Lorne Daniel reflects on the fact that our society seems to view its individuals entirely as consumers. How do we gain independence from the consumer culture? Is it even possible?
I wonder if, one of these days when I wake up, someone is going to try to sell me sunshine. Now that everyone buys water in bottles, pays hundreds of dollars every month for digital entertainment products, and feels they can’t get out and exercise without Lululemon ‘yoga inspired athletic apparel,’ there aren’t many frontiers left.
Want to get away from it all? You better stop first at Mountain Equipment Co-op and load up on the latest light-weight, water repelling, environmentally sensitive whatever: tent, clothing, backpack. Heaven forbid you should just, you know, get away from it all.
I must start with a couple disclaimers. First, I am thoroughly immersed in the capitalist stream myself. A portion of my consulting work in recent years includes marketing – directly encouraging consumption. And I have played the whole capitalism game reasonably well – well enough that I have a fair collection of assets. I can hardly claim to stand above the commercial fray.
Secondly, I recognize that capitalism is an inspired system. It is fueled by our built-in desire to improve, to build a little better cave or hut, to strap a hunk of animal hide under our sore feet, to gather more goodies to eat and drink. Capitalism has, for now, won the world – because it works.
At the same time, I struggle with the fact that our society seems to view its individuals entirely as consumers. As long as we are producing, buying, eating – even wasting – stuff, our system is happy. Our economy loves it when you buy clothes that you have no room for in your closet, a couple new cars to replace the one that’s running just fine, piles of food that will settle onto your waist or go out in the garbage, and expensive adventure tourism outings on the other side of the globe.
Not surprisingly, the response to our 2007/08 economic crunch was to buy more. We don’t question a system based on continually, year in and year out, producing and consuming more products per capita. Our economy is based on growth, so get out there and buy a new Chrysler. Or Kia. Or Smart car.
I am continually amazed by the ingenuity of marketing – and the extent to which we (literally) buy in. Example: I am a runner, so I see the marketing of running gear up close. I have watched as clothing marketers introduced and used the term “technical clothing,” to the point where it’s commonly accepted. Race organizers now promise that the souvenir t-shirt is a “technical” shirt. Ha!
What is this technical wear? Just read the label. It’s what our parents used to call polyester (or similar petroleum based product). I once mocked my dad’s plaid polyester slacks with the never-die crease. The joke is now on me.
Polyester and other artificial fibres are more porous than most naturally grown materials like cotton and wool. But polyester was ridiculed in the 60s, so it needed to be rebranded. Which is why you now see fancy little tags that say all kinds of grandiose things like “advance moisture wicking technologies.” LOL.
Give me a break, I think. Then I buy the product. Because, of course, it is lighter and doesn’t hold the sweat the way cotton does.
Fellow Life As a Human writer Tori Klassen recently blogged about “the unending vomit” of too-early Christmas advertising. At a local mall, on Halloween night they hosted a children’s costume and candy fest. As soon as the kids and parents had been ushered out, trucks rolled up and in came the gear for Christmas season – the pop-up trees, the stage where Santa Claus will sit and encourage the little toddlers to consume, consume.
I now go to shopping malls so rarely that I suffer a bit of culture shock when I do. “So this entire place is dedicated to the purchase and consumption of products?” the alien me thinks when he is dropped into the polished world of glass, brass and bright rainbows of products.
It is a luxury of my advancing years that I no longer need to frequent malls, big box stores, and hyper-retail environments. We have more possessions than we need in our household, our children are living on their own, and we have stepped back from meaningless gifting. I call this a luxury because it’s much harder for younger families to make these choices.
The book The Rebel Sell (renamed A Nation of Rebels in the U.S.) made the case that trying to live a ‘counterculture’ life or ‘culture jamming’ is problematic at best, and possibly entirely futile. The authors make the case that counterculture efforts typically just create new markets – the desire to be different ultimately leads to a broader product line. Shabby looking jeans deliver the message that you don’t care about buying new jeans but, lo and behold, soon every young lawyer is town is wearing “distressed” jeans to the club for drinks. Reaction to hulking big SUVs leads to new markets for cute, boxy little Nissan Cubes and Kia Souls. Reaction to floating-buffet cruise travel leads to round-the-world adventure tours that leave at least as large a carbon footprint and probably generate as many purchases. Just different purchases.
Which is why I have significant reservations about ‘eco’ retailers. It’s hard to reconcile sustainability with the essential retail motive of moving more product. Bamboo sheets, sure, but do I really need to replace the existing sheets? Is there no getting away from our consumer culture? Essentially, no. So all the individual can do, for the moment, is be in the moment and look for the real world out there – the world that is not being bought and sold. All I can think to try is the proverbial walk in the woods – without a stop beforehand at the outdoor retailer.
Bar Code Protest – by Keith Ellwood on flickr – Some Rights Reserved
“Obey Conform Consume” Ebby @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.