April 07, 2008

To Consume or Not to Consume?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Oprah recently aired an episode on “Freegans”, people who try to simplify their lives by buying as little as possible, and even find food in grocery store trash bins that is fit for consumption. Typically freegans are not poor or unable to pay for their basic needs, but people who clip_image002want to live more simply and worry less about making lots of money. Some of Oprah’s guests spoke of wanting to draw attention to the amount of food Americans waste and felt like their life choice was more of a political statement than an economic one.

As I have blogged about earlier, Americans are caught in a double-bind: on the one hand, we are encouraged to “jump start” the economy by spending the tax rebate many people will be receiving as part of the federal “stimulus package”. The rebate is intended to get us shopping for things we don’t necessarily even need, and to get us in a buying mood to boost the economy. On the other hand, buying too much can lead to debt that can also choke the economy when people can no longer make their payments.

The Oprah show itself mirrors this contradiction. Her annual “Favorite Things” show is a celebration of consumption. If you haven’t seen one of these shows (which air right as the holiday shopping season begins), it is a bacchanalia of stuff. The audience frenzy begins when they first discover that they are at the clip_image006Favorite Things taping, because they know they will be part of an orgy of new things that they will get for free. 

Unlike the freegans, who focus on getting by with less, this free stuff is meant to get people excited to buy more. Oprah’s favorite things, after all, have the stamp of approval of one of the world’s wealthiest women. Having things that Oprah loves may signify it is the “best” since presumably someone of her wealth and status would accept nothing less.

In this show, she includes things like clothes, her favorite croissants, the newest digital cameras, and even household appliances, all of which every audience member gets for free. And every item is of course met with hysteria, since the audience by now knows that it will be theirs. What could be better publicity than having hundreds of (mostly) well-dressed middle class women jumping and screaming upon seeing your product?clip_image004

I have obviously watched more than one of the “Favorite Things” episodes, and the excitement is contagious. Even though I logically know that I will not be getting any of the stuff for free, and that I am watching one long commercial (with commercial breaks, no less), there is something thrilling about new getting stuff…even watching others get new stuff. It’s hard not to want to join the party.

Oprah has also aired many programs about families in debt. Typically, she features middle to upper-middle class married couples with children who have over-consumed their way into serious debt. Their challenge is to see that life is about more than having lots of things that make them look “successful,” but that true happiness comes from within and not having lots of stuff.

But according to the authors of The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt (which include Harvard Law Professor and occasional Oprah show guest Elizabeth Warren), 91% of people who file for bankruptcy has suffered a job loss, medical event, or divorce, not a shopping spree. Half of bankruptcy filers do so because of a serious illness; according to a recent study, 41% of middle-income families spent at least part of 2005 (the most recent year in the study) with no health insurance. As health care costs continue to rise, this percentage is also likely to increase.

Americans are thus encouraged to consume things that they didn’t know they even wanted, and yet they are warned about the consequences of listening too closely to calls to go shopping. The shows about families in debt typically cast them as at best mathematically challenged, and at worst superficial. But really they represent the contradictions of our culture of consumption. When happiness is sold as having something new, looking better (through purchasing new clip_image008clothes or cosmetic procedures), and living in an expensive neighborhood, a debt-ridden family is the rule rather than the exception.

On the show about freegans, Oprah herself noticed the contradictory messages about consumption: while the show was about people finding meaning in their lives by working less and consuming less, the commercial breaks encouraged consuming more. Yes, of course this is the purpose of advertising, which pays for “free” programming. But it makes buying more and more stuff seem natural.

In the grand scheme of things, we are all consumers and need to keep consuming. Most of us don’t grow our own food or make our own clothes or soap or paper or other basic goods. I personally will probably not be getting into the trash for my groceries or furniture. But the freegan message is an important one: even if we are part of the world of consumption, it doesn’t have to rule our lives. I think we can be more conscious, critical consumers. What do you think?

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Comments

It's worth pointing out that freeganism can only exist in a consumer-driven capitalist culture. If grocery stores weren't there to discard food, consumers to get rid of old clothes and furniture, and so forth, no one could scavenge for these things.

