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The concept of consumerism is becoming more and more commonly used in a derogatory sense. As the environment creaks under the ever increasing weight of plastic and industrial waste, increasing numbers of people are turning on what used to be considered one of the main motors of the world. Following on from my blog on living a more minimalist life, in this blog I’m going to talk about consumerism and whether it’s the problem that some are making it out to be.
A short history of consumerism…
The idea of consumerism didn’t become anything that resembled mainstream until the 18th century. Until that point, very little changed in terms of the total wealth of the world. Most of the world were producing enough to survive, and to keep their own tribe or country’s leading classes wealthy, but not much else. This is why riches were traditionally gained by conquest. This began to change with first the expansion of trade, and then the industrialisation of processes to mean that goods that were once rare became commonplace.
Goods have always been used to show status, from gold amongst medieval kings, to yams being displayed in the Trobriand Islands, commodities show that you are powerful, and that you are important. Some have even argued that there is an evolutionary reason for this, like Geoffrey Miller in his excellent book, Spent (follow him on Twitter here).
Miller applies evolutionary psychology to human consumption. To grossly oversimplify, we like to buy things to look attractive and good to other people. This might be because we want a mate, it might be because we want to look powerful, or it might be to show off some other trait or thing about us that will attract others that we want to spend time with. Therefore, through consumerism, from Ferraris acting like peacock feathers, to shoulder padded eighties power-suits in place of muscles, we are projecting what we want the world to see of us. This is often unconscious as well.
The concept of consumerism
So if it’s natural, what’s the problem with consumerism? The problem isn’t with consumerism per se, if someone wants to spend £5000 on a handbag because of a tag that is dangling off it, then I have no issue with that. The problem is that the improvements in technology that have made all of this increased consumption possible have had unforeseen consequences for the world that we live in.
Consumerism as an economic concept formed the basis of most 19th century economic thought, and this continues today. Buying things, particularly things that are not needed, creates jobs and fuels growth in the economy. This is why at times of economic hardship, governments keep interest rates low, to discourage saving and encourage spending. The more of your wages that are being spent, the more tax that is collected, the more money that is going to businesses, and the more jobs that can be created. It makes logical sense.
Environmental and human consequences
When the consumption that is taking place damages the environment, and appears to have the potential to irreversibly do so, then that suggests that something should be done. By 2050, if current trends continue, not only will there be more plastic than fish in the sea, but there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste in global landfills (check out this article in National Geographic). This recent measurement of the amount of plastic in the environment by the team that produced those statistics made the excellent point - “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
So let's say we can overcome our genetic wiring, the thing that makes us want to show off for the rest of the village, what then? What about the human cost? Speaking with a colleague today, he pointed out that he finds it hard to begrudge countries that are economically so much worse off having such high emissions and producing so much waste because that’s how the West reached the living standards that we have now. From an egalitarian point of view it’s really hard to disagree, but the current Air Quality Index readings in major cities in India and China are only part of the story. Eventually if we continue to cause the damage that we are doing then whole eco-systems may collapse, as well as the health damage that is being done to the citizens of those countries.
Eventually I truly believe that we will move towards a global consensus on air quality and plastic pollution. It took the Great Smog of 1952 to get the UK to start to get it’s act together with regards to pollution in cities, and whilst I hope that a disaster like that is not required to make changes (recent bad air in Bangkok led to school closures and more to help reduce the levels), you sometimes fear that it will take a catastrophe to make governments alter policy.
Consumerism in the modern day
Consumerism as a driver of growth does not have to go away, but there needs to be a reconsideration of what it is aiming for. The traditional theorists of consumerism believed that much of the excessive spending of the extremely well off would go towards education and culture - this was an era when books were very much a status symbol and a well appointed library was the equivalent of a super-basement home cinema in the modern world. The other thing that they would use their wealth on would be entertainment. There are signs of this in some modern trends within consumerism, with people conspicuously consuming holidays, gym memberships, and private schooling. The advent of social media means that these previously more private affairs are now public knowledge and an equally valid way of status signalling as wearing a Tiffany diamond or a chauffeur driven Bentley.
It’s not just the peacocking of expensive goods, but overconsumption of foods and drinks is leading to excess packaging waste and rising rates of obesity around the world. Again, here, we are fighting our evolutionary urges. For much of history humanity has been programmed genetically to make the most of excess calories when they are available and now they are available all the time for many.
Despite the entertaining and astute analysis of people like Paul Mason, I’m not sure we’ve reached the end of capitalism yet, or indeed if the end is inevitable in the way that Marx and his successors predicted. And if capitalism has produced this consumerist monster and is here to stay then what can we do? Increasing education about environmental issues is one of the most important areas that can be pursued in trying to reduce the negative repercussions of living in a world that wastes too much. Without wanting to sound too much like I’ve been over-reading my Adam Smith, choice is the answer, and making people aware of the choices and the consequences of those choices can lead to a better world for us all.
Every time we are faced with a buying decision, we need to ask ourselves some questions. Is it a want or a need? If it’s a want that’s fine, but then I like to think about why I want it. The answer is often not entirely clear, and the more I reflect the more I realise I don’t actually want it at all! It seems strange I know, but if you ask yourselves these questions then I would not be surprised if you came up with the same answers. With many studies showing that the way our consumerist society operates may contribute to mental health problems, particularly in the young, I think that this approach can be increasingly useful for everyone when making a decision about a purchase.
The next question I ask is: is there a sustainable alternative? I don’t just apply this to the straws, wraps and tote bags on sale in the lovely Kalleco shop, but to everything I buy. I’m far less likely to purchase a quick sandwich from a supermarket now knowing that it’s wrapped in plastic that could still be here in 400 years. I’ll grab some fruit, or I’ll take my business elsewhere (I know, I should have been more organised and brought food from home…).
Finally I ask: is there anything I would prefer to spend the money on? Much like the rich that the 19th century economists predicted, I want to spend more of my money on my leisure - culture, education, travel, entertainment - and less on other things. This is why I reduce, reuse and recycle, and try to save so that I can have experiences that will stay with me far longer than a brand named shirt. The world that we live in today means that you don’t have to be a part of the top tier of society to be able to have amazing experiences, and to make the most of them when you do.
Thinking for yourself
So I’m not convinced that it is consumerism that is entirely to blame, in its strictest sense. The society that it has helped to create means that there is a lot of pressure on people to live up to a certain standard, and that’s probably the hardest bit about moving away from these traditional ideas. We all want to consume, and I agree with the theorists who believe it is part of our nature as humans to do so. What I don’t agree with is that there aren’t other ways that we can demonstrate our value to others, and that we can’t be happier making those decisions for ourselves. Even if I don’t go through all my questions when I’m looking to make a purchase, just one question has made a huge difference; to my outlook; to the amount that I can save to spend on things that make me far happier; and has helped to make me less hung up about what I do have. That question? Why?