Just more subtle forms of consumerism?
January 20, 2008 8:53 AM   Subscribe

How to find balance between consumerism and materialism, and taking care of needs and appreciate quality/craftsmanship/design?

divabat's AskMe got me thinking. I often find myself asking if I really need to purchase this particular item, be it clothes, food, books, music, gadgets, etc. I don't think I buy a lot of unnecessary things, my budget doesn't allow me to, but I find myself wanting a lot and rationalize about buying them by telling myself that it's about quality, good design, craftsmanship, art/culture. However, I ask myself: isn't this just a more subtle form of consumerism?

I realize that certain things are essential for living a decent and meaningful life, e.g. clothes on your back, healthy food, books, etc. But where do you draw the line between needs (I really need this) and wants (Do I really need this)? For example, are expensive quality shoes about filling a need or just about wanting? How about kitchen accessories such as knifes or appliances that cost a lot? Or clothes made by indie producers (they do cost)? (These are just examples of things that I obsess about; i don't necessarily buy them.)

So I'm wondering how you people deal with thoughts like these. Also, being a bookworm, I would really like to read some literature (preferably research papers) on the topic that could bring clarity and needed perspectives. Thanks.
posted by Foci for Analysis to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I am not sure I understand your question. I think purchasing high quality items actually cuts down on materialism and the amount of junk you accumulate. A well crafted knife will last you a lifetime. Well made shoes can last a long time with proper care and the occasional re-sole. The stuff that adds to the crapulence of this society is the cheap shit, like laminated cheapo bookshelves that barely survive the car ride home and end up in the dumpster in two years or less. I would rather have nothing in my house than cheap crap that screams "Cheap Crap!" every time I look at it. I have some quality towels that are over 12 years old that have not frayed or faded, while a cheaper towel bought much later is a dust rag now. Spending the extra money on well made things will cost you less in the long run and it's less stuff in the landfills.
posted by 45moore45 at 9:07 AM on January 20, 2008

I look at it this way- things I buy solve problems I have. Does the thing I buy solve the problem I have the best way possible given my constraints? If it does, then I did the best I could.

Anything else is ego-stroking. Not that that's necessarily bad, but let's not kid ourselves.

I need a car. I need a reliable car. I need a reliable car that fits X people and Y stuff. OK, great. Plenty of cars will fill that need. My constraints are how much I have to spend on purchase and maintenance. Anything that doesn't solve those problems and fit those constraints are choices I made because I wanted to, not because I needed to. As long as I admit to myself that those aboves and beyonds were luxuries, I feel like I'm on solid ethical and moral ground.

What if I spend twice as much on a knife that needs to be sharpened twice as often? I sharpen my own knives, so it's not a cost thing. I don't NEED a nicer knife, I'm just lazy and I'm willing to trade work for sharpening.
posted by gjc at 9:12 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

"the essence of economy lies not in savings, but in selection." --edmund burke
posted by bruce at 9:17 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I struggle with this too. I like to have nice things, but not too many nice things (the minimalist and the collector in me, constantly battling). I try to make my basics be good, quality items that will last. This usually means expensive. But sometimes not. A cast iron pot will last forever and can be cheap. A Le Creuset stewpot will be expensive, but is guaranteed for 100 years.

I try to have one of every basic thing for whatever the category is. So, for clothes: 1 quality suit, 1 pair designer jeans (they last, I treat them well, and wear them ALL the time, cause I love em), 1 evening jacket, 1 rain jacket, 1 favorite hoodie*, 1 pair lasting boots, etc. Then I build on them with 1 or 2 variations or more expendable things. When I see something new I want, I ask myself "What is this replacing?" If it's replacing a basic, then I ask myself if the basic needs replacing, which is usually "no". If it's just an extra item, I check to see how many spinoffs of that I already have. This usually makes it easy to walk away or not. For me, at the store I'm thinking: yeah, these black heels are cute and I really want them, but I already have three pairs of black shoes, and so I know I'm going to feel like an even bigger gluttonous assh*le if I add a fourth to my exploding shoe rack (it already looks like a wayward centipede).

