Save the Buyosphere! – Consumer Behavior, By the Book

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by: Joel Makower

The following is a review I wrote of three books for The Journal of Industrial Ecology, reprinted here with permission.

For better or worse, we live in a commercial world and consumer society. You can see it at work in the cacophony of advertisements and commercial messages that intrude in our daily lives, in the companies and webs of commerce whose existence depends on our endless appetite for more, and in the political leaders who work to promote unsustainable levels of economic growth, often at the expense of ecological and human needs. You can see it at work in our culture of debt and our need for keeping up with the Joneses.

Yet the environmental impacts of our consumption are virtually hidden. Most of us don't see firsthand the 120 pounds of natural resources extracted from farms, forests, rangelands, oceans, rivers, and mines that go into what the average American consumes each day. Paul Hawken, the noted U.S. author, entrepreneur and social critic, has estimated that the sum of all substances required to support one American for a year, including water used that is no longer available for reuse, totals nearly a million pounds — or roughly 109 truckloads for a family of four. And do we recycle those million pounds of resources? Not likely — Americans discard 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour and enough steel and iron to continuously supply all of the country's automakers.

(Note to readers: the three books reviewed herein are by American writers focusing on the American marketplace. As such, they were reviewed largely from an American perspective, though many of these issues no doubt cross borders and oceans.)

Of course, it's not just the environment that suffers from this buying binge. For several decades now, psychologists, sociologists, and other observers of the human condition have discussed and deconstructed the disparity — or perhaps it's a gulf — between consumption and happiness. More, it seems, is not necessarily better in terms of engendering security, self-esteem, meaning, personal fulfillment, or any of the other Maslowian traits that make for individuals, communities, and societies that are healthy, in every sense of the word.

And so the question, "How much is enough?" has become much more than a philosophical curiosity — it is a fundamental question of a society grappling with sustainability's complex challenges. Among them: how to rein in rampant resource depletion, close the equity gaps among the classes, reduce mushrooming household debt, maintain sound local economies, and clear the cloud of cynicism and hopelessness that seems to have darkened the lives of untold billions of have-nots.

It would be one thing if all the stuff we buy somehow made us better people, but that doesn't seem to be the case, as Tim Kasser points out in The High Price of Materialism, an empirical look at how our contemporary culture of consumerism and materialism affects our everyday happiness and psychological health. Kasser examines what happens when we organize our lives around materialistic pursuits, including the effects on our internal experience and interpersonal relationships, as well as on our communities and the world at large.

Kasser points out that t he extensive literature on materialism includes studies from the mid 1980s demonstrating a negative relationship between materialism and well-being. In one finding, for example, materialistic people were found to be possessive, in that they preferred to own and keep things rather than borrow, rent, or throw things out. They were seen as nongenerous, or unwilling to share their possessions with others. And they tended to covet thy neighbors' stuff, feeling displeasure when others had things they themselves desired.

This is no victimless crime. Kasser's research shows, for example, that materialistic lifestyles can infect marriages (by devaluing nonmaterialistic bonds that keep relationships together during tough times) and parenting (since our children's value systems tend to imitate our own).

Kasser, a psychologist, is adept at diagnosing the condition, though his prescription for a cure leaves one wanting, well, more. For instance, his admonition to "vote for governmental officials who realize that increasing national wealth will not increase our happiness" rings hollow — at least in countries like the United States, where "governmental officials" tend to be far more concerned about satisfying the needs of a relative handful of influential constituents than caring for the national psyche. Similarly, his suggestion to "change what is happening in our schools" to reduce students' exposure to commercialism seems feeble when those same students will be engulfed in a sea of ads, pitches, and come-ons the minute they set foot out of the school yard.

The reason we often seem powerless to succumb to this tsunami of marketing messages is that we've been conditioned to buy, buy, buy from nearly the moment we emerge from the womb, as journalist Thomas Hine points out in I Want That!, a fine bit of reportage that explores the minds of shoppers in their never-ending quest to nourish and feed fantasies, define individuality, and satisfy their myriad needs. Hine explores the history of acquisition — finding, choosing, spending — from our amber-coveting Neolithic forebears to twenty-first century bargain hunters on eBay. Three out of four American babies visit a store, usually a supermarket, by the age of six months, though some start "virtually at birth," he says. "They soon begin to realize that the store is the source of some of the good things that they had previously associated solely with their parents." It's not long before they're pointing at and choosing, often insistently, their breakfast cereals, toys, entertainment, and fashions.

For toddlers, teens, and grown-ups alike, exercising the power of choice in the marketplace is exactly that: a form of power. Shopping enables us to take control and wield authority in our often-powerless lives. Indeed, as Hine deftly points out, the mere act of going shopping itself can be more important than anything that ends up in one's shopping cart as a result. Shopping, Hine argues, "is an exercise of both profound responsibility and profound freedom."

Not that we manage to exercise the former or achieve the latter, never mind profundity. When it comes to navigating the marketplace, rational thinking often gets short shrift. Hine cites a study in which 36% of women and 18% of men admitted buying things they didn't need. Roughly one woman in four says she "can't resist a sale," and one in three says she shops to celebrate. Hine notes that shoppers "conspire in their own seduction," allowing themselves to be manipulated by marketers.

The impacts of all this consumerism extend well beyond ourselves and our families, as Ann Satterthwaite points out in Going Shopping, a history of consumerism in America. How, where, and when Americans shop is closely connected with "how our communities have developed and how they function," she maintains. Like Hine, she explores shopping's historical roots, from Mesopotamian merchants and the fairs of medieval Europe to marble palace department stores, Wal-Mart, and the Internet. Through it all, social, cultural, economic, and moral forces have shaped how we shop and what we buy.

The effects of shopping on communities can be profound, she notes. For starters, there is retailers' seemingly insatiable need to grow, both in number and size, to stay competitive, thus meeting capitalism's mandate to provide ever-growing financial returns. Retailers, says Satterthwaite, herself a city planner, must seek and enjoy public help "for services like roads, sewers, police and fire protection, tax mitigation, relief for such calamities as fires and floods, or more recently protection of the consumer and assistance to small businesses." (During the 1940s, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt even shifted the Thanksgiving holiday in from the last to the fourth Thursday in November to extend the Christmas shopping season at the urging of one retail bigwig.)

It is only fairly recently that communities have begun to question the value of such favors. Massive, impersonal retail outlets in giant shopping malls — what Americans glibly refer to as "big-box" stores — foment low wages and large environmental footprints, and can displace independent merchants. All of which is being viewed with increased scrutiny in some communities, as seen by the growing tide of voter initiatives, city council measures, and legal wranglings intended to slow, or stop, these stores' steady march across the landscape.

While real problems may be lost amid such contretemps — concern over the environmental, economic, and social impacts of the "stuff" offered at these stores may take a back seat to the impacts of the stores themselves — Satterthwaite makes a convincing case that today's retailers have a far, far different impact on communities than their predecessors of, say, a half-century ago. Back then, stores were community gathering spots, a source of daily contact, however small, with merchants, neighbors, and veritable strangers. In many communities, stores were the only means people had of regular interaction with other humans. Today, mega-supercenters, cloned strip malls, and e-commerce have largely removed the social component of shopping.

It's yet another way we have become divorced from what we buy. Few consumers have much knowledge about, let alone a stake in, their purchases: their constituent ingredients, the processes used to create them, the working conditions of the laborers that do so, how far the goods must travel to reach us, and what impacts they have during their use as well as once they are no longer needed or wanted. That bodes poorly for any near-term shift in shopping patterns to reflect citizens' oft-stated desire to make the world "a better place."

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