We are surrounded by things. And we are constantly bombarded by ads to buy more things, whether it’s an ad before your YouTube video, a billboard on your way to work, or a jingle on the radio. Articles by top publications come with the disclaimer that they are not news, but “native advertising,” and blockbuster movies sometimes feel like little more than an extended television commercial with lingering shots of Coke cans, cellphones, and car logos as the hero races through a downtown metropolis.
At the same time, there is a growing awareness of the cost of this kind of constant consumption. One salient example is the trash “islands” (some bigger than countries) floating in the oceans. The effect on our social and economic lives can be felt, as well. Globally, we are seeing the largest gaps between the wealthy and the poor since the 1920s.
How is technology impacting consumer culture? What is the difference between acceptable/harmless luxury and excess? Where do we draw the moral line with consumption? Believe it or not, humans have been debating these very issues for centuries. Matt Erlin, a professor of German, and Heidi Kolk, the associate director of American culture studies, examine two moments in time—18th century Germany and contemporary America—to explore how human consumption has changed over time and whether today’s cry of “treat yourself” is really novel at all.
Consumer Trends of the Past
Knowing what modern American consumer culture looks like, it’s tempting to look back at earlier eras as “simpler” times. However, the debates over how much consumption is too much and which types of consumption are more ethical, or “right,” than others are centuries, if not millennia old. Matt Erlin wrote about just these topics in his book Necessary Luxuries: Books, Literature, and the Culture of Consumption in Germany, 1770–1815.
We must start by first acknowledging that, for a time, consumer practices of the past were actually regulated by law and social rank. Sumptuary laws, which can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome, restricted what people could own and consume based on their rank. “There were certain kinds of consumption that were limited to the nobility,” Erlin says. “For example, only the nobility was allowed to wear swords in public in Germany.”
The 18th and early 19th centuries are fascinating, says Erlin, because these laws were on the decline and consumption shifted away from being based exclusively on social rank. Part of this was due to the greater availability of exotic consumer goods—coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, spices, and textiles—through increased international trade and increased production in these early days of the Industrial Revolution. Though the vast majority of the population (the peasantry) continued to live in poverty and scarcity, the middle classes were beginning to see a little more discretionary income.
“There’s a lot of discussion at the time about cultural consumption like spending all of your money on the theater, books, or fashion,” Erlin says. "There’s also a fair amount of discussion of the new kinds of foods and drinks that are available. Complaints of people drinking too much coffee or eating too many sweets.”
A lot of it boiled down to concern about people living above their station, he says. “That makes sense given that, previously, lifestyles and modes of consumption were supposed to reflect a person’s position in the social hierarchy. The new situation leads to a lot of handwringing, both among the middle classes and the nobility, about whether it's appropriate for this person to be dressing this way and strolling in that park on Sunday, seeking to perform some kind of identity that that does not reflect who they really are.”
Luxury or Excess?
Of the major thinkers of the European Enlightenment, virtually all of them had something to say about luxury: Voltaire, David Hume, Adam Smith. Bernard Mandeville wrote The Fable of the Bees and essentially argued an early version of the “greed is good” argument, which caused a bit of a scandal. Jean-Jacques Rousseau authored his famous Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, which essentially associated the arts and sciences with moral corruption and the decline of society. The central points of contention were: (1) are certain forms of extravagance good? Or are they all bad? And (2) if some forms of excess are good, then how much and what forms are appropriate?
“Advocates of luxury used certain vocabularies to justify certain kinds of behaviors, or forms of consumption, that might previously have been considered extravagant or corrupting,” Erlin says. “People start to think about things like ‘refinement’ and ‘cultivation,’ whereas detractors often adopt the language of addiction for these behaviors. They try to make distinctions between the kinds of discretionary consumption that can be considered tasteful, refined, and cultivated, and those that can be considered simply excessive or extravagant. Defining that line was a big point of contention.”
Erlin boils the debate down to this: “The question is how we can justify expenditures on things that aren't really necessary. And whether we can agree on a definition of what ‘necessary’ actually means.”
“People develop all kinds of legitimation strategies. Already in the 18th-century (and I'm not saying that these strategies aren't valid, but it's just interesting to think about), the cultivation of the self, or development of one's personality, can be used to justify all kinds of seemingly unnecessary expenditures,” Erlin says. “Buying organic foods is a contemporary example of premium prices being paid for consumer goods because they tie into some notion of self-improvement (health) or sustainable farming. They are a luxury. Again, that doesn't mean it's not valid; it's just interesting to think about how we legitimate our chosen expenditures. For some, it’s a fancy car; for others, it’s clothes, or food.”
Books: The Focal Point of the 18th-century Debate
In the days of Amazon, the Kindle, and free two-day shipping, it’s hard to imagine books as a form of luxury; but that’s just what they were in the 18th century. Books were expensive. Though they were becoming more readily available than the when scribes hand-lettered and illuminated manuscripts of pages made out of sheep skin, a book would have been a major expenditure for a middle-class reader of the period. Many paid a monthly fee to join lending libraries in order to get access to more books than they could have purchased. But beyond the monetary expense, many worried that books caused other forms of personal excess.