*Hoodies, I've discovered, are my weakness. Suffice to say, I have way more than 1 favorite.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:18 AM on January 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If I feel that an expensive, quality item will be saving me money in the long run, then I perceive that as filling a need and not consumerism. For example, I like to cook and bake. After spending modest amounts of money on mediocre pots, pans, knives, etc, and finding myself unhappy using them and watching them deteriorate, I buckled down, saved up, and bought some expensive but quality equipment. I expect it to last me decades with proper care, if not a lifetime. In five years, when cheaper stuff would have needed to be replaced, this will have already paid for itself.

Same with clothes. I can spend small amounts on stuff that won't last, or I can make room in my budget for one thing that will last me a long time and feel good. This is especially true with shoes: I really think that a good pair of shoes that will be comfortable and make you feet happy is one of the best investments you can make in your wardrobe.

From an environmental perspective, buying lots of inexpensive stuff that you know will not last is also detrimental, as it creates more waste.

I view consumerism as buying expensive things just because they are expensive, and without regard as to whether or not the price reflects quality. Just because it's pricey to doesn't mean it will be a good buy. As was mentioned above, a simple cast iron pan can be inexpensive but last forever and deliver great results. Or buying something you won't really use, regardless of whether it's cheap or not (consumerism affects Neiman Marcus shoppers as much as it does Walmart shoppers). Now, not to say you can't treat yourself every now and then to something just 'cause it's pretty, but making a habit of it is where I think consumerism lies.

I really feel that the thought process behind the purchase is what differentiates consumerism from buying wisely.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 9:26 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have always lived on a pretty taut budget, and it's taught me that as far as basic needs, the best quality I can afford is the best investment. For many years I lunged at stuff from dollar stores and cheap clothing retailers and discount beaverboard furniture, delighted that my small budget would go such a long way. But time has shown that this was generally false economy, as most of that stuff proved to have a short usable lifespan. In recent years I've gravitated more toward buying the best possible things I can afford, and this often means waiting quite some time to make a purchase rather than purchasing a lesser-quality item more cheaply. In the end, deciding on a more expensive item that you've researched and chosen carefully. this isn't aspirational consumerism so much as smart frugality.

THe impact of my dollar is also a very important consideration for me. Where we spend matters. Recently I've gotten very involved in the localism movement, including its emphasis on buying local or at least from independent retailers who live and run businesses here or nearby. There is some great research and thought out there about how to make purchases that not only last better for you (or taste better, whatever it may be) but also offer benefits to the community in terms of quality of life, more support for local nonprofits, keeping wealth closer to the community, etc. At this point I really resist buying from national chains unless that's really the only source. You might enjoy reading more about this: Big Box Swindle, The Institute for Local Self-Reliance. As you say, you like craftsmanship and supporting independent artists. Those are good reasons to buy things that are pricier, as well - you help create the world you want to live in through your purchases, and you're supporting handcrafting rather than mass manufacture, sweatshop labor, and so on. You might also like AdBusters.

Environmentally, reducing the solid-waste problem is important to me. As a result I am a huge fan of thrift/consignment stores, yard sales, freebie exchanges, freecycle, and Craigslist. Depending on what you're looking for and how much time you're willing to spend at this, you can find truly excellent things at bargain prices and know that you're keeping more junk out of the waste stream and not creating consumer demand for more new items coming from overseas.
posted by Miko at 9:35 AM on January 20, 2008 [4 favorites]

I once went a year owning only what I could fit in a backpack. It was an interesting experiment, but ultimately I found that it limited my life too much. You pay a cost in time and money when you need to rent everything (suits, tuxedos, cars, etc).

Now I try to limit my total number of belongings to what I can hold in my head. That is, if I can't sit down at any given moment and list out every single thing I own, then I own too much.

For me, that means that everything I buy either a) had better be very useful, or b) had better be significantly important to me. Usually it's both, and as a result I have no compunction about buying the very best I can find.

