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Consumer Culture

What causes unconscious consumption? Let’s take a look at the psychological factors, worldviews, mindsets, and systemic structures that influence us—often without our noticing.

Evolution of consumer culture

1890s

Advertising industry emerges as a principal driver of consumption and commercialization

1889

“We shall endeavor to anticipate and take advantage in the interest of our subscribers, of any event, season, holiday, etc. that offers the possibility of a food advertising opportunity.”

-The American Advertiser

Department stores begin enticing customers with window displays, advertising, and consumer services and start to win out over mom-and-pop shop models

1913

Henry Ford implements first moving assembly line, other companies follow suit to produce more products more quickly

1910s

Marketers appeal to children as mass production of clothing and toys increases

1920s

Birth of commercial radio provides a direct line into consumers’ homes

1921 - 1922

Economists fear production outpaces purchasing and seek to drive demand during brief depression

1925

Half of U.S. homes have electric power for appliances like refrigerators and washers, which help manage more food and more clothing

1928

“Mass production is profitable only if its rhythm can be maintained—that is if it can continue to sell its product in steady or increasing quantity.… Today supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand … [and] cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product; it must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda...”

- Edward Bernays’ Propaganda

1929

Great Depression acts as a speed bump for mass consumption but fuels desires to have more than plenty

1932

Concept of “creative waste” coined in Consumer Engineering as the idea that throwing away old and buying new can fuel a strong economy

1950

Popularization of concept “planned obsolescence,” or intentionally manufacturing things people do not need, that will not last long

“The products have been the luxuries of the upper classes. The game is to make them the necessities of all classes. This is done by dangling the products before non-upper-class people as status symbols of a higher class.”

- Vance Packard

1970

The earth is still able to produce resources each year at the pace humanity consumes them

1950 - 1990

Per capita consumption in the U.S. doubles. Tons of waste landfilled in the U.S. doubles

2004

76% of U.S. families are in a form of consumer debt, with a larger percent of high-income families carrying debt than low-income families

2021

The earth is only able to produce enough resources each year to satisfy consumption through July, then we run a deficit (overshoot)

A brief history of consumer culture

Culture is shaped over time. What we know of today as "consumer culture" was only formed over the last century as (predominately) capitalist societies increased production as a key strategy in driving the economy.

 

For growth in this economic model, consumer demand needs to continue growing. This feedback loop leads to mass production and an engorged consumer appetite for goods. The result? A culture and economy that focuses on consumption and overlooks negative side effects...

Side effects of the mass production model: 

  • We use up more raw materials than we require to lead healthy lives

  • We exploit cheap labor and resource-rich areas to feed demand

  • We create unnecessary waste, upgrading from usable items to the newest model

  • We produce more emissions than earth can absorb in making/moving/disposing goods

  • We treat animals as commodities not as beings in order to consume them at mass scale

  • We push out small and local business for mass conglomerates

  • We work longer hours to feed production lines and to earn more to consume more

  • We internalize constant messaging that we are incomplete without product x, y, or z

  • We search for our own identity and meaning in the collection of things

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The system of consumption

As consumers, we're part of a system, or an interconnected network of structures and concepts. Systems that encourage consumption include a mix of societal structures—like our credits and debits infrastructure—and more personal, psychological concepts—like our fear of missing out (FOMO).

 

When we map the systems related to why and how we consume, we can get a fuller perspective on all that makes up modern consumer culture (and, perhaps, all that makes up us as a consumer).

 

Activity: Create a consumer systems map with as many interconnected systems, industries, and psychological factors you can think of that influence why and how we consume.

The attitude-behavior gap

The attitude-behavior gap is the difference between our reported beliefs and values (attitudes) and the actions we take (behaviors). We may believe fair labor conditions are important, but we don’t factor this into which brands we buy. We may believe waste reduction is important, but we don’t compost or buy biodegradable packaging. We may believe in animal wellbeing, but we don't avoid products that require animal suffering.

