Has Danny Alexander really been boycotting Starbucks?

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury's mixed messages on the tax avoiding chain.

Danny Alexander attempted to burnish his radical credentials yesterday when he revealed that he had been boycotting Starbucks. After the chain promised to review its UK tax arrangements, he said: "I might be able to buy a coffee from Starbucks again soon".

But asked by John Humphrys on the Today programme this morning whether he had been boycotting Starbucks, Amazon and Google, all of whom have been accused by the Commons public accounts committee of "paying little or no corporation tax", Alexander offered a notably different response. "I’m a tea drinker, so I don't tend to go to Starbucks or other such places," he said, adding: "I do use Amazon from time to time, or I have." So was the "tea drinker" ever going to Starbucks to begin with?

But regardless of his spending habits, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Alexander can and should be doing more to prevent corporate tax avoidance. He boasted today that the £154m of funding announced by George Osborne would give "HMRC the resources they say they need to do this." But what he didn't say is that the extra funding will barely begin to compensate for the £2bn of cuts Osborne has made to HMRC and the 10,000 staff due to be laid off. A report earlier this year by the public accounts committee found that job cuts among revenue officials meant the government collected £1.1bn less in tax than it would otherwise have done. "We are not convinced that the decision to reduce staff numbers working in this area in the past represented value for money for the taxpayer," it said.

Asked by Humphrys whether she had been boycotting the unholy trinity, Labour MP and public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge said that she was avoiding Starbucks and no longer used Amazon. "I’m a Kindle fanatic, so that’s a difficult one," she said. "Google I find more difficult." It says much about Google and Amazon's dominance of their respective sectors that even the indefatigable Hodge struggles to avoid them.

Police form a line outside a Starbucks coffee shop as demonstrators participate in a protest against the government's spending cuts. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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