All That Glitters: A Meditation on the Consequences of Consumption

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate. -Victor Lebrow, Economist 1955, as quoted by Legosi

16-foot second hand clothing installation in Hong Kong’s Central Star Ferry Pier represents 7.5 tons of textiles or 3% of the 253 tons of clothing Hong Kong throws away each day. Created as part Hong Kong’s 2011 exhibit Redress, aimed at shedding light on the consequences of the 60% increase in clothing sales over the past decade.

Recently, I’ve become increasingly aware of my spending habits as well as the spending habits of those around me.  I’m more aware than I was, say, before I left full-time employment.  Purchases mean a lot more to me now and so do my decisions about how I invest my money.

Today I read a four part series on EcoSalon about the psychology of marketing in the fashion industry. The author, who goes by the pseudonym Louise Legosi, offers a sweeping review of the sociological, ecological, and economic implications of increased consumerism world-wide.  She argues that calculated marketing strategies aimed at creating demand for high-end luxury goods have encouraged the kind of conspicuous consumption that fuels unsustainable manufacturing practices.  Legosi suggests consumer spending is largely motivated by the urge to adopt the trappings associated with the desired object while simultaneously subverting unwanted personal attributes.  Legosi and I are in agreement that in all of this, the central question begging to be asked is: “What are we hiding?”

Legosi implicates the emergence of the nouveau riche class during the industrial revolution as the first champions of conspicuous consumption.  These extravagant demonstrations of wealth and social prominence motivated competitive behaviors amongst the growing middle class.  Legosi references economist and sociologist Thorstein Veglen who in 1899 recognized a growing number of people were exchanging their quality of life (health, family and spirituality) for the outward shows of wealth.

Many of the conclusions he came to showed that given the opportunity, society could easily be encouraged to consume aggressively through different forms of peer pressure. His theories outlined how wasteful habits of over-consumption was spreading, giving industries, like the fashion and beauty product industries, the key to pushing huge amounts of unnecessary products to unconscious consumers.

Legosi goes on to illustrate the ways in which agencies use aggressive marketing campaigns to overwhelm consumers into believing that the enviable lives portrayed by the figures in these ads are not only aspirational but achievable, for a price.  Often, this price is obscured by the fact that designer labels are available at a fraction of the cost; due in large part to the negotiation of licensing agreements and the abandonment of quality controls.

Apparently the customers who frequent these stores just take it for granted that their clothing is disposable. One or two wears out of them is all that is expected. This is also a part of the marketing strategy. It’s rare for anyone to make returns on product at the low end of the market, because it’s just not worth it. None of the product has any value to begin with.

In an optimistic conclusion, Legosi predicts a rise in consumer awareness that will put pressure on large companies to adopt sustainable manufacturing practices and to make responsible decisions about the quantity and quality of products produced.  To this end, Legosi asks that consumers consider the following methods of collective mobilization: supporting local designers, demanding transparent supply chains, lobbying government officials for higher international labor standards, and utilizing social media outlets to influence others.

Kowtow is a minimalist fair-trade organic line from New Zealand which specializes in creating classic silhouettes that will endure despite seasonal changes in trend.

Legosi never really comes full circle in answering the original question regarding what’s being hidden under our culture of accelerated consumption; which is unfortunate because this is a productive line of inquiry that locates the self as the causal starting point.  It seems to me that far more urgent than the task of greening spending habits is the necessity for individuals to determine whether the act of spending really addresses the need to do so.  Since cutting back on my expenses I’ve learned to live on a lot less and I’ve also learned that most of the things I need I already have.  For me, this investment in self awareness is a small but meaningful step towards affecting change from the inside out.

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4 comments

  1. Lewis

    Hey Charis, loved your blog. Something to consider, is the construction of the self (existentially incomplete) the real root of consumerism? Companies just take advantage of the anxiety that already exists. One would then have to seek redress (pun) from the very vestigial “self” that desperately desires some kind of realization of completion, to become some-thing immutable and self-defined.

  2. lisa

    It’s so refreshing to read your blog, Charis, especially as I am making do with my poverty-level stipend 😛 It’s good to be reminded that some of the things that I think I need/want are so unnecessary.

  3. Pingback: Toward a Discourse on Peace and Wisdom « I'm Big in Seoul

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