The American culture is very comfortable using the words “consumers” and “consumerism.” If I called my friend a consumer and producer, he would not object. In his company, he is a producer. He would say that by producing, he is able to consume. The more successful he is in producing, the more he would be able to consume. He sees consuming to be the purpose of producing. He would like to be rich enough to acquire all the goods that he desires. He associates consumption with happiness.
Consumerism is the ideology that economic growth is good and that more consumption produces more happiness. It was consumerism that created the middle class lifestyle. The middle class ideal is to buy a home in the suburbs, with land for kids to play and adults to barbeque and to be able to swim in their own swimming pool. This ideal is what gets adults to work slavish hours in their business and even sometimes to bend business rules in order to maximize their earnings. Ironically, the person may be happy as a consumer at home but very unhappy as a producer at work, especially if he is alienated and unhappy about work conditions. Work and work conditions are being challenged more and more; are they really avenues to carefree consumer lifestyles. His net happiness must be seen as his consumer happiness plus or minus his producer happiness at work.
Consumers pursued a comfortable lifestyle even before the industrial revolution. But the industrial revolution and the steam engine enabled manufacturers to substantially increase production so that more people in the world could lead a good life. Then the harnessing of electricity led to a second industrial revolution releasing more desirable goods – the light bulb, telephone, radio, television, refrigerators, air conditioning, the automobile — to enable a fuller life. Then a third industrial revolution appeared in the end of the twentieth century based on silicon chips and digital information technology that led to computers, the Internet, online buying, social media and mobile phones, delivering even a fuller life for more people.
These three industrial revolutions, from time to time, led to periods of overproduction. Overproduction is tamed by industry pressuring people to buy more. Manufacturers increased their advertising to tempt people to purchase more. And industry used planned obsolescence to outdate previously purchased goods. At the same time, banks made credit cards, mortgages, and “buy now, pay later” plans easily available so that people could buy beyond their incomes. Those consumers who lacked a buying discipline often couldn’t meet their payment commitments without going to payroll lenders and borrowing money at high interest rates. Many undisciplined borrowers had to declare bankruptcy, lose their home or apartment, and become homeless.
Limits Arise to Carefree Consumer Lifestyles
Pursuing carefree consumer lifestyles began to create some serious human and global problems. Capitalist economies had been operating on the following four assumptions:
- Wants are natural and infinite, and encouraging unlimited consumption is good for business.
- The planet’s resources are infinite.
- The earth’s carrying capacity for waste and pollution is infinite.
- Quality of life and personal happiness increase with increased consumption and want satisfaction.
Today, each assumption has been challenged. Consider the following:
- Wants are culturally influenced, and strongly shaped by marketing and other forces
- The earth’s resources are finite and fragile.
- The earth’s carrying capacity for waste and pollution is very limited.
- Quality of life and personal happiness does not always increase after a point with more consumption and want satisfaction.
One realization then is that growth economics directly contributes to environmental degradation. Consumerism is ‘eating our future.’ Today’s level of consumption in richer countries and within richer families endangers the environment by using up precious resources and producing growing scarcities. Today’s high consumption means that future generations will have fewer resources for living the lifestyle of today’s consumers. As more countries aspire to achieve a middle class lifestyle, environmentalists say that the resources of five earths would be needed to support a middle class lifestyle for the earth’s inhabitants.
A second realization is that consumerism also contributes to poverty. Those in poverty are constantly exposed to a consumerism that many will never attain. Many take risks to achieve what’s out of their reach (e.g., criminal behaviors and casino gambling), even sending them into deeper poverty or jail. Instead of advancing, they move into nihilism and hopelessness. In the meantime, consumerism leads many people to fill their closets with clothing, to fill their stomachs with more food than needed, and to fill their homes with endless objects. The fact is that incomes and wealth are growing more unequal. Today, in the U.S., the richest 1 percent own 40 per cent of U.S. wealth. The richest 10 percent of U.S. households own 70 per cent of U.S. wealth. If the rich were taxed more, the government could use the money to deliver a better education to the poor and deliver more food and health to the poor.
A third realization is that our level of consumerism is producing a dangerous level of climate change. Most of the world’s worsening climate and pollution is manmade. Our automobiles, our buildings and our meat animals release gases and CO2 emissions warming the earth. A warming earth leads to melting ice and water flooding of coastal cities, creating untold human and physical damage. In addition, we are experiencing many more turbulent events such as tornadoes, hurricanes and droughts. Can we even grow enough food under these unstable weather conditions?
What Can We Do about the Downsides of Consumerism?
The foregoing concerns can hopefully prompt us to make both personal and societal changes regarding the consumer culture.
Concerned consumers need to reexamine their attitudes and behaviors. Do they need to acquire so many new goods and services? For things they acquire, can they extend their use instead of replacing them? Can they give these goods to someone else who needs them? Can they practice the environmentalists 3R formula: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?
Instead of preaching and practicing “More is More,” turn to E. F. Schumacher’s view of “Less is More” in his book Small is Beautiful. Instead of too much time in “Getting and Spending, Laying Waste our Powers,” one turns to other paths and pleasures in life, such as living more with nature, devoting more time to friends, promoting prosocial causes, turning more to meditation and a spiritual outlook.
