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Why you shouldn’t shop until you drop!

An American bumper sticker from the 1980s used to read, “He who dies with the most toys wins”. While this was probably intended as a satirical send-up of modern-day consumerist priorities, it seems that many people have adopted this as their goal in the game of life.

As we acquire material goods, our lives become more cluttered. A significant chunk of this mess is the proliferation of technological gadgets that seem to need regular updating, and which shortly after being introduced onto the market become regarded as an essential element of modern life.

Today, for many people, shopping has evolved from being a necessary chore to one of the primary leisure activities in Western countries like Australia and New Zealand. There is a common perception that consumerism is innate and that the love of shopping is hard-wired into people: unfortunately, history suggests otherwise.

Moulding public opinion

Edward Bernays is a little-known figure today but was highly influential in giving birth to the modern consumer era. A nephew of Sigmund Freud living in New York, during the 1920s he pioneered the field of public relations and would be known today as a spin doctor.

Americans were traditionally frugal and self-reliant, with consumerism some way down their list of priorities. On behalf of big business, Bernays took on the task of orientating people’s attitudes towards self-gratification. Throughout his life, he remained a firm believer in the necessity for mass social engineering by an elite for the good of humanity.

After World War II, the US saw a major ramping-up of the consumer culture from austere wartime conditions. Consuming was portrayed as a patriotic act. Items such as fridges and cars grew in size and suburbia started to sprawl. In 1955, economist Victor Lebow was famously quoted as stating in a magazine article, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

Consumer psychology

As a society, we have taken on a consumer self-identity that has eclipsed many other underdeveloped potentials and possibilities. In some cases, we take part largely for the thrill of the purchase rather than the pleasure of its use, and a lot of items are left to gather dust. For many shoppers, the consumption ritual provides a much-needed stimulus and serves as a substitute for real meaning and purpose.

 

An orientation towards possessions is usually coupled with an impoverishment in interpersonal relationships and a corresponding lack of interest in spiritual or religious practices. Consumers tend to receive their cues from external stimuli and, in addition to “keeping up with the Joneses”, will often emulate those they see as being higher in the social hierarchy. What were previously seen as luxuries are increasingly viewed as necessities, and this may drive the choice to take on extra paid overtime at work.

In one study, University of Newcastle psychologist Shaun Saunders found that materialists are on the whole less psychologically healthy than people interested in a simple lifestyle. They were found to be more susceptible to depression, tending towards anger and generally less satisfied with their lives than others. Less concerned about the environment, they are also more likely to be conformist. This is backed up by previous research from the US that also links materialism to depression.

Much blame can be placed on the cycle of endless dissatisfaction, a theme that can be traced back to the 1929 article Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied by Charles Kettering, head of General Motors Research. The person wanting to stay up to date can never put their feet up. As a species, as we become more “civilised”, we also experience an increased susceptibility towards restlessness. If we are indolently relaxing, there is a tendency to feel guilty about not working or busying ourselves with projects like renovating.

Advertising and credit

Of all the elements most responsible for maintaining the consumer status quo, perhaps advertising comes ahead of the rest. In addition to its strategy of applying persuasion that often targets the subconscious, the prevalence and persistence of advertising in the media and throughout our visual environment reinforces in the collective psyche the idea of shopping.

In the new-found “tween” market, ie between the ages of eight and 12, companies are targeting children’s increasing disposable incomes and the “nag factor”, where they will keep pestering their parents to buy an item. Children forced to grow up too quickly via adult stereotypes are effectively losing part of their childhood. They are persuaded to consume via peer pressure and have their insecurity buttons pressed; exposure to ideal body shapes in the media, for example, can cause body image problems.

A recent report from the UK think-tank Compass, The Advertising Effect, states that children under the age of 12 have not yet developed the cognitive ability to recognise when they are being marketed to. Following on from this, Compass believes that advertising to under-12s should be banned. Also contentious is the advertising of junk food during children’s programming, an issue on which successive Australian and New Zealand governments have declined to take action.

The Compass report goes further than typical “hot button” issues, controversially challenging the way in which our mental environment has become increasingly colonised by ads and calling for a ban on advertising in public places.

