I’ve been reading What’s mine is yours by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers recently. It’s all about new forms of consumption and how the internet is changing attitudes to ownership. It’s also full of insights into consumerism, and in one chapter they describe four forces that drive it. I’ve not used the same names as they do, but it’s a thoughtful list and I thought I’d pass it on. With a book title like that, I’m sure they won’t mind.
The first driving force of consumerism is advertising, a vast industry dedicated to the ‘power of persuasion’. It is through advertisers that we are tempted, coaxed or shamed into buying or upgrading. We have had advertising in one form or another for centuries, but it was in the 1950s that it was elevated to a science. Essentially propaganda put to the service of industry rather than government, advertising creates the disatisfaction necessary to keep us shopping.
Our hyper-consumerist, growth-addicted society would never have developed to its current extremes if we all had to carefully save up before we bought anything. Credit cards, store cards, payday loans and ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes all bring forward our expenditure. Roll one form of debt into another as many of us do, and our spending can run a long way ahead of our earnings.
Everything wears out eventually, but in the post-war boom years, industrialists realised that the life cycles of products could be planned and managed. If you sell a customer a fridge that last fifty years, you’ll only ever sell them that one fridge. Make a fridge that will last ten years, and you can sell five over the same time period. Obsolescence can also be perceived rather than actual – who’ll want an iPhone 5 when the iPhone 6 comes out, regardless of whether it’s still working or not?
What do you do when everyone has what they need? Convince people that they need another one. Yes, you have a TV, but don’t you wish you could lie in bed and watch saturday morning cartoons? Get one for the bedroom. And what about when you’re cooking in the kitchen? The average British home now has more TV sets than people. Likewise, two cars are better than one, and two bathrooms. And it’s not just the big things. Most of us buy clothes that we never wear, or food that we never eat.
There are probably more factors that drive consumerism, but that’s a pretty good summary. I expect I’ll post more from What’s mine is yours, and I’ll review it when I’m done, but go and check out the rather good Collaborative Consumption website in the meantime.