think about goods; where they come from and how we value them.
I was lying in the bath this afternoon, thinking about this blog article. For me a nice hot bath has always been a luxury. I am conscious of my water use and employ water saving devices, as well as reusing grey water. I do not use car washes, I don’t run water when I clean my teeth. Where I live, we are often without water due to issues with the pumping station, so it is something I’m acutely aware of. In the UK water is not a big issue, but it is in other parts of the world, and it certainly could be in the future, so one day not too far away a bath may be a luxury for you too. There are other things like meat which fall into this category – our appetite for animals flesh has increased astronomically over the last 20 years, but the production of meat on land that could grow food for people is not sustainable, and meat may one day again become a luxury commodity.
We are a nation of tea drinkers and barely spare a thought for how this reviving brew is made, or where it comes from. We place little value on an item that was once stored in locked chests and fought over! I genuinely appreciate my pot of fair-trade loose leaf afternoon Assam tea, and enjoy the ritual of it. It doesn’t take too much effort to restore an appreciation for something that has become common and every day, but none the poorer for that, except perhaps in our perception of it. I’m not sure who said ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ but there is certainly an element of truth in it.
In appreciating those things we do have which were once luxuries, in re-evaluating the cost to the planet of our current luxuries, and increasing desire for the acquisition of things, we might actually stumble upon something better and more meaningful. The value in simple pleasures, in things that can’t be bought, and a true awareness of the wealth which we all have regardless of our economic status.