Juliet Schor, Why Do We Consume So Much? (2001)

 

 1.       About Juliet Schor

           a.       Sociology, Boston College

           b.      Wrote “ClothesEencounter”

 

 2.       Inadequate answers to why we consume so much

           a.       Human nature; advertising makes us do it; can’t help ourselves; economic system needs us to; trapped in fruitless dynamic of desire, acquisition and disappointment; believe he who dies with most toys wins; because we can.

 

 3.       Who is the we who consume so much?

           a.       Not global South (developing countries)

                     i.        They don’t consume enough of basic needs of food, shelter, clothing

                     ii.       1999 per capita GDP of developing countries was $3,410, developed countries $24,430 (eight times as much)

                     iii.      1/3 South (1.2 B) lives on less than $1 per day, 2.8 B live on less than $2 per day;

                               (1)     Together 4B, 2/3 world population

           b.       Not everyone in U.S.

                     i.        Significant # of people live below poverty and lack access to consumer needs for adequate nutrition, decent shelter, reasonable transportation, health care, education

                     ii.       Though poverty rates declining, 30 million (out of 300, 10%) live below poverty line

                               (1)     Probably 60 million don’t have adequate standard of living

 

           c.       We = the majority of Americans whose basic needs met, have discretionary income; the large middle and upper classes

                     i.        Much of our lives involves consumption

                               (1)     Little we do that does not involve consumption

 

 4.       Facts about exorbitant consumption

           a.       Average size of U.S. homes increased over 50% since 1970s

                     i.        1987-1999: up from 1900 to 2300 sq. ft.

                     ii.       2 million homeless; 40% family groups

           b.       # of vehicles per person up, as is size and luxuriousness

           c.       Culture of excess

                     i.        $20,000 outdoor grills

                     ii.       $17,000 birthday parties for teen girls FAO Schwartz

                     iii.      Diamond studded bras at Victoria Secrets

                     iv.      Professional appliances for people not home to cook

                     v.       Designer clothes for 6 year olds

                     vi.      $1000 bed sheets

           d.       $8 billion a year on cosmetics

                     i.        More than enough when added to current expenditures to insure basic education for all children in developing world

           e.       U.S. and Europe $17 billion a year on pet food

                     i.        More than the $13 billion extra needed to insure basic health and nutrition around world

 

 5.       “So much” (in Why Do We Consume So Much?) is too much

 

 6.       Culture of consumption excess is wreaking havoc

           a.       Ecologically unsustainable (GW, species extinction, deforestation, water depletion)

           b.       Socially unsustainable (Americans work even longer hours to support rise in consumption expectations)

                     i.        Rising culture of social exclusion

                               (1)     Americans more likely to join gated communities, to tolerate poverty in their midst, to disavow responsibility for others, and to reject sense of community responsibility.

           c.       Financially unsustainable (Many households depleted savings and going into debt)

                     i.        The recent financial crisis spearheaded by unaffordable home mortgage lending proves this point.

 

 7.       Schor rejects much of the conventional wisdom of economists (and culture in general) about this consumption

                     i.        But she doesn’t say exactly which part she rejects and which accepts

           b.       Consumption is good

                     i.        New and improved products really are improvements

                     ii.       Consume because we love to

                     iii.      Consuming has made our lives richer, fuller, more enjoyable and better in meaningful ways

           c.       More always better

                     i.        Sufficiency or “enoughness” of emerging simplicity movement is not attainable (or desirable)

                     ii.       See Cafaro, “Less is Better”

           d.       Consumer market best left unattended by public policies (except in special cases like dangerous products)

                     i.        Let the consumer be sovereign

                               (1)     Consumer always knows better than government what she wants and what is good for her

                     ii.       Attempts to improve social welfare by steering consumption will be unhelpful

                               (1)     Examples of such attempts: Tax breaks for hybrid cars, installing solar panels or better insulation, raising fuel economy standards, gas tax, and so on

 

 8.       Schor also rejects much of the conventional wisdom of critics of consumer culture

           a.       Consumption once contributed to human welfare but once basis needs met, it is hard for it to add any more

           b.       Why do we buy all these things?