Homer Warren and Linette Stratford offered another thought in their book Producer Consciousness. They hope that people would see themselves more as producers than consumers. A person should see acquiring a jacket or a pair of shoes not as “goods” but as necessary inputs to help them produce better. A person is a decision maker seeking to produce a result, a feeling, a skill or some other output. A person should see goods as inputs enabling persons to produce desired outcomes.
Aside from individuals moving from seeing themselves as producers rather than consumers, what can society do about the problems of limited resources, poverty, environment, and climate change? And what can businesses do?
The mantra of businesses is to “sell, sell, sell.” One possibility is for companies to make better and longer lasting goods. The company Patagonia provides a fine example. They produce clothing of good quality that lasts longer. They urge their customers to reuse or recycle their clothing rather than buy more clothing. A company such as Volvo does not redesign its car every few years except to introduce needed features that make their car safer and better.
Businesses need to find ways to produce their products using fewer resources. Walmart built its truck fleet to be more fuel efficient and is goading its suppliers to change their truck fleets to be more fuel efficient and less polluting. Walmart requires its more than 60,000 suppliers to source 95 percent of their production from highly ranked “environmentally-oriented” companies.
Paul Polman, who was CEO of Unilever, strongly advocated pursuing sustainability in business. “Our ambitions are to double our business, but to do that while reducing our environmental impact and footprint…But the road to well-being doesn’t go via reduced consumption. It has to be done via more responsible consumption. We need to see ourselves as part of a larger production chain that extends into the future. Our human outputs become the inputs of future generations (i.e., future Producers). The aim of sustainability is to leave future generations with the same or a larger basket of resources than we have now. Yet our present generation seems ready to use up more of our resource endowments and leave future generations with less, and this would be unconscionable.
Businesses must also make a concerted effort to reduce waste. Much packaging is largely waste that ends up cluttering the land or despoiling the water. Failure to safely storage or refrigerate vulnerable foods results in waste. Restaurants serving poor quality food or serving excessive amounts incur waste. Water left running beyond the amount needed causes the waste of a precious resource.
Governments also need to play a role in encouraging responsible consumption. Some governments get involved in using demarketing to discourage the overuse of water and other resources. California frequently runs water conservation campaigns. Some government agencies are using social marketing to change antisocial attitudes and behaviors that can be harmful to individuals or others in their neighborhood. As consumers we disassociate ourselves from other. As Producers we can’t ignore how our outputs become inputs for others.
Unfortunately most countries bury their heads in the sand rather than adjust to living in a world of finite resources. In the U.S., this problem of finite resources was finally addressed on Feb. 7, 2019. On that day, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) introduced a proposal called the Green New Deal in the House of Representatives. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced a companion resolution in the Senate.
The Green New Deal outlined a comprehensive vision for how the U.S. might tackle limited resources and climate change over the next decade, while also creating high-paying jobs and protecting vulnerable communities. The Green New Deal proposed seven goals:
- Making every building energy efficient
- Growing the clean energy economy
- Ensuring a just and fair transition
- Clean air, water and healthy food as a human right
- Sustainable transportation
- Cutting carbon emission
- Moving to 100% renewable energy
The primary climate change goal is to reach net-zero greenhouse emissions in a decade. “Net-zero” means that after tallying up all the greenhouse gases that are released and subtracting those that are sequestered, or removed, there is no net addition to the atmosphere. The goal, then, is slightly less ambitious than calling for no greenhouse gas emissions at all. Unfortunatelly the probability of Congress passing Green New Deal legislation remains quite low.
Is There a Need to Control Population?
One final question is how many people can the earth support to enjoy more than a subsistence level of living? In 1800, the world’s population numbered one billion people. Now the world’s population is over seven billion people. By 2050, the earth will need an economic system that can feed nine billion people.
China itself has a population of over 1.3 billion people. The Chinese government under its leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979 introduced its one-child policy. This policy coerced couples to have only one child and assigned fines to those who do not comply. Recently, this policy was slightly relaxed. At the same time, Western governments of are not likely to introduce or favor a coercive a policy. Major religions, in fact, encourage large families, making it all the more difficult to change their beliefs. The advent of birth control pills and methods have fortunately helped keep down the number of births.
Democracies need to base their hope for achieving a constant population level on educating more women and encouraging them to join the work force. Working women have less time or appetite to spend their lives in producing and managing children.
The U.S. and other nations have operated on the proposition that they should pursue unlimited economic growth. This has worked well and has built several prosperous nations. Now we are increasingly aware that growth comes at a very high cost. Growth leads to using up our resources and to environmental degradation, climate turbulence, global warming, and continued poverty. We need businesses to take strong steps favoring sustainability economics. They need to move from maximizing profits to creating a good balance of profits, people welfare and the planet, known as the triple bottom line. Businesses must move from seeing their markets as consisting of consumers to seeing their markets as consisting of producers. More citizens are adopting prosumer roles. They are increasingly playing the role of thought producers, broadcasters, activists and reformers. They are engaged in value creation and co-creation
Society and government need to use demarketing and social marketing to encourage the 3Rs of the environmentalists. Ultimately the public has to face the question of how big should the population grow. If the world’s population grows without limit, most people on earth will barely manage to live on a subsistence level. If the world population could stay fairly constant, a better balance could be struck between economic development and environmental stewardship.