It seems like pretty much all I have been reading, thinking and writing about for the last half a year is consumption. Sustainable or mass; responsible or conspicuous; mainly of food, but not exclusively; humans as consumers and consumers as humans, political actors or social agents; consumption and identity and identities of consumption; consumer activism and active consumerism; academic articles, books and documentaries. Sure, there is a lot to be drawn from this well of knowledge, but have I somehow neglected the golden rule of research – to look at not just what’s happening, but, not less important, what’s not happening and why? In other words, in my ceaseless pursuit of answers about what people consume, how and why, have I ever thought about what, how and why do they not?
Anti-consumerism is a well-documented and, probably, somewhat less well researched social phenomenon. All over the world, people voluntarily opt out of mass consumer culture and switch off from consumption – some for one day in a year (a global Buy Nothing Day is fast approaching – hope you don’t have a long shopping list for the 30th of November), others target specific companies and brands. Boycotting as a form of consumer resistance and a way of social control of business practices has become commonplace and many companies have experienced the power of consumer neglect. Among the most well-known brands are such big names as:
- Nestle – for its aggressive marketing of baby foods to the detriment of breast-feeding in the third world countries where this leads to death of millions of infants. This week is The International Nestlé-Free Week, learn more here;
- Nike for using sweatshops and child labour. See this 20 minutes documentary for a first-hand account of the company’s practices of labour exploitation;
- Esso (ExxonMobil) for opting out of research on alternative energy and undermining the 1997 Kyoto protocol on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Boycotting unethical companies has become easier and somewhat fun with the advent of an app which enables you to match your shopping choices with your ethical principles and avoid supporting companies whose business practices go against your set of moral values.
While selective restriction of consumption activities may provide clear conscience and peace of mind for some people, others make total self-sufficiency the goal and the norm of life. Increasing number of people is subscribing to the practice of voluntary simplicity – lifestyle associated with reduced material consumption. Academic literature defines it as ‘the choice out of free will . . . to limit expenditures on consumer goods and services, and to cultivate non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning’ (Etzioni, 1998, p. 620). For some this is an expression of a simplified, back-to-basics approach to life; for others – a way of purification through the de-cluttering of both houses and minds, yet another group does it for the sake of environmental well-being and reduction of the human footprint on Earth. One such experiment of living a zero-impact life was undertaken by an American named Colin Beaven, the main hero of the No Impact Man project, the author of a book and a blog of the same name. In his much media-covered lifestyle experiment, Colin attempted to reconcile the life in the heart of New York City with far-reaching environmental commitments. He set about living one year causing absolutely no impact on the environment – no energy consumption (no electricity, TV or transport except for a bike), no shopping (except for locally grown food), no waste (compost bin is the way forward), no toxic chemicals (be it a laundry detergent or his wife’s cosmetics), no paper (yes, no toilet paper too). The experiment attracted a swirl of media attention (which Colin seemed to enjoy despite declared rejection of even the concept of television) with Colin being bitterly criticized for his ostentatiously radical behaviour and deliberate perversion of the concept of environmental responsibility.
The number of people who have been put off environmentalism by Colin’s endeavour is not documented. What is documented, however, is a growing number of those who is ready to take the idea of living an environmentally sensible lifestyle on a whole new level. Eco-villages – intentional communities wherein people live in various degrees of detachment from urban civilization in pursuit of ecologically and economically sustainable modes of life – are spreading all over the world. Ecological housing, reliance on local agriculture and renewable energy sources, environmentally responsible waste management, no money economy, self-sufficiency – these are the major principles of the growing eco-village movement. There is a Global Eco-village Network which acts as an umbrella organization for eco-minded communities and individuals throughout the planet.
Thus, there are many levels on which the idea of “voluntary simplicity” can be taken and different people express different levels of commitment, devotion and determination – from one day switching off from shopping to total self-sufficiency within the boundaries of an eco-community. One thing seems obvious (and somewhat surprising) – there are as many forms of negative consumer behaviour as there are assertive consumer actions. Strikingly, it looks like what can be learnt from the former is astonishingly similar to what the latter points to. People choose to consume certain products and refuse to consume others for exactly the same reasons, like buying fair trade and boycotting Nike both come down to the issue of labour rights. Consumer activism or active resistance to consumerism – which is a more socially and politically progressive action is a matter of debate. What is beyond argument, though, is that both have become a legitimate way to assert your position in the modern consumer environment.
Etzioni, A. (1998). Voluntary simplicity: Characterization, select psychological implications, and societal consequences. Journal of Economic Psychology,19 (619), 643.