ANALYSIS: Responsible Consumption Part 2

Dispatch from SSC Intern Kang Chang

To buy, or not to buy: that has been a predominant question facing many Americans before the end of 2008.  Fareed Zakaria notes, “Our spending is currently equal to the entire economies of China and India added together and then doubled.”  But in the short period when consumption has tapered, let us reflect on the behavior of U.S. consumers. 

Juliet Schor, of the Center for a New American Dream, explains,  

“First, as is now well understood, much of the robust consumer growth of the past two decades was underpinned, not by income growth, but by the expansion of debt and unsustainable growth in family labor hours.  Hourly wage rates have stagnated since the 1970s. Especially recently, workers have been unable to capture their productivity gains. Parents aged 25-54 added a whopping 358 hours of work to their annual schedules between 1979 and 2000. Questionable credit practices and a now-popped housing bubble allowed consumption demand to grow, but before the crash, debt to income and asset ratios were stratospheric.” 

But why would these people spend more time to get more money and then buy more than they could afford?  It is relatively well known that wealth, after a certain accumulation, does not increase happiness.  Just ask yourself, “What are the things in life that I most value?”- they would most likely be non-material things, such as family, health, or relationships.  Societal pressures to present a successful family life, material wealth, and personal status are often pointed to as the culprit for irresponsible consumption.  Andrew C. Revkin of the New York Times, records how Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, political philosopher John Ralston Saul, professor Herman Daly are making efforts to change societal goals to be informed by the environment, our communities and what truly makes us happy. 

In “The Endless Pursuit of Unnecessary Things”, Revkin re-presents an excerpt from Chalres Handy, an expert on business management who founded the London Business School:  “(Peter) Drucker saw business as the agent of progress. Its main responsibility, he said, was to come up with new ideas and take them to market. But not just any new ideas, please — only those that bring genuine benefits to the customers, and do not muck up the environment.

The market, unfortunately, does not differentiate between good and bad. If the people want junk, the market will provide. So we have to fall back on the conscience of our business leaders."

The last sentence seems to remove the responsibility of our purchases from us and places it with the business leaders.  Using the same logic, it could be said that if people wanted high quality, goods or services with minimal negative impact on the earth and its people, the market will provide. 

As individual consumers, we hold the power the change the market and its practices.  If items need to be purchased, every dollar sends a signal to the market saying you support the producer of this product, their values and their practices.  Here are some links to responsible consumption guides, but a point to remember when researching the company’s practices and products is that many of these purchasing choices can boil down to trade offs such as:  “Is the price premium worth supporting reduced emissions or water use?” or “This product results in less chemical waste but is sold by a company with poor views on worker’s rights issues.”  Truly thinking about the necessity of the potential purchase or creating rules on consumption may reduce the number of times you have to make these choices.