Credit cards are another lynchpin of the consumer system, facilitating a large amount of expenditure within the economy that would otherwise not take place. Today, credit-card debt has risen to AU$35 billion in Australia (averaging AU$3250 per cardholder) and NZ$5 billion in New Zealand (NZ$2300 average). Certain personality types are addictively drawn towards maxing out their credit cards, a pattern that can get out of control, particularly when several cards are involved.

Environmental consequences

It can be sobering to remember that, ultimately, the massive global flows of resources such as oil, coal, iron ore, bauxite and timber is largely taking place to meet consumer demand. Global per capita consumption of natural resources tripled between 1960 and 2006, rising faster than population; when combined, both of these upward curves have a worrying multiplier effect.

We are well aware of countries such as India and China rapidly making the transition from rural peasant societies to urban populations that aspire to a Western standard of living. In understanding what this means, one of the most useful models is the Ecological Footprint, a concept that originated in the 1990s. It measures the quantity of biologically productive land and sea area needed to regenerate the resources consumed by a human population and to absorb its wastes.

Under this model, the Earth is currently in an “overshoot” position where more of the planet is required to support its population than is actually available and the deficit is growing. The US, with its insatiable consumer appetite, has a footprint of 9ha and if everyone lived like Americans we would need five Earths to support ourselves. Australia is not far behind on 3.9 Earths, with New Zealand requiring 4.2. Online personal ecological footprint calculators are available, but are often flawed due to their lack of attention to the non-energy consumer spending that makes up the bulk of the total.

Two other important considerations are the carbon and water footprints. Consumerism is a key driver of climate change and it’s important to remember that the embodied water and energy in all the goods and services bought by a household usually greatly exceeds those associated with its direct consumption of electricity, fuels and water.

This phenomenon was brought into focus by the Consuming Australia report produced by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the University of Sydney. Research found that, on average, every dollar of consumption in the economy was responsible for 720g of greenhouse emissions and 28 litres of water. The largest footprints generally occurred in the most affluent suburbs of major cities where the disposable income was the highest.

Finally, there is the major issue of waste, which is generally no accident. Planned obsolescence, a syndrome under which products fall apart or wear out unnecessarily fast, dates back to the American consumer heyday of the 1950s and is becoming ever more blatant. Perceived obsolescence, whereby the item is replaced while still usable, is another factor. Clothing, driven by the power of fashion advertising, is the most obvious example. Electronic items, especially computers, fall behind in the speed stakes because of the memory demands of constant updating of software, and are replaced regularly.

The short animated film The Story of Stuff, produced by US activist Annie Leonard, exposes the most dysfunctional aspects of the consumer system, making the point, that being linear, it cannot be sustained indefinitely in a finite world. We need to morph it into something circular where the waste products become feedstocks. Despite recycling rates continuing to rise, and many countries having product stewardship laws requiring end-of-life take-back, The Story of Stuff points out that far more waste is generated during production than at the landfill stage. The problem is that this production waste is usually invisible to the general public.

Searching for an alternative

One understandable response to these issues is for the consumer to become active and turn purchasing into a political activity. Under the banner of ethical (or green) consumerism, such shoppers may choose a product that is organic, has less packaging or was produced not far from the place of purchase. Alternatively, they might look at companies’ records on animal testing, pollution, greenwash and labour rights and try to support locally owned businesses.

On the whole, scaled-up versions of ethical consumerism have been found to have a greater impact than individual voluntarism, one remarkable example being the growing number of Fairtrade Towns that are now springing up throughout the world, particularly the UK, and which now include the Melbourne suburb of Yarra. Fairtrade Towns are communities “in which people and organisations use their everyday choices to increase sales of Fairtrade products and bring about positive change for farmers and workers in developing countries” (from www.faitradetowns.org).

A more radical direction is anti-consumerism, an option that is deliberately kept outside mainstream debate by the media. First championed by the US economist Thorstein Veblen back in 1899, today the chief torchbearer of this movement is Adbusters, a Canadian “culturejammer” organisation whose activities include the production of subverted adverts.

