Changing the Culture of Consumerism

Throughout the Global Financial Crisis and the Great Recession we’ve all heard it: Governments and economists telling us to get out and shop to save the economy. I’ve even seen Facebook friends ponder on their status update, “Should I go shopping to save the economy?”

Our Culture of Consumerism

Consumerism is about more than just the proliferation of advertising and spending countless hours at the mall, it’s a culture. Culture can be defined as the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another. That means that our culture comes from all the social interactions that take place in our lives; discussions with family, friends and work colleagues, the TV shows we watch, the magazines we read, Facebook updates we are exposed to. All these social processes add up to become our reality. They define what feels natural to us, what clothes we wear, what foods we eat. We take all this as a given, but it’s really our culture which is shaping our reality.

Unfortunately, consumerism is now the guiding force in our culture. It is so pervasive that literally our well-being, our self-worth and our social status are all intricately tied to our consumption patterns. Obviously this is not a sustainable or viable system to base a culture on.

Why do we Consume so Much?

An interesting (but disturbing) statistic I came across recently, states that the average American lifestyle requires the extraction of 88kg (194lbs) of materials every day. Because we live in a culture that reinforces high consumption patterns, we consume far too many materials. How can we possibly need to use up more than our own body-weight in materials every day? It’s because we associate our well-being with how large our homes are, how big our TV screen is or the size of the car we drive. Consumerism is undermining the ecological systems that allows us to thrive as a species. If we don’t start shifting our culture away from consumerism, this current recession is going to be a stroll in the park compared to the world we’ll walk into.

Attics, basements and garages are loaded with the plunder of our shopping. I see people leave their cars on the street because their garages are so full that there is no room left for a vehicle. Some people even rent storage space to hold their extra stuff. Dumps are filling up with items that have never been used, just tossed out. More and more people are making a living off the perfectly good trash that’s thrown away every day. There is even a TV show called Hoarders which documents the lives of people at the extreme end of what has become a national preoccupation. Does all this stuff even make us happier? Research would suggest that the answer is No.

Consumption Does Not Make us Happier

One of the biggest side effects of the consumer lifestyle, is having less time to enjoy life. We are too busy working more hours, to make more money, to buy more stuff. We spend more hours commuting to work because we want larger houses, which are usually found out in the suburbs. We live in one community, but work in another so we spend so much time rushing around in our cars that we are exhausted by the time we get home. We are so tired that instead of going out to engage with our community and enjoy time with friends we end up watching on average 4 hours of TV per day. The TV shows us lavish lifestyles to which we should aspire and the advertisements tell us that without X or Y we are just not good enough. So, on the weekend we spend too much time at the shops trying to buy our happiness. We become obese and socially isolated. Consumption is undermining our future and our long-term ability to be happy.

How Can our Culture Shift From Consumerism to Sustainability?

So what can we do to combat the culture of consumerism? For a start, we have to work intentionally to shift cultural patterns away from valuing ‘things’ and instead valuing living sustainably or even better, living as a restorative force for the environment.

There are a number of institutions that can be used to move our culture towards sustainability: Business, Media, Education, Government, Traditions and Social Movements. Our culture currently says that the only mission of business is to maximise profits, but there are many great initiatives where small businesses, non-profits and co-ops are operating for the greater good of the community. Many schools are now adding school gardens to act as outdoor classrooms and to give children some much-needed exposure to nature. In recent years we’ve also started to see how the media can shift our culture. The movie Avatar is a good example because it reinforces the idea that we are dependent on and connected to a broader planetary system. In the movie Wall-E, Earth was governed by the Buy n Large corporation which caused mass consumerism and covered the planet in trash. The only life that was left were some obese humans living in space. We need more stories like these to reinforce that consumerism is not a good choice. The more exposure to this cultural story, the more it will start infecting people and begin to spread virally.

Social movements (Grassroots movements) are where I see we need to spend much of our effort to change our culture. Social Movements are often driven by a ‘tipping point’ which unites the majority of the populace in an effort to create change. A tipping point is a moment of ‘critical mass,’ when a trend, idea, or concept becomes a juggernaut. A small event can create a ripple effect, but in order to create one contagious movement, many smaller movements need to be created first.

What Can We Do to Create Social Change?

In the book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, the first key concept is that there are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them. With an epidemic, a tiny majority of the people do the work. If you are reading this blog, that probably means you! The movement has started, we just need to keep the momentum going until it reaches critical mass.

The second key point is that there is a simple way to package information that can make it irresistible/sticky and will compel a person into action. In order to be capable of sparking epidemics, ideas have to be memorable and move us into action. Personally I’ve found my approach to be different with different individuals. If you can find an issue that someone feels passionate about, it is much easier to tailor the message for that person. If someone is worried about their finances, I show them the fantastic outfits I’ve put together from the thrift store (op shop). If someone is concerned about toxins that their kids are exposed to, I explain how most cleaning products can be made with simple, non-toxic household ingredients like vinegar and baking soda. If someone is worried about health issues, I talk about my organic vegetable garden and the delicious foods I can buy in season at the farmers market. If someone has a new baby, I crochet cute baby hats as gifts and explain how enjoyable the process was to make it.

