Minimalism, Sustainability

Questioning conspicuous consumption

I am reading Canadian author J. B. MacKinnon’s book The day the world stops shopping. In what he terms his “thought experiment,” MacKinnon speculates on the social, economic, and environmental impacts of drastically reduced consumption. I’m not going to review the book here, as this is not the point of this blog, although I highly recommend this book. Over the past several years, I have been actively trying to reduce my consumption habits and have made significant strides. There is much, much more that I can and should do, however, and this book is helping me question my assumptions and choices.

A phenomenon that strikes me in particular is that of “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1889 publication The theory of the leisure class, which I recall reading in one of my undergraduate classes many years ago. Conspicuous consumption is exemplified by purchasing products to serve as symbols of wealth, prestige, taste, and so forth. An excellent example of conspicuous consumption, so mercilessly lampooned in the film American psycho, was the heady decade of the 1980s, with its emphasis on brand names, designer clothes, expensive cars, and living completely beyond one’s means. The television show Miami Vice is a perfect example of the idolization of this lifestyle. Although conspicuous consumption waned, to some extent, in the 1990s, following the economic downturn of the late 1980s, and also following the Great Recession of 2007, it is increasingly promoted via social media sites, such as Instagram and TikTok, where so many people promote luxurious lifestyles, branded items, designer clothes, and so forth, and seemingly compete with one another for prestige and perceived wealth.

I’ve been a willing participant in conspicuous consumption for a long time. I well remember the Miami Vice era, and my focus on designer goods and ensuring that logos were well visible. As a young person then, I worked part-time in a very expensive part of Toronto in a store that sold prestigious goods and jewellery (e.g., a single Flora Danica dinner plate could set you back at least $1,000). It was impossible to keep up with this environment with my limited budget, of course, but this didn’t stop me from trying.

I was raised in an educational setting where wealth prevailed which, unfortunately, was the perfect setting to establish an early emphasis on conspicuous consumption. It was an environment where status and prestige were displayed like suits of armour through consumer goods such as clothes, jewellery, cars, etc. Shallow? Yes? Hard to resist when you’re surrounded with it? Absolutely. I’m also blessed (cursed?) with a love of beautiful things which, almost invariably, translates to expensive, and often conspicuously so. I like the finer things in life that are often associated with luxury brand names that one casually drops in conversations, or wears, sometimes literally, on one’s sleeve.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve put serious effort into questioning my conspicuous consumption behaviour. Besides drastically reducing my consumption habits full stop, I’ve asked myself serious questions about why I buy the things that I do. Do I buy something of good quality because I want to invest my money wisely in a product that is well made and will last which, in turn, helps reduce what I send to the landfill? Or am I more concerned with signalling taste and prestige through the products I buy? At this point in my life, I think (hope) that I have inched slowly more towards the former, rather than the latter. One of the fortunate consequences of living a vegan lifestyle is that a lot of luxury products (e.g., the oft-coveted Louis Vuitton bag) don’t make it into my home because of the materials with which they are made (e.g., leather, cashmere, etc.). I’ve come to care increasingly less about how I am perceived, which helps me in many ways, such as having a small wardrobe and shamelessly repeating outfits.

My pursuit of a sustainable lifestyle helps me question all my consumption decisions. I question the importance of brands, particularly since so many luxury brands have very questionable ethical and environmental practices and, to be honest, don’t always produce the best quality goods. As an example, when I was looking for a new dishwasher, the brand Bosch was tossed around by so many people; while this brand is certainly known for the quality of its products, to what extent is the cachet of the name more important than the product itself? I did my research first and purchased a product under the Kenmore brand of the then still extant Sears. When I selected the dishwasher in the store, the sales representative told me that the machine was in fact, a Bosch, but produced under the Kenmore brand at a price differential of $1,000. The Kenmore and Bosch machines were next to each other in the store and were, in fact, identical. My focus was on quality, rather than brand name. I can think of a number of people who would have picked the Bosch branded machine, even if they knew the machines were identical, just to have the name appear proudly in their kitchen. Do we buy products because they are truly of good quality, or because we want to project an image to others (e.g., the ubiquitous Blundstone boots, or the always recognizable Fluevogs)? It’s become increasingly important to me to question my true motives and assumptions when I buy an item, as I’ve been guilty of conspicuous consumption for too long.

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