                     i.        Addicted to them

                     ii.       We are seduced into buying things by seductive ad images of cool young, vital and sexy folks

           c.       Consumption is a false god, our new religion

           d.       It replaces and takes away more durable satisfactions in life

                     i.        Only gives temporary pleasure

           e.       Speaks to the worst in us

                     i.        Remember Schor’s claim in “Clothes Encounter” that “the problem is not that we are too materialistic, we are not materialistic enough”

                    ii.       Socially and environmentally responsible consumption is not bad and speaks to what is good in us.....

           f.       Answer to why we get trapped in unsatisfying consumerist lifestyle focuses on advertising, marketing, media

                     i.        Schor clear rejects this

 

 9.       Each side has important truths, but both flawed (both conventional wisdom of economists and conventional wisdom of critics of consumer culture)

 10.     Schor’s view

           a.       Consuming generally (not always) good for individual

           b.       But we do consume too much

           c.       ***Reason is not so much advertising and marketing, but structural features in economic system that lead to excess consumerism

 

 11.     Three structural features of economic system that lead to excess consumption

           a.       Trapped in a cycle of work and spend

           b.       Fail to value natural resources adequately (‘ecological bias’)

           c.       Engaged in competitive consumption (“consuming has become a means to social esteem and belonging”)


 (1) CYCLE OF WORK AND SPEND

 12.     Rejects conventional idea that people choose work/leisure/spending tradeoff

           a.       People chose how much to work and so how much to earn (income)

           b.       Choose between hours of work and hours of leisure

           c.       Income made determines level of consumption

           d.       Schor rejects the above

 

 13.     People not free to choose hours of work

           a.       Employers set the hours and these are high

           b.       Employers have a bias against “short hour jobs”

                     i.        Why? Because:

                               (1)      Benefits paid per person, not per hour

                               (2)      Prefer hiring fewer people

           c.       Option to work and earn less (have more leisure) not fully available

                     i.        Big penalties for those who do

                               (1)     Few benefits, reduced upward career mobility

 

 14.     When productivity rises, these gains are not offered to employees to reduce working hours, but passed on as extra income

 

 15.     Thus mistake to argue quantity of consumption has been chosen

           a.       Rather, we have too much income and not enough leisure

                     i.        In the sense that if it had been our choice, we would be working less, have more leisure time, and have smaller income and less consumption

 

16.     Excess consumption is not due to advertising, marketing, or addictive commodities

17.     Rather, more leisured, less consumerist lifestyles structurally blocked in the labor market

 

 18.     With only long hours and high income to choose from, people choose to consume lots because:

           a.        Deserve it as worked so hard; consumer comforts/luxuries are a reward

           b.       Consumption is used as a means to keep up this frenetic life

                     i.        Stress buster vacations, restaurant meals, contracting for household services, buying time saving commodities

 

 19.     Empirical evidence too much work and not enough leisure

           a.       Average household devoting 100s of additional hours of paid work to maintain standard of living

                     i.        1973-2001 average annual hours up 178 (3-4 hours a week)

                     ii.       1969-99 hours of paid work

                               (1)     Married couples rose 18% (497 hours)

                               (2)     Single parent up 20% (297 hours)

           b.       Widespread sense of time squeeze

                     i.        1982-1995, from 41% to 56% said “almost nerve have time on their hands”

                     ii.       1/3-1/4 all employees say they have serious and frequent problems with not enough time for families, being bad mood, being too tired

                     iii.      63% of employees say work more hours than want to (average 11 a week)


 (2) FAILURE TO PROPERTY VALUE NATURAL RESOURCES (“ECOLOGICAL BIAS”)

                               (1)      2nd structural feature of economy creates too much consumption

 20.     Overuse of natural capital

           a.       Examples

                     i.        Air: Because air is a free resource, businesses will pollute it too much as not have to pay to do so

                               (1)     Suggests need a pollution tax (fee)

                     ii.       Wetlands as pollution filters, wildlife habitat, flood control mechanisms

                               (1)     But we drain and fill them

                     iii.      Bees as pollinators of our crops

                               (1)     Our pesticides kill off bees

                     iv.      Forests as carbon sinks, oxygen producers

                               (1)     We unsustainable harvest them

 21.     Many ecological resources/services are free goods and so we overuse them

           a.       Example of public goods and externalities

 22.     Would consume less if we correctly accounted for the value of these ecological resources/services or used them sustainably

           a.       We would produce less (and have more leisure) and consume less overall

           b.       For consumption would be more costly (and more costly relative to free time) if we did not treat the use/destruction of these ecological resources/services as free