This lifestyle also means that I am regularly giving things away that for some reason are no longer important to me. IMHO, this is where buying quality really pays off -- I never have trouble finding a happy new owner for my belongings. Rather than ending up in a landfill or tucked away in an ever growing pile in the attic (the twin scourges of consumerism, as far as I'm concerned) the items I buy go on to have long and useful lives.
posted by tkolar at 9:45 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

My shopping mantra: "I've lived without it this long." If I can envision continuing without it, I don't buy it. This is why we have small wardrobes, a 40-year-old couch, no dishwasher, no automatic thingies in our car, no rugs, old unmatching wine glasses, and on and on. I've lived without these things just fine-- don't need them. I don't even have an iPod. (but then I'm a hard case)

Conversely, every now and then I indulge, which I feel fine about doing because for the most part, I don't accumulate a lot of crap. Recently I indulged myself in matching gloves, scarves and hats-- I now have green/brown, red, pink, purple, cream, black, blue, grey, and multi-colored sets. It started because everyone gives me scarves (which I love and wear alot). I didn't "need" these things, but man, do I ever look sharp.

Anyway, don't guilt yourself too much. If you really want to make sure you're making responsible choices, what about only buying American manufactured goods? That will have many salutary effects-- it will cost more, likely to be higher quality, and limit what you can buy, as well as giving you lots of time to think about the purchase (because American-made goods are expensive and difficult to find, which is just a sad sad statement and a whole other thread).
posted by nax at 10:01 AM on January 20, 2008

on preview, what Miko said (as always)
posted by nax at 10:03 AM on January 20, 2008

Best answer: I think joy is an important factor to consider. The joy that comes from using an object can be a life enriching experience. This is not without pitfalls.

If it is the idea of having the object that brings joy, then we can be clear that this is consumerist joy.

This issue started resolving for me over a bottle opener! about 25 years ago. I had a quite usable bottle opener on my corkscrew so I didn't need a bottle opener. I went ahead and bought a simple wooden handled bottle opener in-spite of that fact. It fit my hand, I enjoyed using it each time. When I pay attention, I still enjoy it. My scope has expanded well past the $3 opener. About 5 years ago we spent a ton of money on a couch. So much that the couch did not really match the house we were in. Oh man! Sinking into those down cushions- every time I am grateful. I love looking at the thing too.

Perhaps if a purchase leads you to "wanting more" we can consider it a consumerist purchase. Like cookies. Like the lust I have for a new Prius to replace my '02 model.
posted by pointilist at 10:06 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Lots of interesting thoughts and anecdotes, thanks everyone.

pointilist, I think you touched upon something pretty important, i.e. that objects aren't just about being useful to us, but they can have a very positive impact on our lives by making them more fun, interesting, etc. I still feel kinda guilty when thinking this way about, say, an Apple product or a gadget, mainly because I can't shake of the feeling that I'm just rationalizing consumerism.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:40 AM on January 20, 2008

You might like The Poverty of Affluence.

Here's how I think of it:

1. "Do I need this?" ("Need" for me is pretty rigorously defined.)

2. "Could I meet the need in some other way instead of buying this new thing?" (thrift stores, jerry-rigging, friends)

3. "Who made it, and who is profiting?" (often the deal breaker)

Buying is a vote that says "I approve of this system."


Are expensive quality shoes about filling a need or just about wanting?

They're filling a need if they're my only pair of shoes for that purpose. They're about wanting if I already have appropriate shoes. And by "purpose" I mean something like "I can appear in public and walk a good distance in these" or "I can keep these looking nice and wear them when I have to look professional." So I have one pair each of everyday clogs, professional shoes, steel-toed work boots, hiking shoes, and dance shoes. Most of the pairs were relatively expensive and tend to last (e.g. $75-100).

I have one town coat and one chore coat. One shoulder bag. One chef's knife that I use for everything. One frying pan (yay cast iron!). And so forth.

I haven't watched TV for a couple of decades, which I think helps a lot. I also just don't like having a lot of stuff. I like tkolar's approach: I'll limit my possessions to a list I can keep in my head.
posted by PatoPata at 10:46 AM on January 20, 2008 [5 favorites]

However, I ask myself: isn't this just a more subtle form of consumerism?

In brief, I think the answer is yes. However, I think it's a complicated question and at some level you're living in a cave in clothes you make yourself when drawn to its illogical extreme.

So, given that, my angle is always about trying to assess where the desire comes from. I have a hard time shopping generally because 1. I don't feel good spending money in a general sense 2. I always envision what the "thing" is that would solve my particular problem and then realize that "thing" doesn't actually exist. So, I don't worry too much that I have those desires because I saw the thing on TV or because my friends have it.

