THE DISHONEST FACE OF CONSUMERISM
A statistic illustrates that in 1950, there is one car for every fifty people but in 2009, there are more than one car for every twelve people in America. This example demonstrates the increasing effect of consumerism by the end of the 20th century. According to Cambridge Dictionary, consumerism is the situation in which too much attention is given to buying andowning things. In the light of this definition, it can be concluded that consumerism usually leads to materialism since materialists claim that happiness can be increased through buying and spending as well . It is inevitable that there exist a dissidence between people about this issue. Authors like Juliet Schor, Annie Leonard and Danielle Todd support consumerism is a foe whereas Peter Saunders and James Twitchell, advocates the idea that consumerism is a friend. Consumerism has many negative outcomes like overspending, overworking, credit card debts, social and economic problems etc. These negative aspects of consumerism are in majority therefore consumerism is a foe. Consumerism is a foe since it causes overworking by triggering the insatiable nature of human. Each person aims to reach a good, qualified life and this ambition causes competition between people. As Annie Leonard mentions, we have become a nation of consumers (9). The reason behind this situation is exactly the competitive life circumstances, each person buys more and more to be the best.
It is acknowledged that human has an insatiable nature by birth and the consumerist system triggers this stimulation substantially since people do not want to stay out of the competition. Todd states that consumers are well aware of the insatiable nature of consumerism, but recognize that in their society it is the only possible way to live (1). The most negative aspect of consumerism emerges at that point; since consumers can never be fulfilled with the goods they consume there occurs a circle which tucks people into a trap. The empty and miserable consumers buy more and more goods with the hope of finding fulfillment and reaching the best. For instance, a young man buys an Iphone 4 and just three months later he sees his friend’s Iphone 5 and decides to buy an Iphone 5 immediately for reaching his friend’s level . To purchase more, this man obliged to work exceedingly so his life passes with heavy working conditions. According to Leonard, this situation creates a crazy work-watch-spend treadmill (13). This circle damages people’s lives since it is almost impossible to get rid of this circle because of the unsatisfied nature of human. With the existence of this circle, people turn into robots, they cannot think anything except money, working and shopping. Eventually, people’s psychological and physical healths are damaged because of stress, they become tired, they do not have individual times, they do not have any hobbies, they drift apart from nature and get stuck into shopping malls etc. Briefly, it can be said that consumerism is a foe since it triggers the unsatisfied nature of people and ensnare their lives with the work-watch-spend circle. Advertisements cause the problem of overspending which is the most mischievous outcome of consumerism.
Advertisements have seven functions like identifiying brands, supplying information, persuasion previewing new trends etc. but persuasion is the best function which is related with consumerism. Advertisements and consumerism definitely have a positive correlation since powerful and visual advertising directs consumers to purchase goods and services. As Juliet Schor states, it can be said that the growing importance of television causes consumerism (1). It demonstrates that people who watch TV are more inclined to purchasing more. Schor also asserts that an avarage level of TV watching of 15 hours a week equals nearly $3,000 per year (1). So it can be concluded that television is very effective on people’s buying decisions, advertisements direct people to spend more money. These tricky advertisements lead people to buy redundant goods. For instance, Twitchell mentions that he bought a Mazda Miata although he did not need this car (1). Moreover, he states that he bought the car because of an advertisement which promotes the idea that if you buy this car, all of your dreams will come true (2). This is a clear example of overspending, an effective advertisement made Twitchell buy a luxury and redundant good which was pretty expensive. Twitchell’s experience is just the tip of the iceberg, the rate of overspending will increase more and more with the growing importance of television.
Due to overspending, people become unable to afford their basic, biological needs since they spend all their money for visible status goods. Shortly, it is verified that advertisements direct people to consume more and more but this huge effect of advertisements are destructive since over-consumption makes people unable to afford their basic needs. Credit card debts is another destructive outcome of consumerism. In Turkey, one million and sixty thousand people have credit card debts by 2014. This statistical data demonstrates that consumerism is not a friend for one million and sixty thousand people in Turkey. As it is mentioned before, human has an insatiable nature therefore people see products as a hero and they purchase more and more. Banks take advantage of people’s fralities and give them lots of credit cards. This situation brings a trouble into society like credit card debts. Juliet Schor argues that one of the most fascinating things about credit card debt is how many people are not conscious of their behaviour (3). While buying goods people cannot be aware of what they spend since they are not aware that these credits are borrowed. They assume that these credits are free and limitless. Credit cards are presented as hero by banks, consumers can buy what they want without making payment by cash but at the end this dream concludes with a disappointing end, hoarded credit card debts.
