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PATHWAYS INTERVIEW: Wendy Philleo on "Redefining the American Dream"

March 12, 2013

This interview originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Pathways magazine.

Wendy Philleo is Executive Director of the Center for a New American Dream. Since its founding in 1997, New Dream has worked to change social norms around consumption and consumerism, and to support the local movement of individuals and communities pursuing lifestyle and community action.

Their website, www.newdream.org, is filled with a variety of user-friendly resources for people seeking to turn this dream into a reality, along with endorsements from a wide range of luminaries from the progressive and environmental movements.

New Dream works with individuals, institutions, businesses, and communities to conserve natural resources, counter the commercialization of our culture, support community engagement, and promote positive changes in the way goods are produced and consumed.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard people define the American dream in material and economic terms—earning money, buying a house, and buying other things. What’s your vision of the American dream?

At New Dream, what we really want to do is start a conversation about the vision. What is our American dream collectively? What does success look like? How do we define progress? Because we feel that some of the values that are in the traditional American dream, like opportunity, are really important. But there has been a corruption of the dream to signify “more and more stuff,” the accumulation of more and more things.

The “more is better” definition has many hidden costs and does not lead to greater well-being and happiness. It can lead to a treadmill of overworking, overspending, and over consuming that’s hard to get off. What we want to do is cultivate a discussion about a new American dream that is really emphasizing a meaningful life, building community and family, with well-being for both people and the planet. A celebration of non-material values.

What are some of the ways that messages to spend, consume, and organize our lives around making more money are embedded into our culture?

It’s quite extraordinary. First of all, around $150 billion is spent annually on influence and persuasion to build a culture of consumption and shopping. What I think folks need to understand is that we are bombarded every day with over 3,000 commercial messages—in TV ads, on billboards, in product placement, in packaging. Most of us have never known anything else.

Advertising really took off in the last 50 years, but it has spread into all facets of our lives in just the last two decades. We have to understand that so much money is put into research on how to manipulate us, on the psychology of manipulation and persuasion. The first thing is to recognize that this is happening, that we’re being taught to feel that we are lacking something by all of this marketing directed toward us.

Today, thanks to mass media and the Internet, we can compare ourselves to celebrities and millionaires all around the world, when before it was just about your neighbors, and the social pressure was not as great. Everywhere we look now, we see messages about what constitutes “success”—making a lot of money, owning a lot of things. So it’s really difficult to get away from that definition of success and the idea that shopping is vital to who we are.

When the sky’s the limit, it’s very difficult for a person to feel like they have enough.

Yes, exactly. And so the first step is to understand that the pressures are real. No wonder you feel like shopping all the time. Given that that’s the case, if we have this conversation and it leads many of us to recognize this is all happening, what are some ways we can decrease our inner materialism and move beyond consumerism?

I do feel like there is a lot of discomfort that we don’t really stop to express, a discomfort that we have in this society, about living in a highly disposable, throwaway culture. It’s important to acknowledge that this is not normal. When people find the New Dream website (and the sites of other organizations that work on these issues), they often feel a kind of relief. I get very emotional emails from people expressing that. It’s all about building a kind of social support around new behaviors instead of unconscious consuming.

An important way to resist the constant pressure is to begin limiting advertising in your own life (from TV and the Internet, and by cutting your junk mail and catalogs), and then also recognizing internally when you feel compelled to shop. What’s going on? Are you feeling insecure? Are you feeling depressed?

You can also track your spending and think about how you would rather spend your time in ways that are more rewarding—with friends or being out in nature or doing something meaningful, to change your consumption patterns. And then when you’re buying things, aim to buy things of value that are important to you, where you have some connection to the producer, that are well-built and are not just going to be thrown away. There are many things that people can do to act upon that initial resistance to our consumer culture.

What you said about take a moment to recognize what emotions we’re feeling at the point when we get the urge to buy the next thing, reminds me of ways that can be used to help people quit smoking. What is that feeling, that thought, that you have right before you want to pick up the cigarette? It seems like we‘re talking about a very similar pattern, which in both cases is a kind of addiction.

Yes, I agree. We should probably come up with a 12-step program for resisting that. [Laughter]. Speaking more about advertising, to what extent is there now advertising in public schools in the United States? Are there regulations on this? And what are some better models?