So, I decide like Miko that I want my money to go certain directions (locally, to people I agree with, or spending less on things I don't care about). I throw out as little trash as possible (which means taking in as little as possible) and I live on a low-ish income because I'd rather work less and do other stuff more which becomes easy when you don't spend a lot or need to.

In my area Bill McKibben talks about this a lot. He talks about making sensible choices and having them be fairly personal. So you don't give the people shopping at Wal-Mart a hard time if rock bottom prices make a genuine change/difference in their life and you decide if you can afford to pay more, you do, and possibly on better things.

I think consumerism is the quest for more, branded, not-totally-needed, stuff. If part of what you need to be you involves being surrounded by things you like, appreciate, see value in, or even care about in a way that still retains usefulness when the polish of OMG NEW THING winds up, that's a good start. It's almost impossible to live in an industrialized society and not buy things at all. Given that, it's all about making choices that you can live with, and deciding what you are choosing FOR as well as what you are choosing against.
posted by jessamyn at 11:00 AM on January 20, 2008

Best answer: I think the "objects can bring us fun and joy" belief, while tempting, puts us on a slippery slope. It's what marketers have been teaching us all our lives, and it's one reason we can be alienated and depressed. If we believe even partially that objects can bring us emotional satisfaction, then we're basing our happiness on something impermanent.

It's pleasant to use a well-designed object (hello, iPhone!). Our joy in an object can help us avoid frustration, be more pleasant to people around us, increase our determination to create well-designed experiences ourselves, and so forth. But it's too tempting to think "If I have that thing, I'll be happy" or "That thing will make me happy/sexy/intelligent/popular...." Because no thing permanently makes us happy, we end up with a constant craving, which is exactly what consumerism wants from us.
posted by PatoPata at 11:03 AM on January 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine really addresses the relationship the buyer feels with the product.

In one passage, she gets angry and refuses to go skiing because she cannot find her favorite socks, the moisture-wicking socks. In another passage she talks about the relentless thought that this or that new product will make her a better person. I've never seen someone admit that they have that thought, the "better person" thought, rather than try to rationalize a purchase with prettier reasons. An excellent read (for a concept that I will never try).

Incidentally, I sent my copy of this book away to a fellow BookMoocher. How's that for not buying it?
posted by realchild at 11:34 AM on January 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think that to fixate on this issue is pointless. We are all horrible consumerists; the best you can hope for is to be a little less of a horrible consumerist than the common run of the horrible consumerists around.

I think it's impossible to live in the U.S. --- short of living a Unabomber or John Zerzan-type existence --- without being a pretty selfish, vile consumerist.

Consumerism has seeped into every aspect of life. Did you choose to go to an elite liberal arts college? That's vile consumerism. Did you backpack across Asia? Vile consumerism. Do you have a Netflix account? Vile consumerism. An iPod? Vile consumerism.

Even the luxury of choosing to be less of a consumerist could be seen as an even more extreme, flagrant form of consumerism. Being able to tweak your lifestyle, to reflect upon consumer choices and fret about their nuances, to muse about the ethics of product selection in an online forum with similarly well-educated and thoughtful peers, may be just another permutation of creeping consumerism that cannot be escaped.
posted by jayder at 12:21 PM on January 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

I find it helpful to admit to myself that almost everything I buy is something I want, not something I need, because it avoids using need as a justification (and the definition creep that the OP writes of above). All that you need is a basic assortment of food, clean water, and basic shelter/clothing appropriate to your climate. Everything else is something you want. It helps to step back from your potential purchases and ask what you'll get out of them, rather than just thinking "I need x,y, and z".
posted by ssg at 1:37 PM on January 20, 2008

I don't think I buy a lot of unnecessary things, my budget doesn't allow me to, but I find myself wanting a lot and rationalize about buying them by telling myself that it's about quality, good design, craftsmanship, art/culture. ... So I'm wondering how you people deal with thoughts like these.

I'm missing something here. Is it wrong to appreciate beauty, to desire things which are wholesome and good? Sounds like you live within your means. Good for you, a lot of people don't.

