The Viable Economy serialised – About Consumerism

We continue the serialisation of our intervention, The Viable Economy, this time with Chapter 11, “About Consumerism”, in which we make it clear that our opposition is not to individual people as consumers (calling for behaviour change), but to the system that demands excessive consumption (calling for transformational system-change).  You can download the whole pamphlet as a pdf file, here.
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The Problem

The unviable economy depends on continued ‘excess’ consumption: without this, the economy stagnates. In order to maintain consumption a variety of strategies are used, by firms and governments alike:

  • Built-in obsolescence: there are disincentives to producing durable products, or products that can be easily repaired.

  • The development of entirely new products, together with the creation of false wants, through marketing, advertising, and related means.

  • The encouragement of a consumer culture and the language to go with it (e.g. “retail therapy”, “shop ’til you drop”, “must-have gadgets”) and the focus on those with high consumption lifestyles in the media.

  • In the context of declining real wages, especially for those on lower incomes, credit is offered, itself a highly marketed product.

  • The conversion of once free (e.g. children’s recreation, access to heritage sites, wild foods and their processed products, areas of urban space), or publicly owned assets (e.g. utilities, aspects of health-care) into products that have to be bought on the market.

  • Expansion into new markets.

  • Outsourcing of production to countries with lower labour costs (higher rates of exploitation), including sectors such as tropical prawn production and semiconductors where indentured and forced labour are integrated into the supply and manufacturing chain.

  • The creation of status insecurity, at all levels of income distribution, through the growth of inequality1, in concert with the long working week, means identity and status is often asserted through the mechanism of consumption.

  • The erosion of popular participatory culture in favour of passive consumed culture.

The consequences of the endless creation and practice of consumption (even though there are many whose personal ecological footprint is within their fair allowance) as a way of life are devastating for the planet’s ecosystems on which we rely, through over-use of non-replaceable resources and habitat destruction, and the dumping of pollution (including emissions) into the atmosphere, the soil, watercourses and oceans. At the same time it encourages a lifestyle that may be superficially satisfying, with high levels of stress and the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community as a result of long hours in alienated work and high levels of personal and household debt. To cap it all this economy is not viable in its own terms since its dependence on high levels of exploitation, fragile supply chains, and mushrooming credit, all can and do lead to chronic instability and periodic crashes.

In case of doubt, though, we are not blaming individual consumers here, but the system that turns our needs and aspirations into the motor of individualised consumption. This cheats people who will never be satisfied within a system that generates dissatisfaction, while cheating those in low wage economies who make the products, often in dire conditions.

The viable alternative

The viable alternative seeks to act on the causes and the effects of rampant consumption, through simultaneously developing economic and cultural alternatives, and addressing the systemic drivers of the consumerist cycle: excessive profit accumulation, false wants, inequality and the personal credit balloon. Much of this requires action at the national and international level to change the very basis of the economic system, but at a local and regional level much can be done to pioneer alternative approaches in the spheres of production, distribution, marketing and culture.

Some viable policy ideas

  • Reducing inequality – see section 8.

  • Reducing working hours – section 9.

  • Combating consumer culture through promotion of authentic, participative popular culture.

  • Valuing subsistence activities such as growing (and sustainably foraging) our own food, or making and repairing our own furniture and clothes.

  • Rebuilding a money system that does not depend on high levels of personal debt (see section 7 on investment and money).

  • Promoting product durability, modularity of working parts, re-use and recovery-recycling, through procurement policy and practice, and business stimulation.

  • Prohibiting advertising to children2.

  • Banning commercial advertising in public spaces3.

  • Campaigning for public broadcasting to abandon its craven acceptance and promotion of celebrity-competition-consumption.

1 Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

2Williams, Z. (2006). The commercialisation of childhood. London: Compass.

3As in Brazil’s megalopolis, São Paulo

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1 Response to The Viable Economy serialised – About Consumerism

  1. Pingback: Has the UK decoupled carbon emissions from GDP growth? | Steady State Manchester

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