Christmas blog 2017: Consumption that counts
December is the ultimate month of consumption. It is also a period of reflection. My Christmas blog this year relates to both.
Material consumer goods that indicate who we are and what our social status is have been a social phenomenon for centuries. How we dress, where we live, what we eat – they all determine who we are and who we want to be, the social group we want to belong to, and from whom we can – or want to – distinguish ourselves. The American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) wrote The theory of the leisure class in 1899, about the wealthy people of the time who deliberately squandered their time and money on idleness and luxury, with the reasoning that – in the words of Veblen – ‘in order to effectually mend the consumer’s good fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities’ (only superfluous expenditure can increase the consumer’s status). Veblen introduced a term that is still used today to describe this snobbish extravagance and wastefulness for the purposes of status distinction: conspicuous consumption. He took a critical view of it.
How different might his judgement have been of the elite of today’s consumption culture as typified by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett? Her book The sum of small things: A theory of the aspirational class (2017) can be read as an update. In the evolved consumer society, the ‘idle’ class of Veblen has made way for the ‘aspirational class’. This aspirational class has a different take on today’s consumerism. They focus on ‘consumption that counts’. In contrast with Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, the emphasis today is on inconspicuous consumption and conspicuous production.
Leaving conspicuous consumption behind
With the term ‘inconspicuous consumption’ Currid-Halkett refers to the urge of the aspirational class to take good care of themselves and their children, both physically and mentally. This is expressed in the money, time and effort invested in education, courses and lessons. The aspirational class wants to grow intellectually, conditionally, emotionally and spiritually. Education, yoga, boot camps, music lessons and holiday travels are used productively to become a ‘better’ person. The aspirational class has moved past conspicuous consumption as a distinguishing strategy. In other words, this elite is less about social climbers (wanting to improve their position in the world) and more about strivers (wanting to improve the world).
The latter leads directly to ‘conspicuous production’. In particular, this results in the expression of the world-improving do-gooder nature of the aspirational class. Conspicuous production is about the way in which consumer goods are produced – the story behind them and, very importantly, the values that they represent. It is not the final consumer product itself but the production method that is the simultaneously subtle and prominent status symbol. This is a pretty relevant matter where food is concerned. Currid-Halkett is also aware of this and refers to the interest of the aspirational class in visiting the organic supermarket, the farmers’ market, the trendy little restaurant or the vegetarian food truck. The aspirational class eats the way they want to be (‘You are what you eat’). This is put into practice through a preference for food that is healthy and of good quality as well as being produced fairly and with respect for animals and the environment. Their consumption represents a significant proportion of the demand of the market for sustainable food. A sense of connection with the production methods, the producer and/or the supplier and their values is considerably more important for conspicuous production than price, convenience or outward show. Following on from this, the recently published Verbindend ondernemen (Dutch) explicitly addresses the significance of values in today’s economy and responsible entrepreneurship. Another concept similar to conspicuous production as described by Currid-Halkett is process value, introduced a number of years ago and also relating to the practices and processes behind food production.
Money can’t buy happiness
The yearning of the aspirational class for a better version of themselves, their children and the world in general are key markers for this age. Clear examples of this are the key concepts of the new Dutch cabinet: ambition, taking opportunities and education. These are reflected in the modern and status-raising character of the well-to-do who donate large sums of money to good causes. Patronage and philanthropy are common among the wealthy, and doing good has displaced the desire of ‘possession’. In today’s aspirational class, we see living proof that once a person has got above a certain standard of living, happiness can no longer be bought in the form of more things and more beautiful things (material consumption), as also demonstrated in research. The aspirational class is characterised by the conviction that the happiness, good fortune and status of yourself and your loved ones is primarily determined by non-material matters (experiential consumption).
If we don’t allow the elitist element in this attitude to life to get in the way, the aspirational class points us towards enjoying non-material things this Christmas. We can encourage ourselves and others to continue to do our best to improve ourselves and the world in general in 2018.