Blair: Crushing Consumption

by Peter Blair | 2/7/12 11:00pm

I recently had a conversation with one of my friends about the L.L. Bean boots I was wearing. He told me how much he disliked the popularity of Bean Boots, because you could buy essentially the same boots for much cheaper at some other store. Buying something just for the brand, he held, is a waste of money.

At the time, I argued with him, but looking back on the conversation, I realized he was right. I could have bought the same kind of boots almost anywhere and for much cheaper, but I bought them at L.L. Bean because of their recognizable brand. The conversation convinced me all the more of the truth of the following statement: We are living in an economy that is coercive and destructive, and by giving into the brand mentality, we only exacerbate the problem.

I did not come to this belief quickly or easily; like most people, I am, on an emotional level, relatively comfortable with the American economy writ large. And I do not speak from any kind of moral high ground: I am as, if not more, implicated in these practices as my peers. But on an intellectual level, these problems are far too serious to be ignored. A major stage in my realization came when I read the book "Lost in Transition" by University of Notre Dame sociology professor Christian Smith. Smith conducted national surveys and interviews with "emerging adults" (18 to 23-year-olds), and much of what he found was frightening.

Throughout the book, Smith notices destructive trend after destructive trend. He found that "fewer than one in 10 emerging adults we interviewed voiced any kind of focused discontent or more intense criticism of mass consumerism." Very few worried about the environmental and economic impact of mass consumerism, and very few worried about the limiting horizons of a life devoted mainly or solely to material prosperity. Worst of all, very few realized how pervasive a role marketing and advertising plays in determining and influencing their decisions.

In his book, immediately prior to noting that Anheuser-Busch alone spent $5 billion on marketing in 2009, Smith related the story of a class he teaches: "When I teach Introduction to Sociology, I spend two classes discussing the question, Why intoxication?' At first, most students cannot even imagine the justification for even asking the question at all. Isn't it obvious? But when I push them, they essentially conclude something like this: The entire time we were growing up, we were taught' that when you get to college you're supposed to party, be wild, get crazy, have fun, drink a lot.' Their answer, in short, is that we do exactly what we were told to do." He continues, "Those scripted norms, as powerful as they are, are also facilitated and promoted by a set of powerful social institutions that benefit financially from emerging adult intoxications."

The truth, Smith points out, is that companies spend so much money on advertising because it works. They are able to sell us things that we don't need through branding and other image-based techniques. We are putty in the advertiser's hands, and our passive acceptance allows them to govern the economy according to the well-known practice of "planned obsolescence," in which products are designed to break easily or styles are designed to go out of fashion quickly. This forces people to spend money on repairs or buy more of the latest product.

As the consumeristic engine keeps chugging along, fueled by our addiction to brand name products, we only add to the human and environmental costs exacted by our acquisitive economy on a daily basis. The environmental impact of our lifestyle is well known, but the human side is perhaps less so. The recent revelation that Foxconn, the main producer of Apple products in China, has had to install nets outside their windows to stop their workers from committing suicide by free fall, is a dramatic illustration of such costs. To understand the price at which our decadence has been purchased, one need look no further than the destruction wrought upon rural communities by strip-mining energy companies.

I propose, then, that we as a Dartmouth community resist the siren call of consumerism and moderate our addiction to brand names. If our purchasing habits were governed by social conscientiousness instead of social ambition, we might begin the first steps to the restoration of economic sanity.