 23.     If properly value ecological resources/services, the price of the goods that use/damage them would rise, and consumption would decrease and/or shift to less ecologically damaging goods

           a.       Fewer SUVs and airplane trips (more bike, bus, and train trips)

           b.       More organic farms, fewer pesticides and chemicals

           c.       More durable and less chemical clothing (organic cotton shirts instead of regular cotton shirts–10 % of world’s pesticide use is for cotton)

           d.       Less meat, more grain

           e.       Shade grown coffee

           f.       Solar and wind power (rather than oil or coal)

           g.       Residential energy use would fall

           h.       Paper use fall (or shift to recycled) (paper use risen despite introduction of computers)

 

 24.     How serious is this overuse of natural capital?

           a.       Very serious:

                     i.        Global warming, species extinction, ecosystem depletion (e.g., fisheries), water shortages, deforestation and soil erosion

                     ii.       Details: p. 377

           b.       Rate of resource use, pollution, and ecological degradation exceeds earth’s absorptive and regenerative capacities

           c.       Cause is rapid increase in world economic output

                     i.        Global consumption tippled 1980-1997

                     ii.       World economy doubles every 21 years

           d.       We are already beyond a sustainable relation with earth

           e.       If rest of the world lived like we (in the U.S.) do, need an additional four planets to support this lifestyle

                     i.        Ecological footprint calculator http://www.earthday.net/footprint/index.asp

 



 (3) CONSUMPTION COMPETITION

                               (1)     Third structural feature of economy that leads us to consume too much

 25.     Consumption has become a social competition for esteem, recognition, status and envy

           a.       “Consuming has become a means to social esteem and belonging”

 26.     Consume conspicuously: as important to how we define ourselves and fit into socially different communities

 27.     Consumption not just offensive but defensive

           a.       I get a big diamond because my friends don’t have them (offensive)

           b.       I get a big diamond because my friends have them (defensive)

 28.     No longer simply trying to “keep up with the Jones” (our neighbors) but now the super rich (Bill Gates) has become our aspirational target

                     i.        A “preposterous” goal

           b.       Decent comfortable standard of living no longer the goal

           c.       Upscaling of desire: Goal now is for status products and luxury

           d.       We want to earn more money than other people, to get rich, have second homes and swimming pools, foreign travel, expensive clothes

           e.       Getting rich is the number one aim of the youth, rather than becoming a famous athlete or being really smart.

 

 29.     Consumption competition difficult to resist

           a.       If everyone buys an SUV, I need to also

                     i.        Even if try to hold out, safety and visibility virtually require it

           b.       So too with upscaling of cell phones, computers, lessons and cultural enhancements for kids, kitchens

           c.       Each of us is trapped in upward creep of desire

 

 30.     We all might be happier if we could step down (consume less)

           a.       Drive slightly older cars

           b.       Have fewer gadgets

           c.       Fashion styles change less often

           d.       Slightly smaller homes

           e.       Less debt

           f.       More financial security

           g.       More time outside work

           h.       Less anxiety about keeping up

           i.        Healthier environment and more beautiful natural environment

           j.        All benefit from slowing down

 

 31.     In competitive consumption, can’t (very difficult to) consume less on our own–need coordinating influence

                     i.        A prisoner’s dilemma

           b.       Government, church, community needs to coordinate

           c.       Standing at ball game analogy

                     i.        When people stand up everyone else has to stand up to see, but none are better off than when sitting

                     ii.       Need the announcer to say “baseball fans please sit”

           d.       Similarly we would be no worse off if we all stepped down our level of consumption

 

 32.     CONCLUSIONS

 33.     Three arguments for why consume so much

           a.       Locked into cycle of work and spend

           b.       Failed to value earth’s capital

           c.       Competitive consumption: Consuming has become a means to social esteem and belonging

 34.     Undermining our quality of life.

           a.       Fail to take enough leisure time and leading too busy and stressed out lives

           b.       Poisoning our planet