Buy More By Design
Sometime during the five year period between 1950 and 1955, the United States encountered a new and unique problem in human history. We could manufacture more than we needed. Never before in history had humankind had the capability to make so many things. The question was, what were we going to do with all of it?
Much earlier in history, things could be stores of wealth which could be disposed of when times were tough or passed on to later generations as inheritances. Conspicuous consumption of unique products, services and experiences was typically a privilege of the very wealthy. The more things you owned, the better a person you were. Thorstein Veblen, responsible for coining the concept of ‘conspicuous consumption,’ notes in ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’,
“Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure.”
Only in the 1950s did it become essential to design a world that drove a much wider population of people to consume more. At the time, the world was living through a post-war recession economy where a vast wartime industry sat idle and under-utilised. The conditions demanded a new socio-economic response. Victor Lebow, an obscure but rather cannily prescient economist noted,
‘Our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfactions, in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.’
Later research suggests that Victor Lebow was perhaps observing the necessity of the times, rather than actively advocating it. However, his observation still stands. In the ground-breaking book the ‘Waste Makers’ (written in 1960), Vince Packard notes that people in the United States consumed twice the amount of goods as compared to before the Second World War. Yet, as the recession deepened, it still wasn’t enough. People needed to consume more.
The political world responded to the challenge. President Eisenhower implored consumers to ‘buy for their country.’ (This was eerily echoed decades later, during the 2000s, when President George Bush called for the American Consumer to buy things, to go to Disneyland, to help the economy recover with the consumption of things.)
Politics would soon be joined by the business world. The 1950s saw the birth of new techniques to intentionally and intelligently manipulate the perceived needs of the many. In the “Engineering of Consent,” Edward Bernays noted,
“Freedom of speech and its democratic corollary, a free press, have tacitly expanded our Bill of Rights to include the right of persuasion. This development was an inevitable result of the expansion of the media of free speech and persuasion… All these media provide open doors to the public mind. Any one of us through these media may influence the attitudes and actions of our fellow citizens.”
The social engineering of the era created a fundamental change to our economic mental model, from one of pre-war frugality to post-war consumption. Bill Bryson, famed journalist, author and humorist notes of that time,
“No wonder people were happy. Suddenly they were able to have things they had never dreamed of having, and they couldn’t believe their luck. There was, too, a wonderful simplicity of desire. It was the last time that people would be thrilled to own a toaster or waffle iron. If you bought a major appliance, you invited the neighbours round to have a look at it.”
The movement of designing to encourage our appetites continued into every aspect of our modern lives. Loyalty and reward programs, whether with points, cash-back or physical rewards, encourage more spending per retail experience. Store layouts are optimised to encourage purchasing. Eye tracking is used to manage how products are placed on shelves. A network of advertising, product placement and social influencers work to build our needs.
On the other side of the consumption lifecycle, cheaply made products break quickly, creating the need for new purchases. Just as Vance Packard noted in 1960, modern marketing, technological or design obsolescence outmodes products, services or experiences to ensure we re-buy them.
It isn’t that our consumption is rising, it’s that it needs to rise to support the socio-political-economic conditions that we live in. Governments are elected or rejected based on whether their policies appear to promote growth. Businesses are rewarded by the market based on how well they are growing, not on how they are sustaining. National economic policies are based on getting people spending more each year. We’ve built a complex system that requires us to design products, services and entire systems that encourage or even force growing consumption out of a growing population.
So what’s the catch? Though the global experiment we’ve been running may be based on defended economic principles, it makes for terrible ecology. If we lived in a world where our product, service and experience cycles of production were perfectly circular, perhaps we could get away with it. Unfortunately, our economic and production activity is distinctly one sided. Most of our consumption converts natural resources into waste. This is a system based on a flawed economic assumption that there are always more resources available to exploit.
This just isn’t true. Our ecologies are finite. They don’t work towards growth, they work towards homeostasis, the steady state of a system in balance. Attempting to find equilibrium by switching from the consumption of products to experiences isn’t enough. Experiences are still based on usage of things. From dinners out, trips overseas to balloon rides over the alps, we are still consuming to have these experiences.
We need to design a different system. Imagine a world where value is ultimately determined, not by how much we have, but by what we learn, the quality of our relationships and how much we contribute to the world. These are not so much experiences as emergent social and psychological intangibles. In this I find more inspiration in Science Fiction. An example is an idea from one of James P. Hogan’s most excellent novels, ‘Voyage from Yesteryear,’ where wealth is based on our skills,
“’…wealth is competence!” he said, ‘Haven’t you noticed - they work hard, and whatever they do, they do as well as they know how - and they try to get better all the time… That’s their currency - recognition… recognition of competence.”
It is a challenge to imagine the economics of such a world. However, if we were to truly be human centred, then we should start from the most enriched view of human and ecological experience and then work backwards to figure out business models and economies that make it work.
Bernays, Edward L. (1947) The Engineering of Consent. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, American Academy of Political and Social Science. Volume 250, Issue 1, p. 113-120.
Borunda, Alejandra (2019) How can city dwellers help with climate change? Buy less stuff. Retrieved June 2019 from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/06/cities-climate-impact-consume-less/.
Bryson, Bill; The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, (2006), Doubleday: USA.
Hogan, James. P (1982) Voyage From Yesteryear. Ballantine Books: USA.
Packard, Vance (1960) The Waste Makers. Pelican: USA.
New York Times (1995) Edward Bernays, 'Father of Public Relations' And Leader in Opinion Making, Dies at 103. Retrieved June 2019 from https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/08/16/specials/bernays-obit.html.
Terkel, Amanda (2006) With Recession Looming, Bush Tells America To ‘Go Shopping More.’ Retrieved June 2019 from https://thinkprogress.org/with-recession-looming-bush-tells-america-to-go-shopping-more-502f23e813a9/.
Trentmann, Frank (2016) Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First. Harper: USA.
Veblen, Thorstein (1899) The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. Macmillan: USA.
Wikipedia (Last edited 2019) Story of Stuff. Retrieved June 2019 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Story_of_Stuff.
Cube of Stuff Photo by Luca Laurence on Unsplash.