Mal Fletcher
Extending Sunday Trading - Economics Over Ethics

‘History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict,’ wrote B. R. Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution, ‘victory is always with economics.’

The Budget statement, to be handed down by George Osborne today, will feature a call for Sunday shopping hours to be extended across England and Wales. In doing so, it may well add support to Ambedkar’s dictum.

The major argument offered in support of the change is a purely utilitarian one. There are profits to be made by hard-working store owners, it insists.

Surely, boosting the sales of hard-working retailers while funnelling money into government VAT coffers is desirable?

This is a seductive case in a consumerist age, in which we are dealing with the pressures of austerity. Yet there are also important questions about human values and ethics to be considered.

This argument suggests that the only real value of any day of the year, or hour of the day, may be found in its economic worth. However, some of the world’s leading ethicists are warning us of the dangers inherent in attaching price-tags to everything in life.

For example, Professors Michael Sandel and Deborah Satz, of Harvard and Stanford universities respectively, insist that the true value of some of life’s most precious experiences and possessions can’t be measured in purely financial terms.

Once we reduce everything to dollar values, they say, we encourage an economy that defines us rather than serving us. Arguably, that kind of thinking is what led us to the Great Recession – it needs to be avoided at all costs.

We need to stop thinking about certain days of the year, such as holidays and weekend days, in terms of sales or savings and see the other benefits they bring.

As things stand, we have precious few opportunities to gather face-to-face with family and friends. In our highly mobile age, families often lead quite distracted, if not fragmented, lives during the week.

At the same time, many of our closest friendships are increasingly mediated through digital gadgets. A study a few years ago suggested that the average Brit has around three or four ‘real’ friends, and 140 Facebook friends.

In her excellent book ‘The Village Effect’, psychologist Susan Pinker shows how face-to-face contact is vital to our education, happiness, resilience and longevity of life.

From birth to death, she says, human beings are ‘hard-wired to connect to other human beings’, via realtime, offline connections which bring health and happiness.

Our online lives seem often to discourage the development of face-to-face contact – or, at least, distract us from it. Indeed, the internet, for all its undoubted benefits, is as Andrew Keen has described it, an ‘ecosystem of distraction’.

When reading a printed page, I may consult a footnote but this won’t normally lead me to drop what I’m doing and head for the local bookstore to purchase that source material.

However, hypertext links allow me – or encourage me – to do exactly that, to skip quickly from one source to another, to multi-screen.

Multi-tasking sounds sexy, but it has been shown in the workspace to reduce productivity, increasing the likelihood of mistakes. Cognition tests demonstrate clearly that multi-tasking is another word for distraction, as the human brain only focuses properly on one thing at a time.

In the face of the distractions provided by otherwise helpful technologies and increased travel, we should treasure every chance we get to engage those close to us in face-to-face conversation.

Engaging them in face-to-face conversation and sharing experiences and building memories together boosts our mental and physical wellbeing. For generations, Sundays have provided one very important opportunity for us to do just that.

There are other factors be considered here, too.

Empathy skills are central to the resolution of conflicts within families and among friends and like all skills they require time and practice. They are not easily developed in an environment of constant distraction.

International studies indicate that an increasing engagement with digital gadgets is leading to a drop in empathy levels among some younger people. We may, as one writer put it, be raising a generation that desperately needs empathy but is unable to give it.

Having one day each week in which social norms gently encourage us to come together, provides a rare opportunity to build empathy and to come to new understandings about conflict situations.

Setting aside certain days in a year, arguably also helps to encourage reflection. These days provide downtime when our minds can assimilate everything that’s been going on in our lives, including our work and relationships.

Psychologists have suggested that our thinking becomes ever more shallow when we’re constantly switched on and rushing about.

There are clear signs that stress in the workplace is increasing today, partly because people can’t switch off out of hours. Even children are affected by the lack of reflection time. According to one UK study, 40 percent of children who own a smartphone are sleep deprived.

For the sake of our physical and cognitive welfare, we need days when social convention suggests that we’re not expected to be doing anything in particular – whether that’s working at the cash register or hunting for bargains in the high street.

One aspect of the argument in favour of relaxing Sunday trading laws revolves around the growth in online shopping. This is growing at such a rate as to represent a serious threat to bricks-and-mortar stores.

Surely, the Treasury should be doing something to redress that competitive imbalance? This is the very same argument one might use to push for 24/7 shopping, as people trade online at all hours of the day and night.

Offline retailers will continue to face a challenge from the digital space, whatever the trading hours available to them. They will need to become more creative in finding ways to promote and enhance the shopping experience.

Like online gamers, they will need to offer the basics online but add the premium experience only for those who come into the store.

Finally, it must be said that whilst governments should not absolutely dictate our choices, they should encourage wise decisions. Creating fair shopping laws in which economic concerns are balanced by social ones, encourages us to balance our own lives better.

Some libertarians will react to this idea, as if it suggests intolerable interference or the denial of rights. It does not.

Governments encourage certain types of behaviour all the time, both through the passing of laws and, less forcefully, by restating the shared cultural values and aspirations of the society.

In the latter case, as the marketers have it, they ‘nudge’ our behaviour in certain directions, by suggesting or restating the norms in our social environment. 

Of course, governments can and do sometimes cross the line between encouraging certain types of behaviour and involving themselves in social engineering. We, the people, need to be vigilant on that score, watchfully holding politicos to account.

Yet leadership at its best is partly about establishing cultural architecture.

Leadership, as distinct from the pragmatics of management, facilitates an environment, a milieu, in which people are supported in making productive, socially beneficial and socially accountable decisions.

Turning Sunday into just another shopping day will not destroy the fabric of our society, but it certainly won’t help us deal with pressing familial and social issues.

If one is inclined to view such things only through the prism of economics – as the Chancellor may well be doing – the case needs to be made that these problems incur huge economic costs down the track.

In the long run, extending Sunday trading may eventually lead to the introduction of 24/7 shopping on other days of the week, because the same arguments can be used to justify both.

Either would represent a loss to the human experience, in terms of families, friendships and general wellbeing.

Hear Mal's BBC interview on this issue.


Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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