Thou shalt not covet stuff: Confessions of a consumer

Something I wrote a while back about inconspicuous consumption. It’s a little on the long side- Brevity has never been one of my strengths- but I hope you enjoy…

Imagine a world where designer labels are treated with the same disdain as profanities. A world where owning a convertible sports car draws disapproving shakes of heads rather than admiring or envious gazes, and clutching a designer handbag is seen as bad taste rather than the height of elegance. The picture I’m attempting to paint is not in fact some Orwellian dystopia or a socialist experiment. This, I believe, is a reflection of the future of consumerism, and a seismic shift that will take place in the prevailing set of values that will govern modern society in the near future.

To credibly suggest the extinction of conspicuous consumptions it would undoubtedly require a rather liberal sprinkling of hyperbole- in reality, I believe that there will always be those who covet and bestow value on the ownership of a Porsche, Tiffany earrings and Gucci purses. However, I genuinely believe we stand poised on the brink of change, and not merely because at the time of writing Barak Obama has just taken the reigns as the supposed leader of the free world.

I believe that conscious consumption is a sickness in need of a panacea. I wish to argue that the combination of a global economy on its knees, the curious dissatisfaction we suffer when making choices, and a sheer exhaustion with the ideology of excess that is promulgated by the media will pave the way for a global society that will not only reject the notion of valuing this lifestyle, but will indeed embrace and celebrate a seemingly contrarian set of values based around frugality.

Whilst some might write off our thirst for purchase and our desire to own things as a mere behavioral idiosyncrasy, I believe that we actually bestow significant value on consumerism, the perpetual cycle of purchase filling our dreams and defining our aspirations.

Lest you think I am some proselytizing recent convert to the ways of frugality and minimalism, let me assure you that I speak not from the ivory tower of someone who has purged themselves of the value of excessive consumption, but instead from the dark recesses of a psyche ruled by compulsive purchasing and the constant need to own bigger, shinier, fancier and newer.

Conspicuous consumption is by no means a modern phenomenon. The term itself was coined by the sociologist Thorstein Veblen in 1899 to depict the behavioral characteristic of the nouveau riche, a class that emerged as a result of the accumulation of wealth during the Second Industrial Revolution. However, I believe that our gluttony and penchant for über-consumption has swelled over the century. In our seemingly post-religious era of faithlessness and secularism, devotion to God has been vanquished and replaced by an ardent commitment to clothing brands and automotive badges. If consumerism is the new prevailing western religion, then the mall is undoubtedly its cathedral.

Few images are as iconic and representative of the 1950s as James Dean or Marlon Brando with a cigarette hanging out of their mouths. Smoking was seemingly lauded, valued and desired with such ubiquity that it must have been near impossible for my grandma to imagine that the very thing that made her screen heroes objects of desire, would lose its cachet and be labeled an antiquated value in 2008. Although the ban on smoking in public places that is prevalent in many cities has acted as a catalyst to the demise of the cigarette’s appeal, it could be argued that it was the widespread acceptance that smoking causes lung cancer that was responsible for smoking slowly losing its status as a symbol of sexiness and sophistication, even whilst billions continued to help feed the coffers at corporations like Philip Morris.

Our overzealous lust to buy, to consume and to own has become such a strong and ubiquitous impulse that it has evolved and mutated into a malevolent compulsion capable of subverting our rational capacities, and destabilizing our lives as we drown in a sea of debt. As we slowly come to realize that conspicuous consumption, like smoking, can manifest as a potentially debilitating illness, the value we attach to it will dissipate, with spiraling personal debt and a crumbling world economy acting as the pivotal catalysts that will help free us from these shackles.

One further nail in the coffin of conspicuous consumption will be the dissatisfaction we increasingly suffer when making a purchase. Today’s consumers face an unprecedented amount of choice when making any purchase. Even after I have decided whether I want Levis, Diesel, Wrangler, Gap, or any other of the plethora of denim brands available, I am confronted with a somewhat intimidating choice: Do I want button-fly, zip-fly, high-rise, low-rise, boot-cut, cowboy-cut, straight-leg, skinny leg, easy fit, slim fit, stone wash or acid wash?

Increased choice is encouraged and celebrated by many sociologists and philosophers because choice is linked to maximizing human freedom, which in turn is seen as one of the key ways to increase our welfare. In truth however, this syllogism is fallacious. Increased choice doesn’t always increase our wellbeing. If I am not too overcome with inertia to make a jean selection, it is likely that I will walk out the store feeling dissatisfied and confused. The ‘opportunity costs’ of imagining the features of the alternative denim I didn’t select will gnaw away at me and make me less satisfied with my purchase, as will the increased expectation that arises with the extra choice available. I perennially suffer the bitterness of leaving a store instantly consumed with doubt, regret and remorse.

The crucial tipping point is just around the corner. By the time our children’s generation have receding hairlines and pension plans, valuing conspicuous consumption will seem about as warped and antiquated as a typewriter or a record player. Fast forward half a century and the white gleam of ipod headphones could potentially derail your chances of securing a date and a Ralph Lauren logo on a shirt pocket might cause an employer to consider you unsuitable for a job. Celebrity magazines will laud how little stars on the red carpet have spent on their Oscar dresses and aspirations of owning designer sunglasses, precious jewels and the latest trainers, will be supplemented and replaced with a desire to live a life of minimalism and social consciousness. Traditional perceptions of ‘cheap’ are being subverted thanks to retail brands like Primark and TJ Max. This future awaits. Green is the new black, frugality the new cool and I might just be able to kick my shopping habit.

Cool Granny

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6 responses to “Thou shalt not covet stuff: Confessions of a consumer

  1. Don’t think my footnote migrated to WordPress. The notion of ‘Opportunity Costs’ came from Barry Schwartz’s ‘The Paradox of Choice.’

  2. This reminds me of the http://www.howies.co.uk t-shirt sold a couple of years ago emblazoned with ‘Fast, faster, fastest, obsolete’. The double irony of course being Howies trying to position themselves a cool, green brand.

  3. Was this your Atticus entry?

  4. Yeah. What do you think?

  5. It is very interesting that you just wrote this article, as I just wrote one with a similar theme. Indeed rather why we need this change in consumer behaviour and how we might achieve it – http://prone2rant.wordpress.com/2009/07/26/proud-to-be-preachy/. I’m pleased you and I have similarly unreliable blogging habits.

  6. Bonjour,
    Je vous conseille de lire un site qui parle de mutuelle

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