On the Difficulties of Buying Our Way Out of the Consumption Problem

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Patagonia's Black Friday ad

Patagonia US

Patagonia's Black Friday ad

Many new products promise to address consumption-related woes. Yet many of these products fall short of promises, creating a false sense of absolution and at times exacerbating other associated problems. In order to meaningfully address overconsumption, these products would, paradoxically, have to actually reduce primary consumption.

The perils of overconsumption are well known: enough trash to build a bridge to the moon, pollution, inefficient resource depletion, and dire working conditions in far away places. Then there is the ethical problem of knowing that much of the world’s population is under-resourced. Not to mention that our intensive consumption doesn’t guarantee health or happiness. In response, countless commercial strategies have been developed that now promise to mitigate these problems. The sustainable apparel industry offers some good examples.

Back in 2006, TOMS’ “Buy One give One” (B1G1) model was an instant hit. For every pair of purchased shoes, TOMS donates a pair to an under-resourced child, usually in the global South. At first, people loved the idea. By 2010, TOMS had donated over one million pairs of their signature alpargata slip-ons. In 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek named TOMS founder, Blake Mycoskie, one of America’s most promising social entrepreneurs. A handful of other firms, such as the trendy online eyeglasses vendor Warby Parker, adopted the B1G1 model.

But the experience of TOMS reflects the increasing difficulty of knowing whether these strategies are truly effective, whether they are just band-aids on the symptoms of overconsumption, or whether they actually exacerbate other consumption-related problems. The charm of the B1G1 model accompanied the feeling of absolution that it offered to consumers: relief of consumption guilt through consumption. It is a brilliant marketing strategy; however, it only directly addresses one of the aforementioned problems: Some people have many pairs of shoes while others have zero pairs of shoes.

Questions emerged about the efficacy of TOMS’ shoe charity. For instance, according to blogger Zac Mason, TOMS could have ruled out the biggest risk of shoelessness – contracting hookworm disease – by investing a fraction of charitable revenues in the construction of latrines in and around schools. Toilets are not as sexy as shoes, but Mason argues that they would have been more practical, less wasteful, and more cost-effective. Kids grow out of shoes, but they don’t generally grow out of toilets. Then there is the fact that shipping shoes around the world actually requires a lot of energy, expels a lot of carbon emissions, and potentially undermines local shoemakers. Today, TOMS seems to be everyone’s favorite example of ineffectual philanthropy.

Should we cut Mycoskie some slack? The truth is that it is hard to address all of our consumption woes at once, unless you actually reduce the volume of primary consumption.

Perhaps in recognition of this fact, the model du jour is the durability model. Patagonia best represents this model. On Black Friday in 2011, Patagonia left competitors scratching their heads with a bold advertisement in the New York Times that encouraged shoppers not to buy Patagonia jackets, citing the massive environmental toll levied by overconsumption. Their solution: buy durable, Patagonia goods. “We make useful gear that lasts a long time. You don’t buy what you don’t need,” the ad says. The message is that we can reduce our consumption problems if we shop less, and we will shop less if our clothes last longer.

More recently, a new company, launched by Brooklyn’s Jake Bronstein, has been earning accolades for championing the durability model. The company, named Flint and Tinder, broke Kickstarter records in 2012 when Brontstein pitched handsome, American-made underpants. A year later, Bronstein decided to follow up on this success with “The Ten-Year Hoodie”, an American-made sweatshirt that is “Built for a lifetime, backed for ten years.” Bronstein’s pitch is compelling. He opens by letting the viewer in on a dirty manufacturing secret: planned obsolescence. “The clothes you’re wearing,” he says earnestly, “were designed to fall apart.” The hoodie is more than a sweatshirt, “it’s a battle cry,” he says. Then he wraps up with this: “It’s time to say not everything should be disposable.” Judging by the Kickstarter page, his message has broad appeal. In six weeks, Bronstein’s ten-year hoodie attracted 9,226 backers and over $1 million (from a $50,000 goal).

But there’s a contradiction embedded in Bronstein’s project: planned obsolescence is not the main cause of wasted textiles. According to H&M, champion of disposable duds, 95% of the textiles that wind up in landfills could be reused or repurposed. Most Americans, especially those that are willing and able to spend $90 on a sweatshirt, already own so many clothes that, with a few exceptions, most items won’t wear out before being discarded. Even if an item does tear, Americans are less inclined to mend and repair things today than in the past. By investing in the durable hoodie, Bronstein suggests, we can consume less and reduce waste, undermining the purveyors of planned obsolescence. To be sure, planned obsolescence is real and appalling, but a quick peek into your local thrift shop gives the lie to Bronstein: Americans have more usable stuff than we know what to do with.

So what are some other causes of overconsumption and disposability? First, shopping is easier than ever. Today you can visit Amazon.com from the comfort of your couch, and buy virtually anything in a fleeting unconfirmed click. Second, the more people own, the harder it becomes to distinguish oneself through conspicuous consumption. There’s always something new on the market, and fashions change quickly. Owning lots of things has become normalized, valued, and taught at an early age. What’s more, shopping can be an emotional activity. A recent Wall Street Journal piece chronicles the regrets of people who are seduced by sales or a desire to stand out, or those who shop to alleviate stress and anxiety. In some cases, shopping evolves from impulse, to habit, to addiction. Let us not forget the famed Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger’s half million-dollar leather habit.

Other drivers of consumption include shifting cultures of credit, as well as the embedding of consumption in notions of economic welfare. In the United States, household spending is one of the main metrics used to calculate GDP. In this sense, shopping has become an expression of patriotism.

Getting back to Bronstein, credit where credit is due: domestic job creation and durable, quality merchandise are praiseworthy. Yet, it might do us some good to give greater thought to our enthusiasm for buying our way out of the consumption problem.

This post is part of a series produced by Student Reporter for The Huffington Post and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. To see all the posts in the series published on The Huffington Post, click here.

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