Building an Economy Beyond Consumerism

Katherine Trebeck, Global Research Policy Adviser, Oxfam GB

The starting point: a flawed economic model?

It seems we are now entering a period of diminishing marginal benefit – if not increasing harm – from the sort of growth currently sought by most mainstream political parties and media. In most advanced industrial countries median wages have stagnated and while inter-national inequality is declining, intra-national inequality is increasing: ‘nations are growing closer, and classes are growing apart’.

Not only are too many people hurting from such levels of inequality; the sort of economic growth many countries have pursued for several decades now risks the sustainability of our planet. We have exceeded four of nine planetary boundaries: 83% of the world’s people are now living in countries using more resources than their countries can renew. No wonder Kenneth Boulding once warned: ‘Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist’.

Our current economic model seems based on planned obsolesce, advertising and consumerism. Accentuated by inequality, it propels us to become frantic consumers – away from what really makes us feel we’re living a life that is worthwhile. More consumption is encouraged by many politicians, businesses and of course advertisers. This is why we still see people chasing more things, working longer hours to do so.

So where to?

To create an economy in which we grow what really matters and reduce the size and influence of toxic and harmful pursuits we need to shift our gaze away from narrow confines of economic development (so often distilled into incremental increases in GDP). We need to re-focus on broader, more humane and sustainable goals.

Not growth carte blanche, but neither unthinking degrowth. As Herman Daly said: ‘[We need an] economics of maintenance, qualitative improvements, sharing, frugality, and adaptation to natural limits. It is an economy of better not bigger’.

This means a serious shift in how we do, see, use, and portray consumption. Fortunately, nearly two thirds of people believe that as a society we need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations. But translating this intention for society into actions for each individual is much more challenging.

What needs to change?

Part of this is a shift in how we use products: cherishing and repairing what we have and focusing on experiences rather than ownership of items. This entails focusing on non-material dimensions of fulfilment via increased consumption of services, alongside improvement in quality rather than quantity of consumption. This is about lifestyle changes that break the perceived connection between consumption and wellbeing.

It also entails reducing the environmental impact of consumption (via, for example, the circular economy). And Simms and Potts propose a ‘new materialism’ which requires high labour input via re-use, recycling, and re-purposing. A labour intensive craft economy alongside high technology base can enable a shift from a consumer society to a producer society – but production that is done collaboratively and locally (often via ‘prosumers’).

To get there a range of immediate shifts are needed:

  • On the demand side, non-work activities need to be appealing and accessible so people are enabled and encouraged to undertake non-consumption activities. Opportunities for this include events and spaces to build communities (alternatives to shopping: dance halls rather than shopping malls). This requires safe cities; affordable public transport; clean parks; community facilities etc.
  • On the supply side of things, products should be durable, repairable, have no inbuilt obsolescence, and be of high quality so they are worth not just appreciating and repairing, but handing down.

The biggie: inequality and consumerism

But, perhaps most importantly is a concerted effort to address wider drivers of consumption – the insecurity and status anxiety spawned by growing levels of inequality.

Inequality (and associated polarisation of the labour market) pushes people away from activities that meet intrinsic needs and towards materialistic pursuits.

Extrinsic pursuits will never succeed in meeting our intrinsic needs. Materialism works because, well, it doesn’t work. Beyond basic needs, what really provides fulfilment is not more stuff. What really provides fulfilment is spending time with friends, helping others, being in nature, decent work, and having control over one’s life.

So while we might talk of decoupling our fulfilment from consumption, we need to acknowledge that our true fulfilment is already decoupled from consumption, but it is our aspirations that are not.

Tackling over-consumption, the hold consumerism has on our communities, and the way materialism has leached into our lives, requires nothing less than a new economic model. Something that James Robertson once described as the ‘sane, humane, ecological alternative’ to the hyper-expansionist model we currently seem to be stuck in.

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