Thoughtful Consumption

TLDR; a limiting social factor on the size of the economy should be the ability and prioritization of production and retail habits that allows for more specialized and high quality consumption and locally produced items. This is supported through policies such as building reuse to create local artisan workshops (old malls), enhancing opportunities for citizen owned production such as maker spaces, needs based innovation strategies, banning of most advertising, and local tool libraries, repair cafes, and artisan selling shows.

This is a series of posts linked with my PhD project – Social Limits to Growth. These posts describe some of the theory, thinking, and correlations each of these “EE approaches to the social sphere” have with research that was conducted for my PhD. For a full overview of my PhD see my main project page.

The main motivation for these series of approaches is that while ecological economics takes biophysical limits seriously, there is often limited discussion on what the social limits to our economy are. For example, the balance between how alienated/anxious/depressed a person becomes to produce an efficient product should be limited by assurance that a person is getting gainful meaning from their work and labour. So just as nitrogen is a biophysical limit to growth, alienated and meaningless work is also a social limit to growth.

Here is a list of the works cited throughout my thesis and all these posts.

Controlling the way people consume is difficult, but consumption plays a critical role in the development of how people see themselves and in supporting local artisan Makers. In this section I look at the role of the individual in relation to consumption and present statements from participants in my PhD research as to how thoughtful consumption can be encouraged through making.

In Modernity and Self-Identity Giddens examines the difficulties individuals face in sustaining chosen identities. He argues that a main feature of the modern experience is the construction and maintenance of self-identity as a narrative of the self. One of the biggest challenges to individuals in this experience is the great deal of choice people are presented with, accompanied by very little assistance in knowing what is the best choice.

This is the reason why marketing and brand relationship building is so vital for companies. By using social media to develop relationships, corporations are ‘assisting’ individuals in making the choices that are necessary for ‘designing’ or tailoring an identity. Giddens goes on to argue that individuals become so obsessed in this process, and so susceptible to advertising, that consumption develops into a substitute for “genuine development of self” (1991, p. 198).

Given Gidden’s logic, ecological economists might consider expanding their ban on advertising to include brand infiltration on social media – which is incredibly difficult given that much of it is subliminal and advertising pays for a great deal of content that is online.

In the film Century of the Self Curtis explores how Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis have been used by governments and corporations to both create and fulfill the desires of the public. He makes very clear the extent to which, from the 1930s, psychological advertising and mass consumption simultaneously solved two problems: the problem of under-demand and the need to constantly create artificial needs and desires so as to sustain high levels of economic activity; and the problem of the political integration of individuals in an unstable mass society. With regard to the latter, and working for the American State Department, Freud’s nephew, and pioneer of psychological advertising Edward Bernays argued that political consent could be manufactured by transforming rebellious citizens into passive consumers.

Bauman’s Freedom teases out the dilemma by demonstrating that freedom is a double-edged sword. On one hand, individuals are potentially free from oppression and able to make choices, but on the other hand, freedom can be very stressful, and there is a tyranny in choice. With the decline of traditional relationships and faced with the overwhelming choice of how to ‘present the self’ outside of that traditional context, the individual is left with insufficient ‘rules’ of the self (traditionally provided by immediate relationships) within a society with endless social expectations.

Bauman explicitly makes the link that advertising takes advantage of the anxiety felt by individuals caught in this predicament (1988, p. 62) by helping to alleviate the stress of choice. The market offers both uncertainty/anxiety and freedom/certainty, all at the same time. Citizens then become increasingly less skilled at navigating these complexities of choice as they allow the market to choose for them, essentially allowing the market to shape who they are as a person.

These processes all begin with individualization. These scholars, along with Ulrich Beck, demonstrate that by the 1990s, individuals in search of community had integrated themselves into society via consumer behaviour to design and manage social identity. Consumption has effectively replaced community as the vehicle of social integration.  And thus, these processes that discourage community and perpetuate the cycle need to be included in evaluating the relationship between society and the environment. If a society is deeply embedded in this system of manufacturing self-identity via consumption, ecological political and economic interventions should potentially attempt to break this relationship for the benefit of both the environment and well-being of individuals.

The role of ‘thoughtful consumption’ could play a significant role here. This refers to consumption that is focused on needs, the purchasing of special products, and buying local as often as possible. One participant remarked on this, suggesting that once citizens own the means of production, there would be greater likelihood of a reduction in consumption overall because there would be fewer, higher quality, and repairable goods for citizens to consume.

A participant argued that that this is important because people are beginning to crave “something special and physical, not just virtual and disposable. People want things that have meaning and are special, something that will last. There is a growing desire to have fewer, but more meaningful things”. 14.8% of the participants referenced individuals that bought a piece of their work for something special such as wearing the necklace at birth or commemorating a special moment in their life. I purchased a necklace from one of my participants with the birth gem for my daughter, who was born just a few months before I conducted my interview with this maker – I understood this desire to purchase something special to commemorate a special event in my life.

Another participant from PEI suggested that sometimes individuals fall in love with certain pieces because it brings them joy, and that “doesn’t often happen with mass produced materials that you would buy at a chain retailer. Then, the meaning goes even further, it becomes something in the consumer’s life that is a ritualized piece of their day. If it’s a mug, they use that special mug to drink every morning. If it’s a necklace, they remember something specific when they put that necklace on”. They argued that therefore crafters thrive better in communities “because people know their story more. That’s the huge strength of selling at a local craft show, you can attach the narrative to your piece and the experience and human connection”. However, consumption is a social structure and shifting one’s intention within that structure is very difficult.

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