With consumerism snowballing in economies, a look into its origin, the cause for its continued propagation, and consequent effect unfolding before us would paint a picture indicating the importance of ‘virtue’ over ‘vanity’.
Image Credits: Pinterest
“Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots.” endorsed former POTUS Bush. This came around the time when the catastrophic terror attacks of 9/11 had jolted the American nation like never before. The country’s leading figures urged the people to show endurance and stoicism and, quite uniquely, to keep purchasing consumer goods. The investment spending had already plummeted and the government was eager to prevent any potential plunge in consumer spending to avert further drop in output.
It is well acknowledged that the nucleus of economic growth lies in spending or aggregate demand in the economy. The entire concept whirls around the idea of expanding consumption to fuel a train of desirable economic events. Hence, President Bush’s comment possessed not just an outward comical facet, but also a deeper economic implication. A statement indicating the same came from Bill Clinton when he said, “Go shopping”. Though these reactions came in response to specific disruptive events in the history of economics, the culture of consumerism has been cultivated over the course of many years.
It all started with a remarkable phenomenon that took place in northwestern Europe. In the 18th century, the world after centuries of economic slumber witnessed the budding of the First Technological Renaissance- the Industrial Revolution. Marking a transition to new manufacturing processes, the use of machines, new chemical manufacturing processes, steam power, and water power together made the production process easier and more cost-effective than ever before.
The economies that had grappled with poverty and unemployment for centuries started witnessing a surge in wages. Thereafter, families that previously had little or no money beyond what they needed to survive, started spending on small luxuries. An increase in spending caused a domino effect of growth in businesses, employment, and subsequent hike in wages, thereby channelling more demand for goods in the economy and creating a virtuous cycle. By the middle of the 18th century, this epochal change was recognized by historians as the world's first ‘consumer revolution’.
While the economy mutated rapidly, the society faced some inconvenience in adapting to such an expeditious change. The Christian Church was particularly suspicious of this new materialism, and termed it ‘vanity’. Shopping for oneself and the household was perceived as a narcissistic, hence sinful trait. However, in 1723, Bernard Mandeville, an Anglo-Dutch social philosopher and a witty satirist, used a poem to make a significant economic point. In his book Private Vices, he emphasized that, contrary to popular opinion, this ‘vanity’ was a means to greater public benefit. According to him, an increase in such consumption would make countries rich, engendering a safer, spirited, and stronger society. He, therefore, approved of the concept of shopping for pleasure and argued that an economy needs to produce high demand for absurd and unnecessary commodities in order to keep flourishing.
Image Credits: Fashion Institute of Technology
This economic requirement gave birth to the idea of fashion. Vicissitudinous clothing styles, and a burgeoning demand for ‘trendy’ decor and accessories came as self-propagating tools to ensure frequent consumption. To keep this culture alive, producers adopted advertisement tactics and planned obsolescence, luring consumers into buying commodities. Slowly crept in the cleverly carved 'customer knows the best’ slogan, which subtly tried to put the onus of reckless consumption on the buyers, signalling that the consumers did so under Free Will and the producers had no responsibility whatsoever. The consumers eventually fell into the corporate trap, succumbing to the erroneous belief that the decision to buy always originated from their own needs, oblivious of the fact that from the strategic bombardment of advertisements to the tactical placement of goods in a supermarket, all pretty much dictated their consumption patterns, subconsciously coercing them to buy more.
While the chronological development of consumerism in the West was prominent, India, like some other previously colonised countries, saw a sporadic shift to such a tendency. The history of colonization and dominance of western culture in India created a tendency to ‘keep pace with the consumer-driven society of the west' which contributed to the increased consumption here. Should India start consuming at the same rate as in the west, without the necessary technology to mitigate the effects of such a buying frenzy, the world’s largest democracy will also become the world's biggest ecological crisis.
Over the years consumerism has been justified by the noble idea that it keeps the economic cycle working: multiplying GDP manifold and bringing prosperity to the country we swear our allegiance to. It may be perceived, perhaps, as an act of patriotism. However, in the 21st century where humanity faces a larger threat due to climate change, can achieving a trillion-dollar economy be our only concern?
Since the olden days our obsession with GDP has been profound. This system of measuring a nation's prosperity is culpable for neglecting the dire consequences of environmental degradation to human health and well being. Nor does it reflect on the ‘happiness level’ of an individual. Psychologist and author, Dr David G. Myers says, “Our becoming much better off over the last four decades has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well being.” A plethora of scientific studies have found that once a person's needs are met, extra consumption does not increase their well-being but has a crucial environmental price tag.
Image Credits: Catherine Pain
As an aftermath of indiscriminate consumption, disposal of used goods jeopardises the ecosystem. Tonnes of goods are dumped into barren lands and oceans ruining the flora and fauna. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for instance, covers territory the size of three Frances, containing 3.6 trillion of individual plastic.
Also, the ‘World Development Indicator Database’ released by the World Bank indicates, the global GDP increased by half between 1990 and 2016. But global trends for air pollution followed a similar upward trajectory. There exists a trade-off between economic growth and environmental sustainability. This trade-off can not be averted but be balanced through adequate policy interventions by the government. However, one condition has to be met- the capitalist model should not counteract the work being done to reduce emissions.
For instance, South Korea, under its Green Growth project in 2009, spent around 2% of its GDP i.e 38.1 billion US dollars on environmental projects, while aiming to expand the economy simultaneously. It was seen that at the end of the term the South Korean economy recovered and grew. Although the government had initiated massive investments in clean energy and ensured energy efficiency to prevent greenhouse emissions, the growth was coupled with an unanticipated rise in emissions by 11.8%. This fiasco baffled economists all across. They finally realized that the total energy consumption had outpaced renewable installations and energy efficiency projects by the government, leading to futile efforts. So, ultimately it all boiled down to the consumption level.
Germany consumes 6,848 kWh of per capita energy i.e 7 times the consumption of an average Indian. It is estimated that if all the counties in the world use per capita energy akin to Germany then the global emissions would double.
To tackle the problem, the United Nations under its 12th Sustainable Development Goal seeks to ‘ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns’. It advocates the use of energy and material in such a manner that the ecological repercussions are kept down, enabling both the present and future generations to meet their needs. The SDG 12 calls out for daring and distinct business model innovation.
It backs the model of a Circular Economy. It recognizes the catastrophic effect of rampant consumption on all and suggests a model which calls for making better use of the limited resources through shifting to the concept of the shared economy or collaborative consumption, where preference is given to borrowed or rented commodities rather than owned. It advocates the design and production of goods that post-expiry can be truly recycled, thereby completing nature’s cycle (the cradle to cradle solution). These practices do not shun consumerism outright. Firstly, these practices try to subtly reduce demand for goods in the market by persuading people to share. This way people get what they ‘want’ without inducing firms to produce more. Secondly, they rely on technological advancement to combat the aftermath of consumerism. Therefore, while this is an imperative step towards a sustainable environment, it is advisable that we as global citizens also cut down on rash consumption which is the crux of all ecological problems.
Hence, till such a time as when humanity finds a saviour in the germinating Fourth Technological Revolution- the AI Revolution, we will have to heed Rousseau’s advice of redirecting one's energy to nonmaterial values by prioritizing ‘virtue’ to wealth. This alone can guide us through this vogue and help attain joy in a real sense. After all, what happiness would it be to go to a mall to buy a Gucci sweatshirt with an ugly oxygen cylinder clinging to one’s back? (Until that becomes fashionable too!)
By Ishi Chauhan
Ishi is a first-year student of Political Science. She is an avid reader and has a penchant for keeping herself abreast of contemporary socio-political developments.