Two apparently unrelated things happened in the first week of October that say so much about New Zealand these days.

First, the world's two biggest "fast fashion" chains, H&M and Zara, opened shops here, creating the kind of scenes we've not seen before.

Hundreds queued at the openings at Auckland mall Sylvia Park, generating wall-to-wall media coverage and the sort of enthusiasm and fandom usually reserved for pop stars.

A Google search for these store openings shows at least 1130 articles or references to them in New Zealand media in the past month.


I know of one woman who travelled from Tauranga for the H&M store opening, happy to queue for hours to get inside and for another hour for changing rooms.

As a boringly dressed 49-year-old man I, of course, have no idea what is going on here, but I'm reliably informed there were frenzied scenes.

More than 300 people queued and there was applause and a rush for the racks when the door opened.

Remember, these were people queuing to pay money for clothes that can be bought any day of the week, from any computer on the planet, and there is no shortage of choice.

It is not queuing for bread in a war zone. It was an active choice by sane people willing to take time of out of their busy days to enthusiastically consume.

Something in the air (most probably Facebook) informed and enthused these people.

It might be advertising or word of mouth or social media or mainstream media attention. It is now all around us, wrapped up and embedded in our economic and human geography.

Second, four days after the H&M opening and the day before the Zara opening, Treasury published a paper on the rise in New Zealand's household debt to record high levels relative to income.


It's fair to say there were no queues outside the Treasury's doors in Wellington for its release.

It showed household debt fell relative to incomes for a couple of years after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 as we pulled our heads in and saved after a shock - but we got back on the spending horse in earnest from 2014 onwards.

Our household debt to income ratio of 165 per cent is now about 5 per cent above those previous highs of 2008 and rising quickly as debt rises around twice as fast as incomes.

That speed of growing indebtedness is not much worse than the bad old days of 2002-07 when New Zealand went on its biggest ever debt-funded spending spree.

This week I attended an OECD conference on saving hosted in Auckland by the Commission for Financial Capability.

We got back on the spending horse in earnest from 2014 onwards.

The opening speaker was an economic anthropologist, Ida Rademacher, from the Aspen Institute in the US.

She spoke about how international researchers were starting to look at the issue of debt and saving in a similar way to those who study obesity epidemics.

Our Western society has created an environment full of cues and prompts to encourage us to eat high-energy food as often and as cheaply as possibly - an obesogenic environment.

It has also developed into an economic geography that encourages us to spend money we don't have.

"We've created an environment that really facilitates over-eating and I'm thinking there's a very parallel piece where we've created an environment which facilitates overspending," Rademacher said.

She pointed to human geographers in Britain who are now conducting studies of a "debtogenic" environment that has developed in some cities that are now packed with betting shops, payday lenders, clothes shops and ads to encourage spending.

"There's this idea that we have made it so easy with the financialisation of our world.

"It's so easy to spend.

"It's like the Eskimos have 18 words for snow and none for other things. I think we have a 1000 words for spending and very few for saving, so there's a lot of ways we have to change the environment to make it as easy to save as it is to spend.

"There are ways you can look at obesity epidemics as being very similar in terms of what do we have to do around changing the systems and the culture, and not just the information, so different choices are not just possible, but different choices are being normalised."

Forty years ago most shopping malls and pubs and offices were full of smoke and cigarettes could be bought easily and much more cheaply at any dairy.

After decades of legal, political and social changes, smoking is no longer "normal".

No one at the queues at Sylvia Park was smoking, but they were spending money, and many were spending money they didn't have.