In my opinion, the opposite of a consumer culture would be one where excess does not exists. The opposite of a consumer culture is one where the items that are needed by a family are made. This type of culture would not include entities such as fashion, bulk shopping, or collector’s items. There are a lot of bad things that happen in a consumer culture, but there are other things to take into account. I think that happiness and confidence are two things that get sacrificed when talking about changing from a consumer culture. There are always two sides to a story.
An alternative to consumer culture is a culture in which it is not the goal of society to consume resources but instead to complete natural cycles. This type of culture would be reciprocal– meaning that people give back equal to what they consume. Other species have this type of culture, their waste become nutrients for the continuation of life. Consumer culture is not concerned with giving back which is ironic because if we do not replenish resources we will limit our ability to continue to consume.
Humans are naturally very frugal, because in the old days resources were scarce and you had to get by on what you could get. An ideal new culture would be an heirloom culture. Rather than mass-producing items on the cheap and replacing them, items would be built to last, and an item you bought now you would intend to keep and pass onto your grandchildren.
Consumer culture is one in which people are encouraged to purchase many products they don’t need, putting them in a constant cycle of shopping and building debt. A consumerist type of system forces people to work in so-called “wage slavery” where they must put in hours in order to consume supposedly essential goods from a mass-market system. An alternative would be small-scale, localized good production. People can produce their own crops or crafts, and trade their surplus with other local producers to get what they need. This allows everyone a chance to maintain a small business, as well as have access to essential, durable goods like handmade clothing and organic crops. This would promote a happier, healthier existence for everyone, where everyone would have a job and access to quality goods.
I think the biggest issue with our consumer culture starts with the importance placed on profits. Companies that strive only to make a profit leave many other values by the wayside, including making quality products that are built to last, or can at least be safely disposed of after use. Cradle-to-cradle design is a powerful response to this “only for profit” mentality, in which the manufacturer must consider how a product will return to the earth naturally while causing minimal harm, if any. When products are made out of organically based materials (and it is possible!) they break down naturally, and when organic resources return to the earth they create new resources. If we are going to be consumers, that is the consumerist society I want to live in.
Many scholars argue that there is not in fact an alternative to consumer culture, but submit that there alternative approaches to consumer culture within the capitalist system to prevent future environmental degradation. The Treadmill of Production is a theoretical model of today’s global industrialized society. The industrial logic underlying the treadmill is based on the argument that humans are trapped within the system of capitalism, and rely on produced goods and services to survive and be satisfied. Firms within a capitalist market produce goods and services at a rate as rapid as humans consume these goods. Industrialized modern societies maximize profits while externalizing the costs of production, which includes devastating global ecological systems.
The Ecological Modernization Theory lies at the forefront of contemporary theories arguing for modernizing technological infrastructure as an alternative to today’s capitalistic system. The idea is that social changes that are likely to accompany the inevitable economic growth will lead to reduced environmental degradation. While this model seems to be a step toward a solution to ecological degradation as a result of capitalism, many critics argue that the social and political changes posed are not effective enough to prevent or reverse the immense ecological and environmental damage done.
A great addition to this conversation is Juliet Schor’s wonderful book Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, in which she argues for a shift away from the business-as-usual approach to economics (and life in general). Nowadays, we tend to put things like efficiency or shareholder value or profit-margin over people – all hallmarks of our current consumption society – over people. Schor argues that we should get back to valuing people above profit margin.
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