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The Gift Shop as a Site for Education for Sustainability

Contributed by John Huckle, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, South Bank University, 103 Borough Road, London SE1 0AA, U.K.

In societies of high consumption, objects, replicas and images of nature are being packaged and sold as never before. Consumerism increasingly draws upon and promotes particular cultures of nature and serves a contradictory function in relation to the transition to sustainability. It enlarges the ecological footprint of such societies but can encourage reflexivity and support for a more radical environmental politics.

John’s workshop developed the theme of his keynote address (the social production or construction of nature) by suggesting to participants that the botanic garden gift shop could be a site of education for sustainability if there was careful attention to the origins and presentation of the goods on sale. Gift shops were more likely to be a problem than a solution, but attention to relevant critical theory could help shop and education staff reconstruct them in more sustainable and educational forms.

In the first part of the workshop participants were invited to arrange five postcards showing landscapes or environments in order from most natural to least natural. After comparing results and discussing the criteria used, some of the multiple meanings of nature and natural were brainstormed and listed. The concepts of first, second and third nature were introduced or revised as were those of external and universal nature.

Next explanations for the rise of retail chains such as the Discovery Store, the Nature Store, The Body Shop, and Nature & Decouvertes, were discussed. The appeal of objects, replicas and images of nature was linked to the alienation of people from nature in modern societies and such associated concepts of commodity fetishism and denaturalised consumption were introduced. Quotes from Wolfgang Sachs and Scott Lash and John Urry pointed to the increased significance of consumerism in post-modern societies and to consumerism’s role in helping to promote current debates on sustainability.

The main part of the workshop invited participants to evaluate a number of products on offer in the catalogues of private companies and non-government organisations. This involved examining use and exchange values; the buyer’s likely knowledge and motives; the way in which the product was linked to signs of nature; what the buyer was or was not told about the product’s production; and whether or not its production and consumption was likely to promote one or more or the five dimensions of sustainability. Participants were asked to recommend a product from the list or from other sources, for sale in a botanic garden gift shop and suggest how it should be presented and promoted.

The final part of the workshop looked to a sustainable society beyond consumerism by means of a utopia describing John’s hometown of Bedford in the U.K. in 2045. Participants were asked to annotate this with references to sustainability values and indicators and to suggest why and how this community had moved towards sustainability. Changed time budgets are a key element of such eco-socialist restructuring that allows a new balance between immanence and transcendence in people’s relations to the rest of nature. Routes to sustainability are becoming clearer but what products could be sold in the gift shop to prompt visitors to reflect and act on such alternative futures?