Unsustainable Consumerism Part 3: Distribution and Consumption

So far we’ve explored the incredible destruction of finite environmental resources as we extracted materials for our consumer products.  We’ve been shocked by the amount of conflict around our world that was literally caused from the fight over possession of these resources.  We’ve seen how millions of people globally suffer unhealthy, unfair working conditions to produce our consumer goods, and we’ve seen how the toxins and over pollution generated from the production of our products is threatening our world’s health.  Today, we’ll look at why.  Why would we possibly go through all of this mess just to fill our houses, cars, and vacation homes with more and more stuff?

Specific plans in history artificially created the consumer society that our American world revolves around today.  For younger generations, such as mine, we just assumed that cheaply made plastic toys always accompanied every child’s chicken nuggets and chocolate frosty, but the truth is that our generation consumes twice as much as the generation fifty years ago.

After World War II we had an incredibly productive economy, but we needed to build a design that exploited this productivity to create an effective and sustainable economy.  Victor Lebow, an economist and retail analyst, wrote on the state of U.S. consumerism in 1955 in the Journal of Retailing. 

” 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 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 tends 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.”

His words perfectly summarize the direction the Eisenhower Administration adopted in order to ingrain consumerism into the American values system.  Eisenhower’s Economic Advisor Chair claimed that the American economy’s ultimate purpose was to produce more consumer goods.  It seems that this theory of American values has definitely translated throughout the decades.

It’s clear that consumerism is entrenched in our country’s values, but how did we get there?  What really makes us consume over and over again.  Of all the products that we purchase, only 1% of those have not been thrown away six months after their purchase.  Every six months we go through 99% of the stuff we buy! Unreal.  Why are we constantly buying and getting rid of new things?

Well first, there’s obvious things like individual sized frozen dinners, disposable razors, even daily contact lenses.  These one-use items were purposefully built into our consumer society so that we are forced to buy new products.  In the planning stages of our consumer economy, two terms were used to describe how Americans could be convinced to consume, consume, consume.

First, planned obsolescence is the actual design of consumer products that makes them break within a certain time frame.  Industrial designers actually planned the way they could make stuff break fast enough that consumers would need to purchase new products without losing faith in the product in general.  After realizing I was being duped by economic planners, I feel really foolish for actually buying into this strategy with disposable mop heads or those on-the-go miniature toothbrushes.

I have a relevant example to this inefficient and wasteful buying scheme.  Last week I had to buy my cap and gown for graduation.  Every year graduating seniors wear the same black gown.  Instead of the logical, sensible, and environmentally conscious plan of recycling the gowns and allowing the same stock pile of gowns to go from one graduating class to the next, we are forced to buy ourselves a new gown instead of reusing from previous years.  The distributors are able to convince us to make this purchase by packaging the gown with our cap and tassels, making it impossible for us to make separate purchases.  This means that every year 2500 gowns are cheaply produced in a foreign country, bought for a ridiculously high price in our country, worn for 3 hours, and then spend the rest of their life cycle in a landfill or collecting dust in an attic. This product packaging takes place all the time, leaving us with a lot of useless and wasted stuff.

The second term economic planners used is perceived obsolescence.  This is why we feel that our material goods are never quite good enough.  Here we get the concept of “keeping up with the Jones’s”.  Thinking again about our smartphones, we now know the conflicts caused by the extraction of their materials, and about the deadly working conditions used to produce them.  So then why do we feel the need to have a new one every year?  Perceived obsolescence tells us that, because consumerism is valued so highly in our society, we are noticeably falling behind if we do not have the latest and greatest version of things.  So although most of us use our phones for a number of things like to call, text, email, navigate, or play the occasional game, the truth is that the original version of our current phone could do all of those things.  It’s the fact that distributors add a slimmer shape, or cool new graphics, or a miniscule upgraded detail to a program that makes us want to consume a new product to show our value in American consumer society, even when our old one is still perfectly useful.

Of course having new things that makes us happy should not be looked at as totally wrong, but we do need to recognize that there are so many noteworthy American values such as family, charity, and hard work that should rise above our consumerism.  In the following post, I hope I can direct you to ways to be a more responsible consumer, something I hope to do myself.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.