Victims of credit cards have to sell their houses, cars etc. to pay their credit card debts. So, it can be concluded that although many people believe to the misleading friendly face of consumerism actually it is just an invisible enemy which drags people to debt spiral. Some may say that consumerism is a friend. However, this assertion is not true. It should not be forgotten that the capitalist system leads to the occurrence of consumerism. Saunders defends that capitalism is good for the soul since it gives people a chance to live a good life (6). That assumption can be accepted to an extent since each person aims to reach a good life. This is a common will of all humanity but it should be considered that human being is insatiable and this system exploits people’s weaknesses which is coming from their nature. As it is mentioned in second and third paragraphs, advertisements exploit people’s weaknesses dramatically by giving the message that they are insufficient. People cannot reject the desirable choices that the system provides and they become a part of this system even if they cannot afford the requirements of a good life. Saunders also hypothesizes that no socioeconomic system can guarantee people a good life, they can just provide happy and worthwhile lives and capitalism passes with flying colors on this test (19).
There exist a social stratification in today’s world so these flying colors are just accessable for upper and middle classes but what about the working class? Their labor is exploited all the time by this capitalist system. A good system should provide a happy and worthwhile life to everyone, not just the selected rich ones. To sum up, it is true that capitalism can be seen as desirable and attracts many people’s attention but this does not mean that capitalism is a friend since it just provides tricky and temporary dreams to a minor group of rich people. In conclusion, negative aspects of consumerism like overspending, overworking, credit card debts, social and economic problems etc. outweigh so consumerism is a foe. Although some argue that it is a friend, actually in real life it is impossible to support that argument since consumerism triggers the unfulfilling nature of human and it is not desirable or beneficial in the long run. Consumerism is just a foe which makes you a victim with empty promises. Schor believes that, to avoid this situation people should decrease the time they spend in front of the TV, use no credit cards, stop buying unnecessary products and try to make logical, consciously decisions while purchasing (4). If people take these suggestions into account, they can reach a good life without these tricky systems. It should not be forgotten that spending less makes people feel better.
Leonard, Annie. “The Story of Stuff.” Free Range Studios, 2007. 20 Aug. 2009. Web.
Saunders, Peter. “Why Capitalism Is Good for the Soul.” The Insider 23.4 (2008): 14- 21. Insider Online. The Insider Heritage Foundation, Apr. 2008. Web.
Schor, Juliet. “Juliet Schor on The Overspent American.” TIME.com. N.p., 20 May 1998. Web.
Todd, Danielle. “You Are What You Buy: Postmodern Consumerism and the
Construction of Self.” Fall 2011. Web.
Twitchell, James. “How I Bought My Red Miata.” August/ September 2000. Web.
The aim of this essay is to explore who the winners and losers are in a consumer society by looking at how status is affected by choices as a consequence of economic position. The essay also examines how major stakeholders, such as supermarkets and suppliers, impact that judgement and the global environmental consequences.
Veblen’s concept of conspicuous consumption (Veblen, 1899) began to outline how the leisure classes demonstrated status through possessions. However, with increasing affluence and mass consumption, Bauman (Bauman, 1988) later suggests that consumers have become identified by what they have, as opposed to what they do, and have become further differentiated between the ‘seduced’ and the ‘repressed’; the seduced having the means to engage fully in society, but that the repressed are not in a position to become effective consumers and so, by definition, are at best marginalised.
In 2008 the national average household spend on non-essentials was 73.2% of gross weekly income (£471). Households in the highest decile spent 85% (£1,044) on non-essentials (ONS, 2008). These are the wealthiest of the seduced members of society. They live the lifestyle they aspire to. They surround, and so identify, themselves with the trappings of their success. They can be persuaded to buy the latest car, fashion or electronic gadgets and equipment. They can afford to make the choice to buy organic, Fairtrade. Many would say, surely they are the biggest winners in a consumer society?
Conversely, the repressed are typically on low incomes, often unemployed or on benefits. In 2008, households in the lowest decile in the UK had 55% (£153.7) of gross weekly income available to spend on non-essentials (ONS, 2008). So, for example, one in six low-income (compared to one in twenty for average-income) households lacks either a freezer or a washing machine (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2010).
The inability of the repressed to engage fully in the consumer society leads to marginalisation and social inequalities. However, it should be noted that, as people’s circumstances change, so can their status. As financial circumstances improve so do choices and, consequently, so does socialisation into the consumer society. However, those households negatively impacted by the recession can tumble down the social ladder. In this way society is made and remade.
