The Consumer Self

by Clive Hamilton

New Left Project presents an exclusive excerpt from Clive Hamilton’s new book, Requiem For A Species, that encourages radical measures to head off climate chaos.

Growth fetishism is mirrored in the individual. Just as a nation’s sense of itself has become bound up with how it grows, so our individual sense of self has become bound up with how we consume. The transformation of consumption from a means of meeting needs into a way of acquiring an identity has been underway for some decades, but shifted into a new and more intense phase from the early 1990s. Although much more recent and not yet fully understood, the consumer revolution may prove to have restructured our consciousness as much as the Industrial Revolution. I will argue in this chapter that the shift from a production society to a consumption society makes the task of persuading citizens of affluent countries to change their behaviour in response to the climate crisis more intractable because of the psychological meaning of the consumption process. The shift has been reflected in a change in the nature of firms and a change in the nature of the consumer.

The new firm

In the production society, economic growth was dependent above all on investor confidence, or what John Maynard Keynes called animal spirits; today in the consumption society growth is determined more by consumer confidence, which in the 1990s became heavily influenced by the availability of consumer credit. Previously, corporations manufactured largely standardised products and competed with each other through the efficiency of their production processes, with phases including ‘scientific management’ (also known as Taylorisation) and mass production. Today, differentiation rather than standardisation characterises goods and services so that production decisions now respond to the enormously variegated and constantly changing demands of consumers. Marketing creativity has replaced production efficiency as the key to competitiveness and corporate success.

Whereas prices for standardised products were once the focus of both consumers and producers, for most goods and services today price is a secondary consideration. The cost of investing goods with often-intangible qualities that contribute nothing to their practical usefulness now frequently exceeds the cost of actually manufacturing the items. The emblematic case is the $200 pair of sneakers that costs only $20 to produce in China, with much of the difference made up by marketing expenses such as payments to sports stars and sponsorship of events. In the production society, marketing, including advertising, was a subsidiary aspect of business organisation; in today’s consumption society marketing departments dominate production departments within firms.

Advertising long ago discarded the practice of selling a product on the merits of its useful features and began building symbolic associations between the product and the psychological states of potential consumers. The task of the advertising industry became to uncover the complex set of feelings that might be associated with particular products and to design marketing campaigns to appeal to those feelings. Thousands of the most creative individuals now devote their lives to helping corporations persuade people to buy more of their brand of car, margarine or running shoes at the expense of another corporation selling a product that is essentially the same. It is virtually impossible today to buy any product that is not invested with certain symbols of identity acquired by the buyer knowingly or otherwise.

While once the wealthy elite were alone preoccupied with consumption as a marker of status, in the 1990s luxury consumption broke out of the world of the rich to reach down to all consumer groups, a phenomenon known as ‘luxury fever’. It led manufacturers of prestige products to put their brands on a broader range of items including ‘entry-level products’ accessible to all. Thus Gucci and Armani attached their brands to sunglasses bought by people who could not otherwise afford to buy clothes or accessories with such prestigious labels. Other brands tried to keep their prestige status while selling to ordinary consumers — the ‘democratisation of luxury’—thereby providing the latter with the opportunity to emulate the lifestyles of the rich. Car-makers such as Mercedes now manufacture entry-level models that those on modest incomes can afford. The Mercedes A-Class, launched in 1997 and updated in 2004, was promoted to the masses by aging celebrity fashion designer Giorgio Armani, superannuated tennis champion Boris Becker and down-market pop singer Christina Aguilera. The tag-line linked to these icons of conventional culture was ‘Learn the rules, and break them’.