America didn't invent capitalism, but we've taken it to a new level. The ease of getting credit, savvy marketing, lots of TV-watching, the idea of "keeping up with the Joneses," and other factors have all combined to create a perfect storm of relentless consumption.

And thank you for pointing out the contradictions inherent in spending your tax stimulus check. My check will go toward savings, investments, and possibly grad school! :)

The everyday exposure to marketing and media messages never ceases to amaze me. Yesterday I saw an ad for a local restaurant incorporated into the design of the public toilet. We can't even escape advertising in those private moments.

And whether or not you spend the stimulus check, the economy will eventually benefit. The more you deposit (invest) into a bank, the more they can lend out because of the reserve and money multiplier. Availability of funds, and thus lower interest rates, eventually encourages consumers to borrow and develop, thus stimulating the economy.

These days, many people are conscious when they consuming. Even if they are middle class person in society, they try to buy a house in Rich group and they followed richer’s trends. These over consuming are cause increase the debt. We need to spend their status. When you are going to buy something, you need to think deliberately. These days, the global economy is going to recession. We have to save more money and prepare the recession of economy. Finally, advertisements are going to more fascinate and aggresive. even if that products are looks good, you need to control your passion.

In this article in particular, I believe it is exceedingly important to distinguish between the authors main points and her feelings toward this imperative issue of waste and consumption in America. The author feels it is important to point out that Americans who are participating in the trend of over consuming are not being conscious and practical spenders in the long run.
Controlling your passion and personal interests product wise is extremely important in an expanding society. If we are over consuming and not giving back to the economy, we are doing ourselves and the rest of the country a huge disfavor. As much as shows like Oprah Winfrey's are attractive and seductive, a huge distinction needs to be made. Just because Oprah doesn't have a worry in the world and can spend as much as she'd like whenever she'd like, doesn't mean most American spenders are like that. Since our economy is going into a recession, it is important that all Americans are quite conscious of how they are spending their hard earned money. Being frugal has never been more important in our country, and hopefully everything will get back to normal shortly.

"...hopefully everything will get back to normal shortly." Hmmm, what exactly is "normal"? Ever increasing consumption? It's not sustainable. We never really connect the dots do we? The thing we are consuming is the planet itself. Our resource (i.e. THE PLANET) is NOT infinite. Never-ending economic growth is an oxymoron. We will all eventually realize that ultimately we have to consume less.

"If we are over consuming and not giving back to the economy, we are doing ourselves and the rest of the country a huge disfavor." I'm not sure I fully understand what this means? Are you referring to the Freegans, who are consuming, but not contributing? I wouldn't say that Freegans are "over consuming", but I do agree that Freegans can only exist because they're living in a capitalist society that over consumes and wastes vasts amounts.

I'm as baffled as everyone else really. I can understand that we have limited resources and that my lifestyle (even though I try to incorporate green elements) is not sustainable and I don't want to only work and consume, but I don't know how to not be a consumer. What's the first step?

Advertising is everywhere. Billboards, on the internet, outside your house, in the magazine or newspaper. We live in a consumer driven society, were the very talented marketing people keep coming up with new ideas to make us buy their products. There is a certain excitement about buying new products. You open up the box for your new video game console, and
happiness rushes through your body like a small dose of adrenaline. You block out everything else around you, and the mind becomes extra focused, like if you are taking a exam.
So living a Freegan lifestyle is very hard for people, they are raised believing that consuming is a big part of life, and for most people it is. “Freeganism” Can only exist in a capitalist culture.
How far will we let these advertisers go? They put menus on our doors, notes and invitations on peoples cars, the phone calls, and let’s not forget the advertising emails that they send out.

How much can we allow? It feels like they are trying to brainwash us with all this, and what can we do about it? If we choose to consume a lot, then we help out the country’s economy. But if we do consume to much, we are not helping ourselves get out of debts.
I consider myself a big consumer, but next semester I am going to take my fathers advice and invest in stocks & bonds.

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