Since 1992, Buy Nothing Day has been celebrated in a number of countries in late November. Participants engage in activities ranging from cutting up credit cards to “whirl-marts” in which a line of 10 identically dressed individuals circulate around the aisles pushing shopping trolleys, without ever buying anything.

Even more theatrical are the Church of Life After Shopping and Reverend Billy, a New York anti-consumer preacher who communicates with the help of a giant conical megaphone, backed by a full gospel choir. Until recently, visitors to their website could make online confessions about transgressions, such as having shopped at Wal-Mart, and promise to mend their ways.

Downshifters

“Downshifting” is the term given to the conscious decision to work fewer hours in exchange for a lower income and usually a less consumerist lifestyle. The Australia Institute think-tank estimates that between 1994 and 2004 this applied to nearly one-quarter of adult Australians. One useful exercise before buying a non-essential item is to translate the cost into the number of hours you would have to spend on the job to earn the necessary money. How much do you value your time?

Curbing consumerism is also a way to save time that would otherwise be spent on buying the thing, reading the instruction manual, using it (especially items such as mobile phones that can themselves be addictive), cleaning it, moving it from one location to another, repairing it and recycling it at the end of its lifecycle.

For some downshifters, an important lifestyle choice is simple living (known by some as “voluntary simplicity”, or the strange new buzzword “enoughism”). Once we reach a point where we can be content with relatively little, happiness is not far away. Elements of such a low-impact existence often involve cycling, growing food or foraging for it, buying secondhand and using the Freecycle network. If the developed world largely focused on meeting its needs, there’s a chance that the developing world could sustainably match our lifestyle if it chose to.

The tail wagging the dog

Under an economy run on opposite principles from today’s, it’s possible that a toaster would last for a lifetime, batteries would keep their power for years and the average pen would keep going for months. If resources were being used as efficiently as possible via the abolition of obsolescence, we would probably be able to live very similar lives to those of today with far fewer hours spent on the production line. Unfortunately, a sharply contracting economy and skyrocketing unemployment are not welcome prospects.

In 1927, before the ramping-up of mass consumerism, the US Secretary of Labor, James J. Davis, drew attention to the issue of “need saturation”, noting that 14 per cent of shoe factories could produce all of the country’s footwear and that textile mills only needed to operate for six months in a year. The same article went on to suggest that the world would ultimately be able to produce its needs in three days of work per week.

Instead of seizing that moment as an opportunity to inaugurate a new era of leisure and wellbeing, a different path was taken involving advertising as a means of stimulating consumption. By 2005, inflation-adjusted consumer spending in the US had grown to 12 times higher than in 1929, while per-capita spending on durable goods such as cars and appliances had grown 32-fold. In today’s economic climate, consumers are working to meet the needs of the economy, but had we followed a different path we could have had an economy working to meet the needs of consumers.

Among the impediments to getting the dog back in control of its tail, the most fundamental is the economic growth that is hard-wired into all of the world’s major economies. Now nothing short of rebuilding the global economy from the ground up would be capable of fully addressing the consumerism issue.

The best things in life

For alternatives to the consumer lifestyle to be engaging, they need to be presented as interesting, creative and cutting-edge rather than boring and old-fashioned, and to avoid images of sacrifice and discomfort. Many anti-consumer actions are succeeding on this score.

As many people have already discovered, the best things in life are free. Love, friendship, happiness, community, fresh air, beauty and nature have no dollar value, but their substitutes in the marketplace definitely do.

Resources

The Advertising Effect http://tinyurl.com/ycwto5u
The Story of Stuff Project www.storyofstuff.com
Consuming Australia report www.acfonline.org.au/uploads/res/res_atlas_main_findings.pdf
Fair Trade Association Australia and New Zealand www.fta.org.au
Adbusters www.adbusters.org
Buy Nothing Day www.adbusters.org/campaigns/bnd
Reverend Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping www.revbilly.com
Resources for overcoming consumerism www.verdant.net
Freecycle www.freecycle.org

Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (Northern NSW).

 

 

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.

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