Let's start with a simple fact: Humans are proven to prefer consumerism.
Any economist will agree that consumerism is essential for the culture of capitalism to survive. Not only must consumers buy, they must buy more every year, and still more the year after that. Without perpetual and growing consumption, many economies would either decline or collapse. The sign of a healthy national economy, after all, is measured by the Gross National Product (GNP), and the GNP is a measure of the quantity of goods and services people consume.
So are we all in the service of consumerism? I would argue yes.
If you look at it most jobs in the world are in the service and facilitation of consumerism. Everything from the common factory worker in China to the sales associate at your Macy’s to most lawyers, accountants, real estate agents etc. Without consumption we probably couldn’t support the 7 billion people that live on our planet.
But we don’t have to be indentured servants to consumerism. We are servicing consumerism voluntarily. No one is making us buy anything. We are choosing to do so – be it for ease or comfort or simple malaise.
Changing something so deeply engrained in our DNA, that preference to consume instead of conserve which is common to all forms of life, is extremely difficult and may only be possible in the end via disasters and hitting the earth’s carrying capacity (like running out of oil, fresh water, food scarcity etc). Ironically, the solutions that are adopted such as recycling by definition must to serve consumerism at some level to be funded.
Can we serve consumerism in a way that is sustainable and fun?
Thrift, in my opinion, is not the answer. Experiments to make being thrifty the mainstream have failed in most accounts. The Keynesian paradox of thrift (or saving), states that if everyone tries to save more money during times of recession, then aggregate demand will fall and will in turn lower total savings in the population because of the decrease in consumption and economic growth.
Perhaps the solution is to shift our culture of consumption from disposable and cheap products to durable and expensive products. We could do this while growing our total spend (GNP) and in parallel lowering the strain on our natural resources.
If that were the case, since major consumer product companies are in the service of what the majority wants they would move from making high volume low cost products to low volume high cost products. Inherently as cost rose, so would the quality of the product as more investment could be put into each finished product. We would also consume less as it would be more costly to maintain our current level of consumption.
We would prefer smaller houses, but ones that are built to last hundreds of years with the best stuff in a more compact space. We would move our outlook to long term thinking since our decisions would be longer term decisions. We would move from reactive medicine to preventative medicine. We would have to have better education since our workforce would be making more complex, higher end objects. We would value closed loop , self sufficient systems (wind) versus one way systems (oil). Society would progress and become more sophisticated year over year. Our standard of living would increase. Obesity would drop as people would eat less, but better food. Birth rates would stabilize as it would be expensive to have lots and lots of kids.
All we have to do is change our preference in what we buy from cheap and disposable to expensive and durable. The amazing thing about capitalism is that it is in the service of our wants and needs, not the other way around. Companies are in the business of figuring out and delivering to us exactly what we want. If we change our wants, they will change their products and services.
We are in complete control and the more we spend the more control we have on the system. You don’t have to change your aggregate spend. Just shift it to things made to last.
So hopefully this is some food for thought as we all enter into the holiday shopping madness that is about to engulf our lives.