Buy Less, Buy Better

Posted by Jessica Duncan on

With Farmers’ Market season about to start, I’m super excited to join with my community again for a summer of conscious consumerism. I think about this a lot. What makes for smart consumerism? Why are the farmers’ markets growing so rapidly? Is it my imagination, or are more and more people choosing to buy directly from the farmer/creator/producer?

Here’s an interesting article my sister published on her blog a few years ago where she outlines the relatively recent, and totally insane growth of our consumption model. She also points out that, just because this model has been embedded in our culture, doesn’t mean we don’t have choices. We can choose how to spend our money, and I am heartened to see more and more people choosing to buy less, but buy better.

Claire lives in the US, so she is writing from that perspective, but I think her points are equally valid across the western world.

 The Four-Pronged Fork of Consumerism

by Claire Josefine

 Once in a rare while, I'll venture into a K-Mart or Target or such, only to be astounded by the excess of consumer goods filling the shelves. Such material abundance didn't exist 100 years ago. So, what happened? How did we get here, to a world suffocating under so much stuff?

 The stage was set during the industrial revolution, when our ability to produce goods magnified immensely. (The changes in production capacity brought up an interesting debate at the time: should we focus on producing more stuff, or on having more time? More stuff won.) Then came The Depression, when people shut down and held back, went into scarcity thinking. They pulled into themselves, tight like a scrunched-closed fist. 

 After WWII a number of things happened, encouraging people to sigh a collective "phew!" and open up into an expansive mode again. I call these phenomena The Four-Pronged Fork of the Fifties. It was this fork that fed our modern-era consumerism.

Prong #1 was government programs. The Highway Trust Fund financed the creation of our Interstate Highway System, which fuelled the development of urban sprawl. In addition to passing through downtown areas -- which encouraged automobile-oriented development patterns -- the expanding cobweb of highways made for easier distribution of foods grown by centralized, mass-production farming. This freed up farmland for suburban sprawl and shopping malls. 

 Suburban Sprawl

Suburban Sprawl - Living the American Dream

FHA loans enabled people to buy those suburban houses. The G.I. Bill also helped people to purchase their starter homes. And all those houses, of course, needed to be fully equipped. As William Kowinski wrote in The Malling of America, "As they traded their ploughshares for power mowers, suburbanites created an ever-expanding market for consumer products. All those houses had their own kitchens and laundries, living rooms and dens, and typically a bedroom for each child. The suburban dream clearly included refrigerators and ranges, washers and dryers, plus all the detergents, polishes and other support and maintenance products."


Prong #2 was the proliferation of television and advertising. Besides being a venue for advertising, television portrayed (and continues to portray) upper-middle class as normal, making us think that what the well-to-do have is what we should all be having and what's wrong with us that we don't? Meanwhile, advertising started using psychology to create both fear and desire in us, compounding our sense of inadequacy.

 Sining Bowl Granola vs Cap'n Crunch

SBG vs Cap'n Crunch. How can I compete?

Prong #3 was personal debt. Suddenly, it became easy to borrow money. (What's that commercial? "Life takes Visa." Or is it that Visa takes life?) Meanwhile, in conjunction with the Cold War, government and industry began equating democracy with the freedom to purchase, recasting materialism as patriotic. (And President Bush, in response to 9/11, encouraged the country to go shopping. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.) Not long ago, if we didn't have the money, we didn't buy it. Now, if we want it -- and it's our patriotic duty to buy it! -- we just put it on the credit card.

 Sign explaining why you should shop local

Buying local may cost a bit more, but the money stays in your community.

Prong #4 was planned obsolescence. This has three faces to it. One is where producers intentionally build things to fall apart. After all, there are only so many toasters you can sell before everyone who needs one, has one. If you want to continue selling toasters, you better make them chintzy and irreparable. The second face of planned obsolescence takes its lead from the fashion industry, where things go out of style long before they cease being functional. Witness automobiles, furniture, kitchen decor, technology... . The third face is one of manufactured scarcity. Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, "We try to create an attitude that, if you see it, you ought to buy it because chances are it ain't going to be there next time. You're going to come in and find that maybe we have some Lucky jeans that we're selling. You come in the next time and we don't have those jeans but we have some Coach handbags. That's the treasure-hunt aspect. We constantly buy that stuff and intentionally run out of it from time to time."

 The Four-Pronged Fork of the Fifties fed our culture to create the bloated, consumerist world in which we find ourselves today. But just because this is where we are doesn't mean we need to stay here. We are products of our culture, but we are not victims to it. We can choose to step out of mindless consumption and into simplicity. We can choose to live consciously, to take back our power and live in harmony with our values. We can choose to walk out of K-Mart and Target and such, empty handed. We can even choose not to walk in.

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  • Excellent, insightful essay! That sums up the programming that makes people addicted to the modern materialist market megamachine. Thank you, Claire, and Jessica for posting.

    Laura Cooskey on

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