Finally, what really underlies successful epidemics, is a strong belief that change is possible; that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus. Tipping Points are an affirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. The world as we currently know it may seem like an immovable place, but it is not. With the slightest push; just in the right place; it can be tipped.

So in the process of changing our culture away from rampant consumerism, who will you be?

An Innovator? The adventurous one? A visionary? Will you be the translator? Can you take ideas and information and translate them into a language the rest of the population can understand?

An Early Adopter? A part of the slightly larger group that is infected by the innovators?

A member of the Majority? A part of the deliberate and the skeptical mass, who would never try anything until the most respected try it first?

Or, a Laggard? A member of the most traditional group that sees no urgent reason to change?

By becoming aware of these different groups it is easy to see where best to expend our efforts. Inspiring Early Adopters and the Early Majority will create more momentum than trying to convince a Laggard. It is also a more enjoyable process than constantly bashing your head against a brick wall.

So for those of you already on board; the visionaries who are changing the culture at a grass-roots level: what have been your experiences? What works? What doesn’t?

Photo by: What What

Who’d have thought line drying clothing was such a subversive act?

Photo by: alexkess

In Australia, drying your clothing outdoors on a clothesline known as a Hills Hoist (pictured above) is an institution, an undeniable right and so much of an Aussie icon that the Hills Hoist was featured in the opening ceremony for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Nearly every house, no matter how small the yard, has one and they are so commonplace that the local wildlife (such as this kookaburra) use them regularly as a perch.

One thing I admit to finding really strange about living in the USA is how much debate there is over the right to line-dry your clothing. We haven’t had a problem since we erected our own line across the back of our rental property, but I’ve read that in other parts of the US, it’s a real issue.

There is a big movement afoot to “legalize” the line drying of your laundry. Shamefully, it is actually illegal in many places around the U.S. to hang your clothes out to dry. Some people complain that it lowers their property value or it makes them feel as though they live in a ghetto because they occasionally see a few t-shirts blowing in the wind. To those people I say – you need to reassess your priorities or take up a new hobby. ~ The Good Human

According to Project Laundry list about 5.8 percent of residential electricity use in the USA goes towards the clothes dryer. If everyone used the clothesline or wooden drying racks, the savings would be enough to close several power plants.

There are plenty of good reasons to air-dry your clothes.

1. It saves money.

This is the obvious one. Dryers use up a lot of electricity — almost more than any other household appliance. We really notice the difference when we look at the electricity bill during the months our house-sitter was using the dryer versus the months that we are home and using our clothesline.

2. It saves your clothes.

Dryers might make your clothes feel softer, but they also weaken the fabric’s fibers faster than if they had been air-dried. All that lint you find in the dryer is caused by the fabric slowly wearing off your clothes. Clothing doesn’t shrink when hung outside versus forced to dry in a heated tumbler. Using the dryer less will save you money on replacement clothes.

3. It uses less chemicals.

The sun is a natural whitener, so there is no need to use bleach. I also understand that people use dryer sheets to stop static cling. You might be shocked by the list of carcinogens found in these innocent looking items.

I feel myself losing hope

I’ve almost finished my first week back at work and the energy and enthusiasm I had coming back from vacation is gone. I’m feeling really down on the world right now and have very little hope for humans. Here are a few contributing factors:

  • On each of the last three days, I’ve nearly been knocked off my bicycle by people who are either not paying attention or are too arrogant to consider my safety. After three days of it, it got too much for me and today I drove the car into work. Although it’s probably just some bad luck (I’ve never had this many close calls on the bike) I feel like something has shifted within people over the last few months.  I feel like this simple inattention to road safety is symbolic of what’s going on in greater society…. almost like people are drawing into themselves, or watching out for themselves at the expense of others. This is coming at a time when we should be banding together as a human community and that makes me despair for the future.
  • On our morning walks this week, a large percentage of people simply ignore us when we say good morning. Not that they didn’t hear us….they simply refused to acknowledge that we had spoken to them. This has always happened to some extent, but it seems to be more pronounced this week. How hard is it to simply exchange a pleasantry with a fellow human being?
  • Yesterday I overheard a conversation regarding the wasting of resources. I was within earshot and the people involved knew how I feel about the wasting of resources (mainly water, oil and electricity). This person was so arrogant about their right to use as much as they like and exclaimed loudly that they didn’t care if they had to pay more for it, but there was no way they were going to use less. Southern California is in drought and is running out of water and this persons solution was desalination plants. Never mind turning off the tap or allowing your lawn to become slightly less luxurious…the answer is to build extremely expensive desalination plants during a global recession (California is insolvent by the way) and run it with increasingly expensive energy. Oh boy! I could live with people who are clueless about our limited resources; education can solve that. But that fact that some people are aware of the issues and still arrogantly believe they are entitled to more than their share…now that does my head in.

Although I’m feeling a bit down on things at the moment, a couple of blog posts this morning brought a smile to my face.

These are simple things. Things I can control. This weekend I’m going get dirty in the garden, finish off some crochet projects and work on my self-sufficiency plans. I suspect that there is nothing like a good dose of personal action to make me feel more empowered and hopeful.

Photo by: h.koppdelaney