Reasons our behaviors don't align with our attitudes:​

We're unaware that our behaviors are misaligned with our attitudes and values

 

We're not aware of convenient options that match our attitudes and values

 

We do not believe our behaviors will make a difference

Cultural norms and pressures are stronger than our attitudes and values

 

We're overwhelmed with information and give up finding behaviors aligned with our attitudes and values

Our behaviors do make a difference. Our behaviors provide a feedback loop to maintain or change systems. Acting in accordance with our beliefs also helps reduce cognitive dissonance and strengthen our sense of self.

Activity: List out your core values and then list all of the goods and foods you've consume today. Do your routine consumer behavior align with your values?
Product Sales

Advertising, media,
and marketing

The role of advertising is to convince consumers that they are incomplete without a particular product. There are many tools in the advertiser toolbox to entice consumers to buy. 

Advertising strategies:

 

  • Play on our sense of self vs. our ideal self

  • Use gender norms to suggest what we should want as a man or woman

  • Use socio-economic class to suggest what we should desire or possess

  • Ask us to compare themselves to standardized beauty norms

  • Appeal directly to the "lizard brain" by leveraging fear of isolation, aging, death

  • Appeal directly to children's desires

  • Offer a product as the solution to an immaterial problem

Activity: Pay attention to the ads you see today and note what basic need or intrinsic desire each ad claims a product will fulfill. Are there ways to meet that need or desire without the product?

Shift to a more conscious mindset

 

When we examine the methods used in advertising and media, we get a sense that humans are "hackable." Complex but simple. So, can we hack ourselves into bridging our own attitude-behavior gaps?

 

One guiding framework for marketers from the Journal of Marketing suggests five psychological factors that can SHIFT consumers toward making eco-friendly purchases. What if we use these factors to examine ourselves and build a personal framework that can help us make consumer choices that align with our values?

Activity: Respond to each of the questions below and allow the answers to form a guiding framework for the choices you make as a consumer.
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Social influence

What social inputs influence you as a consumer?

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Habit formation

What consumer habits would you like to form or deepen?

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Individual self

Which values do you most want to embody in your consumer choices?

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Feelings & cognition

How do you want your purchases to make you feel?

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Tangibility

How can you be more connected to the impact of your purchases?

Sources and inspirations

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “The Commercialization of the Calendar: American Holidays and the Culture of Consumption, 1870-1930.” The Journal of American History, vol. 78, no. 3, 1991, pp. 887–916. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2078795. Accessed 30 Jun. 2022.

"The Moving Assembly Line and the Five-Dollar Work Day." Ford, https://corporate.ford.com/articles/history/moving-assembly-line.html, Accessed 30 Jun. 2022.

"A Brief History of Consumer Culture." MIT Press, https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/a-brief-history-of-consumer-culture, Published 11 Jan. 2021.

"The Throwaway Economy." Hubpages, https://discover.hubpages.com/business/The-Throwaway-Economy, Published 30 Jan. 2021

"Earth Overshoot Day, A Date That is Coming Around Earlier and Earlier Every Year." Active Sustainability, https://www.activesustainability.com/environment/earth-overshoot-day, Accessed 30 Jun. 2022.

"National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling." EPA, https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials#Generation, Last Updated 29 Jun. 2022.

"Report to the Congress on Practices of the Consumer Credit Industry in Soliciting and Extending Credit and their Effects on Consumer Debt and Insolvency." Federal Reserve, https://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/rptcongress/bankruptcy/bankruptcybillstudy200606.pdf, Published Jun. 2006

"3.1 Factors That Influence Consumers' Buying Behavior." Principles of Marketing by University of Minnesota, https://open.lib.umn.edu/principlesmarketing/chapter/3-1-factors-that-influence-consumers-buying-behavior/, Accessed 30 Jun. 2022.

"How to SHIFT Consumer Behaviors to be More Sustainable: A Literature Review and Guiding Framework." Katherine White, Rishad Habib, David J. Hardisty, SAGE Journals, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0022242919825649, Published 14 Feb. 2019.