Before I even had kids, it was the kids and commercialism program at New Dream that first sparked my interest in the organization. I was frustrated by all the advertising, at building another generation of mindless consumers. This is something that really angers me on a personal level, especially now that I have children. Advertising is very prevalent in schools. Over 80% of schools have corporate ads.

Really!

Yes, it’s all over the place. It’s in textbooks; it’s in school buses, on posters in the gym.

Wait, you’re saying that there are ads in the standard textbooks that kids use in public schools?

Yes. There are.

Wow.

There’s a lot of sponsored material that schools use. Companies often sponsor the curriculum, so they are mentioned in the text. There’s lots of different ways that this happens—it’s so manipulative. And, of course, schools are strapped for cash, so it’s understandable to some extent. In Charlottesville, where I live, McDonald’s comes to the schools and says we’ll give you money and help you do fundraisers if your teachers bring everyone in your school to McDonald’s that day. There are so many ways that these companies work the schools. I was aware of the prevalence of Coca-Cola or other junk food machines in schools, with the corporations bribing (that is, donating) their way in by supporting school budgets.

But you are talking about something that drills down much deeper, into the core of the nature of the relationships between teachers and students, and between teachers and the school. There would certainly be pressure on teachers to cooperate. Along the lines of, “Why wouldn’t you do this? Don’t you care about the school?” What you’re describing is a profound corruption of what once was (or at least was supposed to be) an institution dedicated to educating the next generation of citizens, not the next generation of consumers.

That’s right. You’ll see exercises in counting using Cheerios, using M&Ms. All sorts of ways. There are great resources on this topic from one of our partner organizations, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. We’ve partnered with them on issues of kids and commercialism. They’re a great group.

Aside from public schools, what other parts of our society, of what used to be called The Commons, have been similarly infected with corporate messaging or other forms of corporate influence and control?

There are many stories we’ve seen over the past ten years about cities giving up public spaces to corporations because they’re so financially strapped. It’s understandable, but what that leads to is just more and more advertising. I find that to be very sad. Streets are being named after corporations.

My son is a geography professor and he’s done research on that very subject.

It’s not limited to the United States. There’s a great story we described in our newsletter about a city in Brazil, São Paulo, banning outdoor advertising—billboards, etc. There was great resistance to banning it, but since then it’s been a real success story. It’s a really interesting story because it helps you realize how used to advertising we’ve become.

Once we can have models of making that change and seeing how it plays out, how it benefits society, the existence of those pilot projects makes the next steps more possible.

Part of it is resistance to the whole “big box” sameness to everything. Part of the change needs to be recognizing the positive role of local business in the well-being of the community. Of course business has a role to play in the community, but it doesn’t only need to be through the massive pervasiveness of advertising. The value of arts and culture and of public spaces in our cities, with these being unique and not overrun by corporations, is fundamental.

Emphasizing the recognition that “business” includes both the local shoe repair shop and Exxon or Monsanto. And that while they have in common the fact that they are businesses, these are very, very different sorts of entities. And that by seeking to limit the reach and the advertising dominance of multinationals, one is not anti-business.

In our Collaborative Communities program, we’re creating a Community Action Kit, which is a series of guides on topics relevant to everyday communities. Our first guide was on sharing resources, and our next one is on strengthening local economies. We want to help New Dream members and others come together to take action in their own neighborhoods and communities.

What we want to create is vibrant, livable communities. Part of that is having strong economies that are built on having a connection between producers and consumers—and building businesses that are ecologically sustainable. We’ve teamed up with BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, to find the most innovative activities and programs in the country, from think tanks and from communities, and to help inspire people to take similar action.

So our next guide is on how to make your community different and have it stand out. Part of what drives vibrant local economies is having pride in your local community, having strong arts and culture, and a uniqueness to where you are. Your community is not just like every place in America; you have your own culture. Then we’re saying, “What are the ways that you can support local businesses?” In our guide, we will showcase a range of activities, from longer-term activities to things that are fun and you can do in one day.

