Reducing consumption.

We get nervous, edgy and fearful just thinking about it, let alone talking about it. But if we are to see transformational change towards a sustainable economy, ecology and society, we must face this fear. We drive the global market by what we decide to buy, and no brand, retailer, celebrity, advertiser or investment advisor makes us decide. No one else reaches into our wallets and pulls out our credit cards. The moment we decide to trade our golden energy for products or services is the most critical point in the production and consumption cycle, the point all the other players work very hard to influence, the moment over which we have complete control.

But we’ve given up that control and allow ourselves to be told what to buy. It’s embarrassing to face this fact. We don’t want to admit ‘they’ have so much psychological control over our actions. Also, it requires reconsidering our values, a complicated, time-consuming endeavor of soul searching. Instead, we distract ourselves and hope it’s enough to talk about almost anything else: production practices, innovative materials, production from waste and recycling, circular models, reducing packaging, carbon offsets, alternative energy sources, water usage, etc.* We desperately want to ‘tech’ our way out of the problem, so that we can keep producing and consuming at the same rates, because we secretly hope we can consume our way out of the problem, all while sticking our little ostrich heads in the sand at the irony.

Since these half-hearted approaches address symptoms, not causes, and work within the context of producing and consuming as much as ever, they will never result in lasting change.

High-volume consumption is based on emotion and psychology, not need. It’s an addiction. We are well and truly hooked on shopping. Conditioned from birth, we, especially in the affluent West, are convinced a high-consumption lifestyle is an indicator of success as well as a duty to maintaining the economy. We’ve been taught we’ll be perceived as failures – if not pinko commie hippie freaks – if we intentionally buy less. Combine these fears with a dopamine hit every time we make a purchase and we are nothing short of junkies. It’s humiliating.

As addicts often do, we want to assign blame to external forces. Businesses, marketers, governments, the internet. We like to think it’s all Amazon’s fault, or Apple’s, or Google’s, or Nike’s, or JPMorganChase’s, but we can’t delude ourselves any longer. Consumers drive the toxic marketplace described by global social and environmental exploitation. But, that also means we can empower positive change. We can shape our socio-political economy into systems that work within the ecological boundaries of this planet, to be beneficial, beautiful and lasting.

This is not to say businesses and governments don’t have a role to play. Of course they should try to implement more responsible policies and procedures for the sake of the greater good. But without consumer pressure such measures won’t be enough.

Big brands, retailers and multi-national conglomerates certainly won’t discuss backing away from high volume production and consumption in a serious manner because their business models have come to depend on them. Decades of employing high-volume production practices using cheap outsourced exploited labor and factories in countries with lax environmental laws deeply entrenched those methods, with expected income to cover costs riding on maintaining the status quo of production and sales rates, making major changes impossible. But, shhh, they won’t say that out loud, because it most certainly is impossible to retro-fit a system with an inherently faulty foundation. Implementing systemic changes would require overhauling every point in their production chains and at every level in their administrations, usually requiring increased costs, causing too much upheaval to maintain current profitability while simultaneously making changes.

(Western) governments are caught in the middle with no clear path forward. They’re beholden to businesses to maintain current business practices, as, since the industrial revolution and the advent of mass-production, we never deviated from the idea that infinite growth is the most viable economic model. Thus, businesses have captured politicians in their pockets to support this notion. And, anyway, politicians are people too, products of consumer culture and themselves hooked on the idea more stuff means more happiness. Considering what a post-growth or slow-growth or prosperity-without-growth economy would look like is terrifying both personally and professionally, beyond just potentially losing their elected seat, even though their citizens and constituents clamor for stronger environmental and labor laws and regulations, now that more people than ever are aware the current economic model is subsidized by irreparable environmental damage and exploited labor.

Real solutions must come from a place deeper than the implementation of new laws, policies and procedures. They require an emotional shift. Consumers must demand from their hearts the formation of a different economy and society to spur businesses and governments to make major changes. Advertisers, high-paid executives, Wall Street and some members of Congress will continue to try to convince us abandoning the status quo is the road to ruin, and that we will all be deprived of the American Dream. They will try to keep us afraid, but they’re the ones truly terrified, scared to death we won’t buy their irresponsible products, services, or that we might vote them out of office. The golden treasure to be found beyond all of this uncertainty and uncharted territory is the fact that this shift doesn’t have to be devastating. On the contrary. Living our values does not mean feeling deprived or going without. It often doesn’t even mean spending less overall. It might be a complicated transformation, but we will emerge stronger, happier, simultaneously more engaged and more peaceful, with the psychological freedom to invest more in what is truly important to us.***

Like with any other hang-up, the power to throw off the shame and begin recovery must be found within. It can be a complicated and emotional process, requiring big changes best achieved through baby steps.** It requires finding good support systems, sometimes even finding new friends or changing jobs. Relapses have to be anticipated and planned for. Temptations might need to be eliminated from the immediate environment, with healthier alternatives provided. And, exactly as we’d see in treating an eating disorder, the most challenging part is determining, each person for themselves, what types of consumption are appropriate.

The first step is admitting we have a problem.

If you’ve read this far, you might be feeling a little pissed-off, or confused. Or even trapped. Perhaps you want to take some action but have no idea where to start. Don’t despair! We can clear the fog around your sartorial choices. Watch out for my next article, Is that a Pareto Principal in Your Pants or Are You Just Happy to See Me? — Find the 80/20 Rule Happening in Your Closet

*We don’t really have the stomach to discuss exploitative labor issues yet either, but that’s a topic for another time.
……July 2020 update – the most recent re-ignition of the Black Lives Matter movement with the murder of George Floyd has helped this discussion along by shining a stronger light on the prevailing attitude that non-white people are disposable.

**The climate change crisis doesn’t have much time for ‘baby steps’, but small steps are easier to implement and maintain long-term.

***July 2020 update – Covid-19 response requirements showed it is indeed possible to act as a block as consumers, as we decided shopping within six feet of other people was a threat to our health and therefore stopped patronizing local businesses en masse. I point out this tactic only to illustrate our power as consumers.

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