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Commentary: The Season of Stuff

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 27, 2010 - Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of being part of a panel to discuss The Story of Stuff, a short film on consumerism. The panel was a fundraiser for Missouri Votes Conservation.

If you have not seen the 20-minute film, and chances are you haven't, you really should check it out by clicking on the link above.

The film is narrated by Annie Leonard, who also wrote a book with the same title. She does an effective job of describing what consumerism is doing to the planet and societies all around the world.

Consumerism is not the same thing as consumption. We all have to consume to live in modern society. Long gone are the days when everyone lived self-sufficiently on their own small farms. According to Wikipedia, "Consumerism is a social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase goods or services in even greater amounts."

Consumerism, based on the above definition, is also not synonymous with capitalism. Instead, it is a product of late 20th century marketing and globalization. It is also a more accurate description of the economic order most of the developed world lives in.

Why should we be concerned with consumerism? Simply put, consumerism is economically, environmentally and morally unsustainable. "The Story of Stuff" makes this abundantly clear.

After World War II, America along with the rest of the developed world, made the transition from a producer-based economy to a consumer-based one. Consumerism is predicated on continuous income growth to fuel the spending on consumer goods. However, in the past three decades, while the rich have become considerably richer, the middle-class and lower-income individuals have not see their incomes increase at all.

To keep spending, Americans relied heavily on personal debt. In fact, in 2007, household debt equaled 100 percent of GDP. By comparison, the federal deficit that so many complained about in this year's election, was only 9 percent of GDP, while the national debt was 62 percent.

This state of affairs could not last. Consumer debt crashed as households struggled under massive levels of debt. We are now seeing a contraction in personal debt levels as Americans are trying to quickly shed the debt that took them many years to accumulate.

Consumerism, on the scale practiced by developed countries, is also unsustainable environmentally. The film does an excellent job of showing how manufactured demand and other aspects of production mean that waste is now a structural component of many industries for consumer goods.

Let's look at the sugar industry as one example. Forests have to be cleared to plant sugar and wood or fossil fuel used for processing it. The waste byproducts of production befoul the environment. Meanwhile, the "parallel consumption" of other goods related to sugar including coffee, tea, chocolate, etc. place similar resource demands on the environment.

Finally, the system is unsustainable morally. Increasingly, we are defined as the sum total of the products we buy and not by our character. To keep prices low so that debt-burdened consumers can afford their products, companies have to shift their costs onto workers and the environment. Rather than have goods manufactured in the U.S. with its higher labor costs due to safety and environmental regulations, producers choose to outsource their factories to countries such as China and Guatemala that have no laws governing worker safety and environmental degradation.

What can we do about this? Should we stop consuming?

No, that is both impractical and unnecessary. However, we can all take several concrete steps immediately to loosen the tight grip consumerism has on our society.

First, become more educated about your product options and educate others.

Second, buy more local goods and produce. Try to shop at locally owned stores rather than chains.

Third, support laws that help to mitigate the negative impacts of consumerism.

Fourth, resist the urge to buy the latest computer or other consumer item when the one you have is still working fine.

Robert A. Cropf chairs the Department of Public Policy Studies at Saint Louis University. 

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