By Joern Fischer
For those of us living in western cultures, this time of year is all about christmas, all about presents: and all about consumption. Many of us who care about sustainability shake our heads at the apparent insanity of giving each other ever more stuff — but in one way or another, most of us participate, anyway. So I thought it would be a good time to write a few words about consumption in the context of sustainability. What are our key challenges on this front?
Well, consumption isn’t exactly my core area of expertise — but I’ve recently had some very interesting exchange with ‘Bruin’ Carleton Christensen from the Australian National University on this. So I’ll try to summarise some of the main points of that exchange. (Where it sounds sensible, the credit goes to Bruin; where it’s not sensible, I take full responsibility …)
What do people think of when we discuss consumption? Those of us interested in sustainability, what are the things we most likely are concerned about? I can’t know what others think, but I think typically us sustainability junkies complain about big car and flat screen televisions; and quite often like to blame advertising for manipulating people into consuming ever more stuff.
If I understand Bruin correctly, this is indeed a part of consumption that philosophers have worried about, and it typically falls under the banner of ‘conspicuous consumption’ — we try to impress other members of society through the things we buy, including status symbols such as expensive cars or clothes, or even sunglasses, by certain brands. Consumers are seen to respond somewhat slavishly to whatever advertising suggests to them they need, or ought to have, to be full and valid members of society.
Personally, I have no doubt that this type of consumption is very much alive still. But what I found much more interesting when discussing consumption with Bruin was his emphasis on ‘inconspicuous consumption’. Especially sustainability-minded people like myself are probably much more guilty of ever increasing levels of inconspicuous consumption rather than conspicuous consumption. So what is inconspicuous consumption?
In a nutshell, inconspicuous consumption does not play a status-signalling role — it’s not to show to others how cool you are. Rather it’s all about the daily comforts which we increasingly take for granted. Constant indoor temperatures. Constant access to communication technologies via our smartphones, laptops, or apple’s various i-you-name-its. Flying to the US to meet a friend. Flying to Australia to meet another friend. Presenting at a conference in Japan the next week. Being obsessed with ‘fresh’ products, updating to the most energy-efficient house and car (frequently), washing our clothes after a single day of wearing them, and so on. We don’t do any of this to impress our peers (not primarily, anyway), but because we can. We simply have got used to very high levels of cleanliness and comfort in everyday life.
Now what is interesting is that our expectations of increasingly high comfort shape technology development to meet our expectations ever more closely; and then our expectations go up even more: and so on. We basically are in a feedback loop, where we as consumers believe that it is reasonable that we can fly to anywhere anytime, where we believe it is reasonable to get the latest i-something whenever it comes out, and where we complain when rooms are below 19 degrees centigrade or above 21. We’re spoiled, basically.
The challenge then, according to people like Bruin, is to understand how consumers, through time, may adapt their consumption habits and preferences because of their ethical and sustainability consequences.
And the take-home-message? Big cars and status symbols of that sort are clearly a part of the problem. But arguably, an even more important part of consumption relates to those daily comforts that we take for granted — and it’s here where re-thinking may be needed most urgently at a societal level.