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Beyond Consumerism: Replacing the Value of "More" with "Enough"

[The following essay is adapted from the book Enough Is Enough by Rob Dietz and Dan O'Neill.]

Given how deeply consumerism has become embedded in everyday life (despite the way it coaxes people to chase fulfillment in ineffective ways), it's going to take a revolutionary change in values to overcome the prevailing orthodoxy.

The change is unlikely to happen quickly or easily because of the anxieties that will inevitably arise in response to such a transformation. In addition, plenty of powerful forces benefit from consumer spending, and they won't give up their positions of power without a fight. Advertisers, credit card companies, soft drink makers, banks, car companies, computer manufacturers, and government stimulus programs are but a few of the institutions aligned with consumerism.

Successfully fighting these forces will require a sustained and coordinated effort to curtail the power of large corporations and the media, both of which exercise substantial influence over people's lives. It is important not to underestimate these entities and the often subtle methods they use to influence consumers. But bankers, advertisers, and manufacturers are simply responding to consumer demand (although they're complicit in creating some of that demand). So perhaps the shift needs to originate from people's personal values, and a grassroots rejection of the "mass infantilization" program that promotes mindless consumption.

Here are some ideas for getting the transition under way:

(Photo via Anti-Advertising Agency and Packard Jennings)Turn marketing on its ear. Markets have been honing their techniques for many years. These techniques could be used to "sell" sound cultural values instead of copious quantities of consumer goods. Imagine if Victor Lebow had said, "We need to make well-being our way of life." Now imagine if the full force of the Coca-Cola and McDonald's marketing teams went to work on this change instead of selling more fizzy drinks.

Harness the power of art. The arts, from music to dance to visual media, can feed the soul far more effectively than shopping trips and excessive consumption. Art inspires people and helps them imagine a better world than the one we live in today. By participating in the creative and often collaborative processes that produce art, people can play a direct role in bringing about that better world.

Be the change. Individuals who understand the downsides of consumerism can reject unnecessary consumer items and set a positive example by "living their values." They can participate in local initiatives and develop alternatives to mass consumption by buying less, producing locally, and boycotting mass consumer outlets. Much of the self-serving behavior inherent in consumerism derives from a trend away from community-based values and toward individualistic ones. People who set a nonmaterialistic example can help reverse this trend.

Recruit influential individuals. Influential individuals occupy pivotal positions in social networks and are key figures in the processes by which new social norms emerge. Such individuals, if they understood the downsides of consumerism and the upsides of less materialistic lifestyles, could be potent agents of change toward sustainability.

Juxtapose "zombie consumerism" with the nonmaterialistic good life. A materialistic lifestyle can be shallow, boring, and deadening. A nonmaterialistic, sustainable lifestyle, on the other hand, can be dynamic and refreshing, but people must be able to visualize it. The Transition Towns movement has captured many people's imaginations and begun the daunting process of demonstrating ways to live simpler and more purposeful lives. If politicians see Transition Towns and similar movements emerging on a sufficient scale, they will feel pressure to get on board.

Eliminate planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence has become a widespread strategy in products ranging from sweaters to semiconductors, and some marketing practitioners (who probably haven't been keeping up with certain environmental and social trends) even praise it as a positive development. But in a world with 7 billion people, finite resources, and serious environmental problems, "durable" needs to become the watchword of consumers, not "disposable." Refusal to buy short-lived products is a sure way to influence companies to stop designing for the dump.

(Image via Adbusters)Limit advertising. Lawmakers have restricted advertising that promotes unhealthy behavior (e.g. tobacco and alcohol use), so there is a precedent for tempering the excesses of marketing departments. A ban on advertising aimed at children took effect in the Canadian province of Quebec in 1980, and it has helped children maintain healthier consumption habits. When it comes to stigma-based advertising, Dan and Chip Heath suggest that the marketing community has a responsibility to self-regulate. Whether through self-regulation or other means, it would be healthy to put a stop to stigma-based advertising and other toxic marketing practices.

Cultivate nonconsumerist institutions. Government and communities can play an important role by creating and empowering organizations that de-emphasize consumerism. Such organizations would focus on meeting needs rather than selling stuff. They would manage assets for the purpose of delivering long-term well-being to asset owners, rather than delivering short-term financial returns to managers. Example include cooperatives, land trusts, and even community workshops.

The ideas described above offer some intriguing ways to abate the flood of materialism, but a true turning of the cultural tide will require people to accept a basic truth: the spoils of shopping provide little support for a long life of fulfillment. Some people easily grasp this wisdom; they seem naturally immune to the onslaught of markets. Others take time to develop such immunity—they have to experience the emptiness of consumer culture, sometimes over the course of decades.

It has become a cliché, at least in American consumer society, for people to turn over a new leaf after suffering through a midlife crisis. Following a fruitless attempt to quell such a crisis through conspicuous consumption (think of a forty-five-year-old man buying a bright red Ferrari of some other gas-guzzling sports car), they end up finding peace by refocusing their lives on relationships, well-being, and the search for deeper meaning. It's inspiring that pockets of people, no matter at what stage of life, are acting on their nonconsumerist instincts. Transition Towns, voluntary simplicity, economic localiziation, and ecovillages are all positive signs that people are striving to live happy, but less materially intensive lives.

People from all walks of life are establishing creative models of living well, but for such models to diffuse more broadly throughout society, communities will have to oppose the corporate forces that promote the consumer culture. These forces, which exert an undue influence on politicians and the media, ignore the finite nature of resources, entice people into chasing fulfillment in ineffective ways, and drive inequality. Through concerted and persistent action, we can overcome them. Then we can replace the culture of consumerism and the value of more with the culture of sustainability and the value of enough.


This excerpt was adapted from Enough Is Enough: Building A Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill. In the book, Dietz and O'Neill lay out a visionary but realistic alternative to the perpetual pursuit of economic growth—an economy where the goal is enough, not more. Learn more here.

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