For example, are expensive quality shoes about filling a need or just about wanting?

Well if you are a businessperson and need to look your best to impress clients, nice shoes may be a requirement of your job. If you are just trying to impress your friends and family, then it probably is just vanity speaking. I feel like these are problems anybody could solve, you don't have to read a research paper about it.
posted by Laugh_track at 2:54 PM on January 20, 2008

I'm missing something here. Is it wrong to appreciate beauty, to desire things which are wholesome and good?

Not to derail, but a lot of people would consider the "desire things" part to be the core of consumerism. That is to say, it's possible to appreciate beauty and things that are wholesome and good without necessarily buying them for yourself.
posted by tkolar at 3:33 PM on January 20, 2008

Two non-research type books that you might be interested in which focus on what little you really need to live are:
Your Money Or your Life
Living The Good Life
posted by DarkForest at 4:12 PM on January 20, 2008

Just a quick thought on the quality issue:

Seems like most people here have the "quality as superior buy" approach to consuming goods. Remember that accidents happen, and lifetime of goods is not always defined by the manufacturing quality.

It may be true that the quality of the item may decrease the chance of catastrophic failure if damage occurs. (like an IBM laptop surviving a fall a Dell won't) However, stuff breaks. The stuff you buy, regardless of quality, will break. Your pants will get shredded by some pet, your phone will get dropped in acid. Accidents happen. Stuff is just stuff, and will leave your life one day, maybe sooner than you think.

I think if you keep this in mind when buying stuff, you will focus on getting the best value for the money, and will stop needing to rationalize why you need 50% more durability for twice the cost. Personally speaking, this has helped cut off my desire for luxury goods like clothing. and cellphones. By taking this more practical approach to buying stuff, you many stem your consumerist rumblings for bad value items.

And as for joy, well, I guess it can be considered value too. But if you really consider joy (the biggest rationalization) as a valid criteria for buying stuff, what's the point of trying to be objective? You may keep looking for real value in the stuff you don't care about, like toilet paper - but for all the stuff one really wants, one can just chalk it up to "joy", and BAM! replacement joyful Ipod every 9 months. Which is not the point of the exercise, yes?
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:55 PM on January 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: isn't this just a more subtle form of consumerism?

If by subtle, you mean "sophisticated," then yes.

Stewart Ewen
Subtle Consumerism
posted by rhizome at 11:10 PM on January 20, 2008

(Can't be bothered to read every post.)
I like to keep things simple, so I just have one rule: How much will this item be used within the next year? If the answer is (honestly) lots, or if the item has a very short life such that it will be used up before the year is out, then I get it. The only part that I fuss about is being honest with myself about how much I'll be using something. I find that the lack of worry that comes with having a simple, obvious, easy to follow rule improves my life far more than worrying about consumerism.
posted by anaelith at 6:16 AM on January 21, 2008

Came across this somewhat related piece on the Expectation Economy, where the process of rating and identifying the best quality for any given purchase is cast as being in itself a sign of 'hyperconsumerism.'
posted by Miko at 7:10 AM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

There have been some interesting news stories on this sort of thing just recently. This morning on npr, a sad sad tale of the factory workers in China being worried because US consumers seem to be coming to their senses and aren't buying as much useless crap as the Chinese (and their US manufacturing overlords) are making. Largely as a result of the fact that all of our good manufacturing jobs are over there now and it's getting to where we don't have enough money to buy all that useless crap anymore.

The other discussion I heard (also on npr, maybe 3 days ago?) was about the over capacity of US retailers-- they have built too many stores.

I guess the conclusion is that you can only shove so much consumerism down peoples' throats before they realize that they already have enough widgets.

I have never understood the idea that our entire economy lives or dies on how much stuff we buy. If we stop buying stuff the whole house of cards comes down? How can this be? How can an entire economy be based on useless crap. How does that "create wealth" which is what I thought economies were supposed to do. Doesn't it just shift the money from one pocket to another without creating any additional capital, capacity, or productivity? It's all a mystery to me. Plus, I really really don't want anymore stuff. Does that make me unpatriotic? Dangerous?
posted by nax at 1:12 PM on January 23, 2008

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