In the current economic environment, there are many examples of the seduced falling into the repressed category. Is their income really ‘disposable’ or are they buying their way into the repressed camp? People are saving less (1.7% of total resources) than at any time in the past 40 years, with the ratio of debt to disposal income in the UK averaging 150% in 2007, rising from approximately 90% only 10 years previously (Faculté d’Administration Université de Sherbrooke, 2008).
Nevertheless, many consumers from both the repressed and seduced groups can afford to buy their food and the latest fashion copies from their local supermarket. Nearly three out of every four pounds spent on food in Britain is spent in the four big supermarkets; ASDA, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s or Tesco (Bevan, 2006). But this begs the question, how is it possible for the supermarkets to provide goods so cheaply? Applying Dennis Wong’s theory of positive-sum game (Dennis Wrong, 1997), where all parties achieve a positive result, both the seduced and the repressed are winners; the supermarkets make huge profits and the consumers benefit from cheap, time-saving, one-stop shopping at their local supermarket.
However, the anti-supermarket campaigners would argue that supermarkets and consumers are participating in a zero-sum game (Dennis Wrong, 1997), where one party’s gain is balanced out by another one’s loss. The claim made is that, the reason consumers and supermarkets are perceived winners is because their gain is achieved at the expense of exploited suppliers and workforces and loss of local retailers.
Driven by consumer demand for lower prices and convenience, supermarkets maintain an increasingly dominant retail position in the UK by using their buying power to coerce suppliers to sell cheaply. A significant majority of suppliers supply their goods to the four big supermarkets, who occupy 75% of the UK grocery market. Anti-supermarket campaigners, such as Tescopoly and Farmers for Action Press report that supermarkets abuse their buying power to squeeze suppliers’ prices to the bare minimum (farming today, 2010). This has caused increasing hardship in the market – for example “Many dairy farmers have left the industry…” and of those left “blame their low prices on the way that four large supermarkets dominate the grocery market”, even taking the hit when the supermarkets engage in price wars (Parliament, 2010). Conversely, supermarkets provide a significant and stable market for the suppliers.
Increasingly, supermarkets have sourced products from overseas. It is put forward by anti-supermarket campaigners that “supermarkets today wield unprecedented power on a global scale. From Bangladesh to South Africa, supermarkets dictate the terms at which overseas producers are forced to sell their goods” (War on Want, 2010). It is claimed that supermarkets exploit those at the, often labour intensive, end of the supply chain, to work long hours, in sweatshop conditions, with poverty pay. However, pro-supermarket campaigners believe that overseas workers participate in a positive-sum game, where everyone wins; supermarkets obtain products that consumers can buy cheaply, whilst providing employment to overseas labour that are guaranteed pay above the local minimum, whilst working in comparatively good conditions locally.
With over 12,000 independent shops shutting each year and 90% of all new shop space given planning approval last year going to the big four supermarkets (Tescopoly, 2010), it could be argued that consumers are disadvantaged by a lack of choice and diversity as supermarkets squeeze out the local, small retailers. However, there is again a counter-argument to this that the supermarkets develop regeneration to bring money into towns, providing a greater diversity of choice and drawing a better class of shops into local shopping areas, so providing a better market place for the small retailers.
In the final analysis, however, the negative environmental externalities of the consumer society could have a potentially devastating global impact. With greater consumption, comes greater packaging, together with the associated waste. Human kind used a carbon footprint 1.4 times the capacity of the earth and the UK is cited as “the dustbin of Europe” (LGA, 2007). As much as one third of UK food is thrown away each year (WRAP, 2008a, 2008b) and, with the greater electronic sophistication and continual development of equipment available, there is a built-in obsolescence to many items sold today. As it becomes uneconomic to get cars and washing machines repaired, thus a continual cycle of spend and waste is created. Although the amount of rubbish produced in the UK has started to level out and recycling has increased from 8% to 33% in the 10 years to 2007 (Defra, 2007), the total amount of rubbish produced will continue to increase along with the increase in population.
Relatively, it could be said that the affluent are the true winners in a consumer society. But then, the vast majority that can afford to eat a diverse diet and wear the latest fashions from the supermarkets could also be seen as winners in a positive-sum game. Even overseas labour is said by some to lose out and by some to gain as a result of conspicuous consumption. Conversely, it could be said that, as the environment is eroded, ultimately everyone loses out. The conclusion here is that there is an essential contestability to the concept that anyone can be a winner or a loser in a consumer society; the criteria are subjective to an individual’s values.