Buy-Buy World?

When we talk about the effects of excessive consumption on the state of the world today, it’s worth noting that the “waste making system” we have become was, and still is, actively encouraged!

This was particularly evident in the policies of post-WWII America where ramped-up consumerism was viewed as the key to growing the economy.

Victor Lebow’s discussion of the formulation of American consumer capitalism from his paper “Price Competition in 1955” (Journal of Retailing, Spring 1955) provides a chilling illustration of what the consumer was pushed to become.

Lebow, a 20th century economist and retail analyst, is perhaps best known for this particular quotation:

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 satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption.

The Consumer Mantra

The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.

These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only “forced draft” consumption, but “expensive” consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.

Whether Lebow was encouraging this gross consumerism or commenting on its significance is debateable, but it is clear in today’s “use and refuse” type society that this irresponsible consumer behaviour continues to be actively promoted by industries and governments alike across the board.

What was that bump?!

In a world full of disposable goods and pressure to up-grade “old” (read: >2 years) products, is it possible to change our cultural mindset? Can we break the habits of generations’ lifetimes? Or will we just continue over-buying the present conveniences and short-selling the future of humanity and the world as we knew it..?

Consumerism in four easy stages…

: penchant

Studying MSc in Marketing at Smurfit Business Graduate School in Dublin. Likes: Music, literature, rugby, marketing and rowing (the sport - not just arguing!). Also love comedy in all its various shapes and forms and travelling as much as possible and learning about other cultures.

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Posted in economic development, government policy, sustainable living, US politics
5 comments on “Buy-Buy World?
  1. As much as I would appreciate such a change of cultural mindset towards more sustainability in my opinion, what if it really happened? What would be the impact? We’d probably face a global recession for the next decade(s). I’m afraid that almost all national economies rely on growth by, amongst other things, consumption. In this context, I like the expression of the American consumer as ‘consumer of last resort’ – excessive consumption whether or not funding is available (pre-crisis). Keep in mind that this culture has even led to the recession in the global world due to the need of fueling economic growth in the Western world which was then based on credits.

  2. Certainly there is an additional need for a shift in the way that companies do business and make their money which does not involve promotion of disposal goods. The sort of example that Interface provides of a company that over-hauled their business model and shifted into a service-leasing system is perfect for a “solutions economy”.

    IKEA, in contrast, are producing more waste with their disposal goods that need replacement on a regular basis. They actively encourage this sort of behaviour as can be seen from this ad:
    While amusing, ultimately the person is throwing away a perfectly good lamp.

    A shift in consumer habits can only happen with education and a conscious shift in policies and attitudes. When people are voting with their wallets, companies will follow the money regardless and the economy will survive, though most businesses will look and act a lot differently!

  3. crazykouts says:

    I can’t help but feel that there is “status and prestige” attached to the purchase of sustainable, environmentally-friendly, and organic consumer goods. How big is the Global eco-friendly market?

  4. beejay22 says:

    The “status and prestige” of the eco-friendly purchase is a clever way to tap into the underlying consumption drive (I like the term “Affluenza” not sure if it was coined by Aussie author Clive Hamilton) being described by Lebow, so you could say that the system/behaviour is still being encouraged. I guess the question is whether we accept that the green initiatives are enough progress to address the sustainability issues we face globally.

  5. jeremy says:

    One of the earliest commentators on the ‘conspicuous consumption’ phenomenon you are all describing was Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class

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