We can hardly bear to think about consumption, let alone talk about it, not in the mainstream. But it is the consumer that ultimately drives the production/consumption cycles, and the moment the consumer decides to trade their money for goods or services is the most critical point, the point all other factors work very hard to influence.
We struggle to face the situation squarely because high-volume consumption is based on emotion and psychology, not need. It’s an addiction (and I certainly don’t exclude myself). We are well and truly hooked on shopping.
Conditioned from birth, we, especially in the West, are convinced a high-consumption lifestyle is an indicator of success as well as a duty to maintaining the economy. We fear being perceived as a failure – if not a pinko commie hippie freak – if we intentionally buy less. Combine these fears with a dopamine hit every time we make a purchase and we are nothing short of junkies.
As addicts often do, we blame others for our condition. Businesses, marketers, governments, the internet. Lasting change will happen only when consumers consider their own actions. We can’t delude ourselves any longer: consumers drive the toxic marketplace described by global social and environmental exploitation. But that also means we have the power to shape it into a system that works within the ecological boundaries of this planet and with a concern for social responsibility to be beneficial, beautiful and lasting,
Not that businesses and governments don’t play a role. But they won’t take the situation seriously until consumers/citizens do.
Big brands, retailers and multi-national conglomerates certainly won’t discuss backing away from high volume production/consumption because their business models have come to depend on it. Decades of high-volume production practices using cheap outsourced exploited labor and countries with lax environmental laws are too deeply entrenched and there’s too much money riding on maintaining the status quo of their production and sales rates to make major changes. It’s impossible to retrofit a system with an inherently faulty foundation. Implementing systemic changes would require overhauling every point in their production chains and at every level in their administrations, usually involving increased costs, causing too much upheaval to maintain current profitability while simultaneously making changes.
(Western) governments are caught in the middle with no clear path forward. They’re beholden to businesses to maintain current business practices, as, after the industrial revolution, we never deviated from the idea that infinite growth is the most viable economic model. Thus, businesses have captured politicians in their pockets to make it so. And, anyway, politicians are people too, products of consumer culture and themselves hooked on the idea more stuff means more happiness. Considering what a post-growth or slow-growth or prosperity-without-growth economy would look like is terrifying both personally and professionally, beyond just potentially losing their elected seat, even though their citizens and constituents clamor for stronger environmental and labor laws and regulations, now that more people than ever are aware the current economic model is subsidized by irreparable environmental damage and exploited labor.
But it is consumers that have the final say. As long as consumers continue to act as slaves to the current economy, businesses and governments will not be motivated to make major changes. Our collective inability to face root causes of high volume production and consumption means we are willing to talk about sustainable practices in the mainstream market only in so far as to make it OK to keep producing and consuming at the same high rates.
We hope it’s enough to talk about anything else: production practices, innovative materials, production from waste and recycling, reducing packaging, etc. We desperately want to ‘tech’ our way out of the problem, in conjunction with consuming our way out, made even more the case by tech solutions being considered sexier and more likely to be funded than solutions that address the causes and motivations behind high volume production and consumption.
Since these half-hearted approaches address symptoms, not causes, and work within the context of producing and consuming the same amount they will never result in lasting change.
Like with any other hang-up, the power to throw it off must be found within ourselves. No one else can bestow it. We cannot wait for companies to do the right thing or for governments to enact regulations and police production processes. Those actions will never be enough as long as consumers don’t consider making changes to their own daily consumption habits.
As citizen/consumers, we hold tremendous power. Why not wake up to it?
We ought to feel empowered, not frightened. Businesses and marketers want to keep us afraid, but they’re the ones who are terrified. They’re scared to death you and I will wake up one day and decide to refuse to buy any more of their products and services. Let’s take back this power and exercise it. We can demand to know the provenance of everything we buy, consider buying fewer better quality items, embrace “repair” as enthusiastically as “replace”, and increase the utilization of the commodities we already possess.
Addiction recovery is a complicated and emotional process, requiring big changes best achieved through baby steps. It requires finding a good support system, sometimes including finding new friends, or even changing jobs. Relapses have to be anticipated and planned for. Temptations might need to be eliminated from the immediate environment. And, exactly as we’d see in treating an eating disorder, the most challenging part is determining, each person for themselves, how much consumption is appropriate.
In recovery from dependence, the first step is admitting we have a problem.