Consumerism today represents an unprecedented crisis of values, in ethical, social and material terms. Never before have so many resources and so much energy been used to produce so many goods for so many people. And never before have hundreds of millions of people across the world been so ingeniously encouraged to buy, use and then throw away or upgrade – with increasing rapidity – what they have bought. This has resulted in a world of unsustainable material flows, and a world drowning in waste.
Our growth economy makes a continuous increase in the global mass-production of consumer goods seem essential, a recipe, as many have noted, for environmental collapse. Consumerism today is the ‘state of mind and way of life’ – an effective ideology – justifying and supporting this regime of ever-increasing productivity. It displays some unique and inherently destructive characteristics:
- Individualism and Perfectionism
There is a deeply-held emotive and moral dimension to consumerism, the aim of which is to ‘improve’ our lives in some way, even beyond fulfilling those needs required for achieving our capabilities within the bounds of a good life. It is a form of materialism and perfectionism, promising a ‘better’ life for everyone, at least in theory. This perfection has no stable, ultimate standard or reference point, but thrives on social comparison and competition, and thus is inherently escalatory and self-referential.
This notion of ‘abundance for all’ first became the implicit promise of western democracies, and was made explicit in popular culture, design and media, during the fifties and sixties. The newer, better, more luxurious or technologically advanced product at this time promised to liberate the individual consumer from drudgery, improve her comfort, save her time, or provide her with some novel and exciting experience. Needless to say, this promise can only be fulfilled under certain optimal conditions, and with the income required to attain the promised improvement. This has resulted not only in an ongoing democratization of luxury but of aspiration, where rising standards create a continuous need to catch up to peers and social betters.
- Comparison and Social Competition
By possessing the latest and ‘best’ product, the individual consumer can express her own identity and reveal her social position to others. In a society that seeks to privilege skills and qualifications over inherited status or wealth, comparison and emulation become important means to assert the individual’s identity and social standing. In turn, this encourages and normalises an extrinsic, competitive and comparative view of ourselves, as we must imagine and concern ourselves about how others might see us in an increasing range of contexts and scenarios.
This becomes an encouragement to engage in consumerism, and to try to raise our estimation in the eyes of others. However, since it is not always possible to achieve what we aspire to, consumerism is inherently disappointing for many, a cycle of small defeats in an ongoing struggle for standards, recognition and social parity, for respect and a place in the world. For those who seem to ‘fail’ or lose, this creates a culture of resentment, envy and frustration, which in some situations can descend into violence. For this intensification of social competition through ‘invidious comparison’ erodes the stable institutions and community relationships that have supported the more sustainable social and economic relationships of the past.
The commitments and obligations of contemporary consumerism typically involve deception. This deception encourages the consumer to believe in the transformative virtues of the promoted product, typically packaged in a story that relies upon an absence of transparency. This mutually beneficial ignorance encourages a separation of the staged representations of the ideal to be gained through a particular act of consumption and the often dirty and distanced domains of production and waste.
This plays a significant role in perpetuating our environmental crisis, for the consumer is never allowed to understand what she is holding in her hands, where it comes from, or even how it was made or by whom, and especially its distant environmental effects, even though such information could now easily be made available. Becoming a part of our ambient culture, this culture of deception also habituates us to accepting an absence of truthfulness and transparency in public life, in governance and in the media.
- Sunk-Cost Effects
Much of the deception described above derives from the massive sunk costs of our larger enabling systems, which have been built up over the last century or so. These generate sunk-cost effects and fallacies, which encourage a motivated reasoning justifying and explaining why these existing but unsustainable systems are so essential to the economy and should not be changed.
Blaming the individual for their presumed excesses in consumption, as I have tried to show, can divert our attention from the more substantial environmental impacts of these systems, and also the fact that most individual consumers are locked in to them through many dependent relationships. There is no doubt that the emissions generated by systems such as transportation, electricity generation and urban development and construction, contribute massively to Climate Change, but little progress has been made towards their decarbonization.
- Waste Making
To keep more people buying more, more often, requires a rapid cycle of economic and material throughput, and this involves encouraging consumers to more rapidly devalue or ‘discount’ what they have and turn this more rapidly into waste. The problem is not just one of built-in obsolescence but a post-cautionary disregard of a whole-of-life perspective of the product, and its impacts on the natural environment. Waste is what is deemed ‘valueless’: so the ‘old’ must now be discarded to make way for the new, and more rapidly, supposedly for the sake of economic growth.
To generate this faster cycle of consumption and discard requires not only the deception noted above but a massive overproduction of goods, along with a matching overconsumption of resources and energy, to make, use and waste more rapidly. This can be seen in every domain, including fashion, cosmetics, hospitality, health, appliances, electronic products and building systems. This has immediate and long-lasting environmental consequences, contributing its own expanded footprint to Climate Change. None of this can be changed by improving product or process efficiency alone, as is too often assumed.
- Post-Cautionary Production and Design
Consumerism is increasingly dependent on what I have called here post-cautionary production and design, approaches to developing new products or systems that make few attempts to evaluate the environmental impacts of what is being produced. There are many examples of this, from the overproduction and dumping evident in fast high-street fashion, to the use of micro-plastics in cosmetics, and palm oil and trans-fats in food production.
Post-cautionary approaches in design and production are extremely costly to the environment and often to those they directly impact. They also waste time and money, typically tax-payer funded efforts at remediation, undoing or mitigating the damage they wreak. As I have argued here, computerization gives us few excuses to continue with these commercially aggressive but high-risk strategies. These also contribute directly to the emissions responsible for Climate Change.
In my book Somebody Else’s Problem: Consumerism, Sustainability and Design,
I explore these issues and the principles that follow. I look at the main forces giving rise to modern consumerism and today’s accelerating consumption patterns, and examine why older, more custodial patterns of consumption are in decline. I hope that my recommendations for new ways of designing, producing and using goods and services, offer an inspiring and meaningful contribution toward a movement away from excess consumption, while supporting our capacity to experience good and meaningful life.
Watch Robert’s author video in which he discusses the topics explored in his new book.
Somebody Else’s Problem: Consumerism, Sustainability and Design will be published by Greenleaf Publishing on 25 November 2016. Click here to pre-order a copy at a 20% discount. Offer ends 25 November 2016.