Consumption today is now inseparable from profligacy. Bathrooms are no longer seen as functional places but new spaces for displays of excess, with computer-assisted design tools now used to create new taps, baths, showers and lighting. It is not unusual for American homes to have a bathroom attached to each bedroom. Nor is it unusual, even for households with modest incomes, to own five or six television sets, so that many family homes resemble a cluster of self-contained flats. In addition to having several bathrooms, each is more likely to sport two basins, perhaps with gold-plated fittings. While the cost of an average bath in the United Kingdom is around £300, luxury models retail for up to £8000. Whirlpool offers a gold-plated designer toilet seat—‘A stunning addition to any bathroom, this toilet seat has been completely plated in a luxurious shade of gold to bring a touch of sparkle and splendour to your cloakroom or bathroom.’ In the era of hyper-consumerism the urge to satisfy any desire has reached sublime levels. It is now possible to buy capsules filled with 24-carat gold leaf which, when swallowed, make your excrement sparkle. Created by New York designer Tobias Wong, the gold pills are promoted as a signifier of excess and a means of ‘increasing your self-worth’—although presumably for only as long as the digestion process takes. At $425 each they are the ultimate confirmation of the ancient association, often noted by anthropologists, between gold and excrement, a conjugation reflected in a favourite piece of Latin American graffiti: ‘If shit turned to gold, the poor would be born without arses.’

The new consumer

None of the trends I have identified could have occurred unless the consumer too had changed in some essential way. In the production society consumers were seen to have given tastes and the task of advertising was to persuade them that the product would satisfy their needs. In the consumption society marketers are now engaged in an endless process of creating and transforming, as well as responding to, consumer desires. Those desires are no longer merely the expressions of particular urges but grow out of the need to find and express a sense of self. The reinvention of the consumer has occurred in the context of broader social changes. The new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s ushered in the era of ‘individualisation’. In place of societies in which people living in largely homogeneous neighbourhoods and communities formed their sense of self by unconsciously absorbing the cultural norms and behaviours of those around them, we became free to create our own selves, to ‘write our own biographies’ instead of having them more or less drafted by the circumstances of our birth. In a society saturated with the outpourings of the mass media, the symbols of achievement and the characters worthy of emulation appear on the screen and the magazine pages rather than in the local community or in handed-down stories of the saintly and the stoic. Individualisation created the social conditions for the flourishing of modern consumerism by providing the opportunity for the marketers of goods to step in and satisfy the desire to find and express a self. The desire for an authentic sense of self was pursued increasingly by way of substitute gratifications— external rewards and, especially, money and material consumption. Indeed, it is well established that those people with a more materialistic goal-orientation are more likely to engage in consumption for identity-related and emotional motives.

The problem is that these substitute gratifications can never provide what we really need; one cannot find an authentic identity in a supermarket or department store. Yet this unbridgeable gap is precisely what the latest phase of consumer capitalism needed, a constant feeling of dissatisfaction to sustain spending. While economic growth is said to be the process whereby people’s wants are satisfied so that they become happier, in the consumption society economic growth can be sustained only as long as people remain discontented. Economic growth no longer creates happiness: unhappiness sustains economic growth.

The perceived gap between what we had and what we desired is the only explanation for the unprecedented consumer debt binge of the 15 or so years leading to the crash in 2008. In particular, the housing bubble — described by Economist magazine as the biggest bubble in history — was driven by escalating desire, with buyers willing to commit larger shares of their future incomes to acquiring the houses of their dreams. In the United States, along with ballooning mortgages, the sizes of new houses also grew — 55 per cent since 1970 — at the same time as the number of people in them fell — by 13 per cent. The same phenomenon occurred in Britain and Australia.9 Before the crash, among younger American home buyers, a third said that having a home theatre in their house was ‘important’ or ‘very important’ in choosing a house.

Of course, bigger houses must be carpeted, curtained, heated, cooled and filled with furniture. The supply of larger houses stimulated the demand for more stuff. But the link between bigger houses and more stuff has worked the other way as well. Despite the inflation in house sizes, the accumulation of stuff outgrew the capacity of houses and apartments to accommodate it. As a result, a new industry sprang up. Over the last two decades the fastest growing segment of US commercial real estate has been the self-storage industry. Driven more by residential than commercial demand, the number of self-storage facilities around the country grew by 81 per cent in the six years to 2006.11 (In Australia it grew by 10 per cent a year through the boom years, and in Britain by an astonishing 35 per cent annually.12) Nearly one in ten American households now rents self-storage space to accommodate the stuff spilling out of their homes.