For example, we’re providing info about how to create a “cash mob” in your city, where you can support a local business that’s struggling to get more attention by getting a bunch of people to visit the store on a single day to show your support. We’ve all had experiences where we didn’t even know that a local shop was struggling, and then all of sudden they are closed. There needs to be an in-between step. You can also add a green or environmental angle to the support. For example, you could visit three stores and show them ways that they can reduce their energy use. The store that commits the most to reducing energy would be the store you choose to do a cash mob for—to help support their commitment to the environment.

We’re also looking at how to create local investment clubs, so that instead of your money going to Wall Street and multinational corporations, it goes to supporting local businesses. Throughout the guide, we’re providing “step-by-steps” as well as stories and videos of ways to accomplish these projects. It’s called the Guide to Going Local and will be released in April.

Along the lines of the need to foster vibrant local economies, and to move our emphasis toward that and away from support of the multinationals, there’s a big question which you address on the Center for a New American Dream website: How do we reduce our ecological impact (carbon footprint and more) and create jobs at the same time?

I find this to be a really interesting question. I’m going to come at this in a somewhat roundabout way. Going back before the recession, one thing that people said they wanted more of was time. One of the ideas that I find compelling is the research that’s been done about moving toward a shorter workweek. Economist Juliet Schor, who is on our board, works on this issue, and the New Economics Foundation in the UK has a report that talks about how moving to a 21-hour workweek could help address a wide range of social and environmental problems.

We need new visions of what a sustainable lifestyle could look like—one that’s not about sacrifice but that’s about a higher quality of life. So imagining what a shorter workweek could do for our culture and economy is really interesting. We talk about this in our Plenitude video featuring Juliet Schor. If you move to a shorter workweek, you help solve unemployment, because then you can hire more people.

You’re also giving people more time, which is an indicator of well-being, if it’s time that you can use for leisure, for learning new skills, for self-sufficiency and just enjoying our lives. There’s also research indicating that if you work less, you also consume less. There’s so much work to be done in terms of the green economy—turning waste into wealth and restoring depleted habitats. And all of that should be where we’re focusing jobs.

I remember hearing a story on NPR about the differing responses to the global recession that began a few years ago. Part of the solution in Germany was to keep people on the job but have them work less hours, rather than engaging in mass layoffs. I guess the question that many Americans would have is, “Is this going to mean we’re paid a whole lot less, and how are we going to meet our monthly expenses?”

It’s a real issue, and it gets to the bill of goods we’re being sold that you need to buy the biggest house or the most stuff you can. There needs to be a cultural shift. Clearly, you don’t want a shorter workweek to be an excuse where we’re just paying people less. There would have to be a transition period.

The other issue for Americans is how to solve the issue of benefits. Germany and much of Europe have that covered in a variety of ways that the United States does not. Here in the U.S., if you’re working a 20-hour week, you generally do not get health insurance or other benefits. Solving that challenge may be a bigger challenge.

So you’re trying to create, in collaboration with others, a long-term, long-arc vision and then to have shorter-term projects in which one can move, at least incrementally in the direction of that vision.

Exactly, you really have touched on it. Because one thing that we need to be doing more of is sharing visions of what’s possible in a sustainable future for both people and the planet—and how if we do it right, living more sustainably isn’t just going to help the environment, but also lead to a better quality of life. And that is really fundamental. For me, when you talk to people about a shorter workweek (and I don’t mean those who are struggling economically), it is really appealing.

I think it’s really important to share these ideas—like a shorter workweek—that challenge some of our assumptions about how we have to structure our lives and jobs in pursuit of owning things. Our Guide to Sharing is about having access to things through sharing them, rather than by owning them. We don’t all need to own things to get utility out of them, it’s actually very inefficient. I think the next generation gets this—just look at the popularity of car sharing, bike sharing, etc.

So what I want New Dream to do is to challenge our assumptions about how we have to live our lives, to provide examples of ways to live better—that longer-term vision—and to show the practical ways that people can take steps now to help us achieve that vision.

Daniel Redwood, DC, the interviewer, is a Professor at Cleveland Chiropractic College–Kansas City. He is the Editor- in-Chief of Health Insights Today, Associate Editor of Topics in Integrative Healthcare and serves on the editorial board of the Journal of the American Chiropractic Association. Dr. Redwood’s website and health policy blog are at www.redwoodhealthspeak.com.

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