Or, why the economics and psychology behind consumerism will suck you into the abyss, because that’s how it’s supposed to work.
After that cheery introduction, let’s get started on the very basics of why we spend incredible amounts of money on clothing, accessories, home goods, etc. that are made with often toxic materials at the cost of human life and livelihood.
From the economic perspective, we buy things because we are expressing our preferences for that good. That is, according to economics, if I buy a shirt I do so because I want it more than the money in my pocket, and more than all of the other things that I could have purchased or done with that money.
When I buy that shirt, the retailer takes notice and orders more shirts from her supplier, who then orders more from the factory. Thus, more shirts, or shirts like the one that I purchased, arrive, and I continue to buy them as long as I want them more than the money, or anything else I could spend the money on.
These concepts, utility (how much I enjoy buying and owning that shirt), marginal utility (how much I enjoy buying and owning each subsequent shirt), help explain the theory of why people buy things, but psychology and sociology give much more depth to the story.
The psychology and sociology of why people spend money on goods like clothes are linked, and you can imagine it similar effects, but studied at the individual level (psychology) and the group (sociology).
In Andrew Morgan‘s documentary, “The True Cost,” psychologist Tim Kasser discusses the perpetual cycle of want that is at the heart of consumerism. Our lives are not perfect, and in trying to solve the problems that we encounter in day to day life, marketing for clothing and commodities has stepped in to offer their particular products as our solutions. If we want to be confident, we buy a watch. To be loved, we buy a jacket, or a cosmetic item.
Yet, because these feelings are not achievable through the purchase of things, each subsequent item acquired as a solution to our problems fails to do its job. Thus, we either realise, “perhaps tangible goods are not the solutions to intangible problems,” or more likely than not, we decide that we simply have not found the right product, and continue the cycle of buying and wanting, buying, and wanting.
This is, of course, no accident – marketing is designed to sell you a life that you want, something that is better than what you are likely to have because it has more friends, more family, more fun, more sex, more glamour, more whatever the marketers believe that you’re searching for.
In sociology, the desires are similar, and they wrap back toward economics. Veblen developed the idea of conspicuous consumption, where we are buying goods to to show our status as opposed to simply meeting our needs. Pierre Bourdieu figures most prominently my understanding of (conspicuous) consumption as a form of social stratification.
We set ourselves apart by buying things; we do it to show that we can, as though it is an indicator of our value or fitness in the group. Our styles, our tastes, our likes and dislikes, exist not because we have a true preference for them, or because they give us some amount of utility, but because we’re enforcing a social hierarchy, or trying to cope with it being enforced upon us.
In this way, Bourdieu’s ideas link with signalling theory, the idea in economics that we participate in certain costly activities, like educational or purchasing luxury goods, in order to communicate information about ourselves. If I am purchasing a watch, for example, my decision “says something’ about the kind of person I am. We interview for jobs in our best clothes, with our resumes prominently displaying our most valuable achievements and affiliations, because these are meant to pass on information about the kind of candidate, and person, that we are.
For example, do I buy a cheap, plastic thing offered to me by a man outside the metro station at Opera, or do I continue another half a block into the Apple store, and buy a smart watch? Trick question, I can’t afford either! Assuming that I was in the market for a watch, both of those options certainly would tell time, but I doubt anyone would tell you that performing the essential function of a watch means they’re the same kind of item.
So economics, psychology, and marketing have conspired against us, to vacuum up our money and our time at the expensive of our fellow human beings’ lives and the health of our environment. Now that we see that, we can reject it, but how?
The first step for me was to acknowledge and reflect on the idea that we are never going to be happy with the kind of consumption in which we are currently engaged, because this is not designed to make us happy. It is not designed to solve our problems, which are vast, and occasionally horrifying (the inevitable heat death of the universe, anyone?)
The cycle of consumerism is vicious. It is designed to leave our emotional and psychological needs unmet, and to distract us (and our wallets) at any other pursuits at wholeness. We need to believe that signalling through consumption, especially conspicuous consumption, is critical for our day-to-day survival. If we stopped believing, one by one or en masse, the whole thing would come crashing down around our ears.
I, for one, am ready. Check back for a post on the core values of ethical consumption, and some of the ways I’ve found to begin tearing myself away from consumerism.