Over-consumption also has psychological costs. One study found that four in ten people ‘feel anxious, guilty or depressed about the clutter in their homes’.13 They say they feel overwhelmed and disorganised; some feel trapped by their possessions. Six out of ten women say there is a room in their house they are too embarrassed for visitors to see. The desire for more stuff has been so relentless that the market has responded by throwing up another new industry—home organisers, specialists who provide advice on how to organise our homes so that we are no longer oppressed by the clutter. Googling ‘de-clutter your home’ yields 36,000 responses, including links to books with titles like Put Your House on a Diet, Making Peace With the Things in Your Life and Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? Perhaps in the hothouse world of the next century an underground museum will display copies of these books as symbols of the world of excess that led to a transformed climate.

In the 1990s and 2000s spending more than you earn became almost a patriotic duty. In 2004 the Wall Street Journal lamented the unwillingness of Europeans to spend unnecessarily and their penchant for electing governments that introduced laws to restrict retail hours and limit the use of credit cards: ‘Western Europe has only 0.27 credit cards per person compared with 2.23 in the US’, the Journal complained. ‘Moreover, many affluent Euro peans just do not want to spend their free time shopping.’ Those interviewed for the story said they preferred playing with their children, meeting friends and reading books. The Journal was dismayed that French television regularly warned viewers about the dangers of over-indebtedness. It even blamed European thriftiness for the US trade deficit. Whereas once debt was disreputable, by the 1990s in the United States refusing to shop on credit was a sign of poor character. Prudence had become uncool.

As a result of easy credit and escalating mortgages, the US household savings rate—the difference between household income and household spending—saw a dramatic decline from over 10 per cent in the mid-1980s to zero in the mid-2000s.15 (In Australia the decline was even sharper; net savings became negative in the 2000s.16) This was matched by a huge increase in consumer debt, from $10 billion a month in the mid-1980s to $25 billion in the mid-2000s.17 Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, US household debt as a proportion of annual income was stable at around 60 per cent. In the mid- to late 1980s it began to rise, accelerating in the late 1990s until it reached over 130 per cent in 2005.

The huge increase in indebtedness was not for the most part the result of poorer households being forced to borrow to cover living expenses; it was the result of wealthier households splashing out on luxuries. In 2004 US households in the lowest income group had a little over 3 per cent of the income and a little over 3 per cent of the debt. Those in the middle 20 per cent of the population had a little over 12 per cent of the income but held 15 per cent of the debt, while the second richest 20 per cent of households had 19.5 per cent of the income but 24 per cent of the debt. Only the richest 10 per cent had a higher share of income than of debt.

The collapse in national savings and the blow-out in debt reflected an upheaval in the values that had defined the post-war era. Norms of moderation and thrift were replaced in the 1990s by a culture of impulsiveness. We wanted it now and once we had it we soon began to think about replacing it. Where once we took pride in making things last in order to get full value from them, now we have an urge for constant renewal. It was the era of the makeover. One study found that some iPhone shoppers are turned off by advertisements that emphasise the generous five-year warranty because it signals that buyers should commit to the gadget for a long time, when they would rather replace it in a year or two.20 Similarly, we don’t hear much nowadays about the emblematic consumer complaint of the 1960s, planned obsolescence, because consumers often tire of a product well before it physically expires.

The point of all of this for climate change is evident. When we ask affluent consumers to change their consumption behaviour we are asking of them much more than we realise. The purpose of the shift in marketing from promoting the qualities, real or imagined, of a product to promoting brands as a lifestyle choice was to exploit the modern need to construct a sense of self. If we have constructed a personal identity in large part through our consumption activity, and consuming is how we sustain ourselves psychologically from day to day, a demand to change what we consume becomes a demand to change who we are. If, in order to solve climate change, we are asked to change the way we consume, then we are being asked to give up our identities—to experience a sort of death. So firmly do many of us cling to our manufactured selves that we unconsciously fear relinquishing them more than we fear the consequences of climate change. So the campaign to maintain a livable climate is in this sense a war against our own sense of who we are.

