|Personal Picture // Mylène Pratt's Atelier Boutique|
I have been pondering the definition of consumerism lately. We read that our growth-based economy is based on a consumerist model, simplicity & minimalism advocates argue that we should fight consumerism and be more mindful with our consumption. But what is consumerism really? How is it different from consumption, or materialism?
I think the best way to "fight" our consumerist tendencies is to first understand what this is and what it comes from. After reading a few things and watching a few videos on the subject (TED talk inside), here are first leads of thought on the subject.
- Consumption vs Consumerism
Consumerism is about consuming material objects. In that sense, how is it different from consumption? Amitai Etzioni has a theory about this: the difference between consumption and consumerism resides in the reasons, the motivations for the purchase. In other words, the question is: why are you buying this?
Remember the Maslow pyramid of needs? Bascially, human needs are organized by priority, and only when the most basic needs are met (food, shelter, security) can we look to fulfill "higher" needs (social needs, self esteem...). It goes very simply like this:
- Consumption is when you buy things to meet basic needs
- Consumerism is when you buy things to meet higher needs
In other words, if you buy a pair of sturdy shoes because you need to walk a lot in your daily life, it is consumption. If you buy a pair of Louboutin shoes because they have recognizable red soles and mean to improve your social status, it is consumerism.
The interesting part of it is that, in the end, it isn't the pair of Louboutin that matter, it is the social status it is supposed to imply. Think about it: how many people would still buy these if they were surrounded by people who had no idea that red soles = Louboutin = 500€ = high social status? When you think about all these 'higher needs", the consumerist reasons for buying items - social recognition, self esteem boost, being noticed & appreciated by others... - in these cases, the item itself matters less than what it means to the buyer and the people around them. We circle back to the idea of an emotional link to material possessions here.
- Consumerism & Materialism
Speaking of which, are consumerist people materialists? You'd be tempted to say yes, we are, after all we accumulate objects, collect things, fill our homes with all kinds of tokens. Remember the Geek Shelf? It certainly sounds materialist, to have some sort of material altar to our taste - and identity, in a way - in our living room or bedroom.
However, as I mentioned before, consumerism is about filling a "higher" need, an emotional need, with items. What matters is not the item itself, but the emotions attached to it, and the reaction of other people we are expecting out of showing the objects off. So, in a way, consumerism isn't materialist, as it isn't the material itself that matters.
Yann Dall'Aglio explains this very well in this TEDxParis talk below, "Love - You're Doing it Wrong".
I think this quote sums it up very well:
It is said about this consumption that our age is materialistic. But it's not true! We only accumulate objects in order to communicate with other minds. We do it to make them love us, to seduce them. Nothing could be less materialistic, or more sentimental, than a teenager buying brand new jeans and tearing them at the knees, because he wants to please Jennifer.
Yann Dall'Aglio argues that in our consumerist society, we buy objects to replace more traditional social status representations that modern societies have removed. We surround ourselves with specific types of items to give a certain image to people around us - of success, confidence, or whatever else - but in the end, what we want isn't the collection of objects itself; we want to be admired, loved.
- Open to Debate
Again, we are back to this idea that consumerism is about an emotional link to objects, not about the objects themselves; Then, what it the solution to turn away from consumerism? First, I'd say that counting objects and culling things for the sake of culling them is NOT a solution. If consumerism isn't materialism, then the cause of the problem isn't the collection of objects. Culling should be a consequence of a shift of mind, not a remedy to consumerism. Otherwise, you'll just replace what you culled with more items.
Why Am I Buying This?I believe the question to ask ourselves when approaching our consumption habits is not "how many do I own" or "How much should I spend", but "Why am I buying this". I believe it to be useful for 2 reasons;
First, it helps understanding our consumption patterns better, uncover the emotional link with objects and slowly replace objects with something else to create that emotional link. For example, I want to be loved by my partner. I can do this by buying fancy clothes and gadgets to show my seductive potential within our consumerist society. Or maybe I can gather information on what he is interested in (say, music) and invite him to a concert instead. I'm assuming that on the long term, the second option will be more efficient than the first.
Then, it helps being smarter about how we consume items. Let's be realistic, the way our society works, we need to buy things to meet our needs. The time when we had both authorization and skill to do like Henri David Thoreau and just build a shed in the woods is long gone. One thing I'm uncomfortable with in some minimalist movements, is that they tend to demonize purchasing items as a whole, with no distinction between consumption and consumerism. Doesn't it make us feel guilty for buying stuff at all?
Other Sources of Self Esteem and Identity DefiningYann Dall'Aglio suggests to remember that this is all a social screen of smoke, and that we are no better and no worse than any other human beings. I like the way he puts it:
"Je suis nul, mais ne vous inquiétez pas, vous aussi, vous êtes nuls". ("I'm useless. But rest assured: so are you.")
Maybe one solution is indeed to work on a different kind of self esteem and image. One that isn't linked to what we own, but who we are. If you realize having a pair of Louboutin doesn't make you special, then chances are you'll suddenly question the motives for spending 500€ on a pair of shoes.
I believe this shift of mind is tough, because, when one is used to define their worth by what they own, and worked toward earning more money to own more, once you take it away, what will define their worth? This can shatter self esteem, at least at the beginning. And maybe that's why a lot of people prefer to avoid these questions in today's society.
But on the long term, I think this realization is what helps people define more meaningful goals, ask themselves what they really want to accomplish in life, beyond curating their collection of items. I believe this is the first step of growing as a human being.
What do you think of all this? What is "consumerism" to you, and what is your take on it?