Capitalism as a concept has become very distorted. What is at heart a very simple idea has, and quite rightly in many cases, been accused of being the root of, if not all, then a significant amount of evil. The problem is probably not the idea itself but that any idea, once filtered through and adapted by people, can usually end up being an excuse for exploitation, prejudice and generally negative behaviour towards other people. Says a lot about us, I think.
The word consumer also has a certain amount of stigma attached to it these days. It is the nature of consumption, not consumption itself, that I think deserves examination.
The problem is excess. It is an imperative to our survival that we consume at least enough to stay alive. Our instinct to survive by consuming as much as we can as often and as fast as we can has evolved in a time where, at least in the developed world, we are as comfortable as we have ever been. A survival instinct honed by the necessity to fight for every meal is sated by the feeding of a different hunger, one that inspires us to accumulate – greed.
In a western society, our worth is judged by how much you have – and more is definitely better.
Large corporations are run and succeed both by utilising the motivation created by their own greed, and exploiting the greed inherent in their customers. The nature of value to a consumer is judged not so much by need but by desire. Our needs are very simple, but our desires rule our lives. And have become, in some sense, our reason for existing.
We give too much meaning to things that are meaningless, continually trying to grasp at happiness through material accumulation. If we are being fulfilled by this pursuit, however, is this enough? The process or journey experienced in achieving a worthless object can still be said to have worth. And worthless objects can have worth instilled in them through their association with our own lives, as a conduit for memory. We all have keepsakes from our past that no longer have a place in our everyday lives but have worth for what they may represent for us.
Consumerism can also be socially responsible if the consumer has an awareness of the nature of their consumption. The success of businesses founded on empowering the socially disadvantaged are testament to this.
There are no excuses these days for not knowing where a product has come from and what it means. We have more information available to us now than we ever have, and the ability to use this information to make informed social choices. I buy coffee because I like to drink it, and I will always buy it for this fact. For whatever reason, my desire of this product has become no longer a choice but a need. What kind of coffee I choose to buy is a choice I believe I still have the power to make. I can choose to buy regular coffee or I can choose to buy Fair Trade coffee, knowing that either will equally satisfy my desire to drink it but that one will arguably have a greater social benefit than the other. So the act of me satisfying what is, at heart, an unnecessary and selfish desire suddenly has a much wider social context. My role as a consumer can actually help people.
I guess what it comes down to is balancing our desires as consumers and making informed choices about what we consume and the impact it has on the rest of the world. For too long, parts of the planet have been decimated and destroyed simply to satisfy our demand for objects we don’t actually need. We can each start to make up for that a little by becoming aware of the things we buy and where they come from without necessarily giving up the desire for those things. We have more choice than ever before, and with choice comes power. As a wise man once said, with great power comes great responsibility. Use it wisely.