Wasteful consumption

The transformation of the consumer gives rise to two phenomena that bear directly on the question of how consumption has become a barrier to tackling climate change—wasteful consumption and green consumerism. The idea that in affluent countries much of our consumption behaviour is driven by an urge for ‘self-completion’ rather than any real material need is reinforced by the evidence on wasteful consumption, that is, spending on goods and services that we do not in fact consume. If our desire knows no bounds, our capacity to use things is nevertheless limited: there is only so much we can eat, wear and watch, and a house has only so many rooms that can be usefully occupied. The difference between what we buy and what we use is waste.

A study of the extent of wasteful consumption in Australia revealed that virtually all households admit to wasting money by buying things they never use—food, clothes, shoes, CDs, books, exercise bikes, cosmetics, kitchen appliances, and much more. They admit to spending a total of $10.5 billion every year on goods they do not use, an average of $1200 for each household, more than total government spending on universities or roads. These numbers do not account for spending on houses that are too big, holiday homes that are not used and automobiles that rarely leave the garage. If they did, the figures would probably double.

The problem of wasteful consumption will worsen. The study revealed that richer households waste more than households with low and moderate incomes. That is to be expected. When asked if they feel guilty about buying things they do not use, wealthy people are less likely than poorer people to express remorse. (Close to half of people in low-income households say they feel ‘very guilty’ compared to around 30 per cent of those in high-income households.) In addition, despite two decades of environmental education, young people are both more likely to engage in wasteful consumption and less likely to feel guilty about it.

In the case of greenhouse pollution, wasteful consumption is related to the idea of ‘luxury emissions’, those emissions associated with consumption above a subsistence level. According to some, the moral status of a tonne of luxury emissions is not the same asa tonne of emissions that allows someone to survive. The difference between luxury and subsistence emissions is not the same as the economist’s idea of the diminishing contribution of each extra tonne of emissions to our wellbeing as we become richer. It is a qualitative rather than a quantitative difference. As ethicist James Garvey has written:

Not all emissions have the same moral standing. Some emissions have more or different value, even if the quantity of emissions is just the same. The emissions resulting from an African farmer’s efforts to feed his family are not on a par with the emissions resulting from an American dermatologist’s efforts to get to Vegas for the weekend.

What can we say about the moral standing of emissions associated with the purchase of consumer goods that are not consumed but simply thrown away? While the American dermatologist’s Vegas emissions may have some form of moral standing because they at least impart some benefit to him, the emissions from wasteful consumption—including those associated with houses with unused rooms and holiday homes that are not visited— must have ‘negative’ moral standing because they are emitted for no benefit yet cause damage to others. While persuasive, these arguments neglect the purpose of modern consumption whose benefits often lie in the act of acquisition and ownership, rather than the act of consuming. Shopping confers psychic benefits. From a utilitarian point of view, the philosophical standpoint of free-market economics, that is enough. But who would want to have to explain the psychic benefits of shopping to the African farmer who must struggle to feed his family?

The truth is that US consumers, who currently account for around 23 tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year, could live reasonably comfortable, healthy and safe lives with emissions of a quarter or a fifth of that amount even without any change in the way energy is supplied. French emissions stand at nine tonnes per person. In 1970 air travel by passengers from affluent countries was 10–20 per cent of current levels. Were we miserable then? Would our quality of life collapse if we were required to return to those levels, so that travelling by plane was restricted to essential journeys? Of course not, yet the psychological resistance to such a change would be almost insuperable.

Clive Hamilton is Charles Sturt Professor of Public Ethics, based at the Australian National University (http://www.clivehamilton.net.au).

Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change (£14.99) published this month by Earthscan. It is available from http://www.earthscan.co.uk/requiem

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First published: 18 June, 2010

Category: Environment

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