“In the 18th century, there was a lot of concern about the effect of literature, in particular, on the imagination. Fears that it would lead to overwrought sensibilities and a runaway imagination,” Erlin says. “Luxury, at this time, can also be understood as an extravagant behavior.” People feared that mothers would neglect their children and households in order to read novels. Reading was perceived as a threat to family and other social units. “Literature and the arts became the focal point for these questions about what is an appropriate use for discretionary income or leisure time,” he says.
"Reading generates these fantasies about who you might be able to be. Aside from the expenditures to buy books, it's also seen to give rise to this kind of fantasy life that then leads to additional expenditures,” Erlin explains. While this might sound a little silly, consider the language around video games, social media, and virtual reality today.
In the 21st century, these arguments around reading as a luxury have more or less dissipated. “Today, we might actually say that one of the values of reading and the humanities is they foster things like fantasy and imagination that don’t necessarily get fostered otherwise,” Erlin says, “and that has some value for the development of a well-functioning individual. But I think it’s important to look back and realize that there was a whole evolution of a discussion around culture as something which is a luxury and yet, at the same time, is a very important and legitimate source of expenditure.”
Consumption as Identity: A Centuries Long Tradition
Like it or not, consumption is a way to craft an identity, and this has always been the case. What we own, what we wear, all that becomes a part of how we broadcast to the world who we are, our social rank, and what’s important to us. Even if you make the decision to avoid certain types of consumption, the system accommodates that sort of protest. Like, if you decide you don’t like Nike’s labor practices, so you decide to buy shoes from TOMS. This is still consumption as identity.
Turning to contemporary American culture, Heidi Kolk and her students start with this premise of consumption as identity in her course “The Cultural Lives of Things.” Drawing from many different fields including philosophy, history, anthropology, and marketing, the class serves as an introduction to material culture. The students explore our relationship to objects and consumerism through case studies. “I really want them to examine the forces at work in the culture that invite them to attach certain value and meaning to certain objects,” she says.
One early case study considers how changes in marketing in the 20th century move towards embracing this idea of consumption as identity. Kolk has her students look at a Sears & Roebuck catalogue from 1898, which is crammed with textual information and graphics showing the products. “It's very detailed in its accounting of product specifications,” she says, inviting consumers to explore new possibilities for consumption. But today's advertising isn't just a list of specs and features; it's narrative-based.
Kolk says, “You don't have to go very far into the 20th century to start to see the advertising shift to sophisticated narratives about the products and the associated lifestyles that go with them.”
Exceptional American Consumerism
Since humans have been consuming materials since the dawn of time and across the globe, and expressing their identity through their consumption, why does modern America in particular seem to be associated with consumerism and commercialism?
Kolk explains, “Part of the reason those are such persuasive arguments is that the evolution of the country's political universe is bound up pretty closely with the history of capitalism. Because innovations and technological shifts that accompanied late-industrial capitalism have driven so much of the American economy and its sense of self, consumerism has always been intertwined with our national self-concept.”
Americans business leaders, like Henry Ford, have also had a very strong influence on the commoditization of everyday life. “Ford had a powerful role in the dissemination of not just the automobile, but the consumer culture that was part and parcel of the industry,” Kolk says. “In some ways, it became indistinguishable from mass culture.” In the 20th century, politicians also began to use consumer culture as a metaphor for citizenship, except that it wasn’t all just a figure of speech, she says. “They built consumption into the very fabric of economic policies governing homeownership and wealth distribution” further entrenching consumerism in American culture.
Not to mention the fact that Americans use far more than their fair share of natural resources. Though we are only 5% of the world’s population, we use almost a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources. If everyone consumed like Americans, it would take 4.5 Earths to keep up. The American Dream itself is a dream of material wealth, says Kolk. “The rags-to-riches phenomenon defines success by the ability to access more purchasing power and more visible signs of wealth,” she says. “Those are salient to the everyday cultural experience even when we're critical of them.”
The Anti-Consumer...er, well, The Refined Consumer
Today the debates over the line between luxury and excess continue—just rebranded. Recent trends include Marie Kondō’s best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organization, capsule wardrobes, and tiny houses.
“There's a sort of ‘ethical consumerism’ that is all about discrimination between good and bad consumption,” says Kolk, “which often looks like spending less or being more refined in one's choices. But at the end of the day, ‘selective consumption’ is still consumption. You’re still obsessing over the perfect shirt to complete your capsule wardrobe, or the perfect chair for your living room.”
She hopes to dig further into the ‘ethical consumerism’ this semester with her students. “Does recycling improve or affect our sense of consumer ethics? Or does it just become an alibi for a different kind of heightened consumption?” she asks. “Does secondhand shop consumption represent a true repurposing, or does it just add a new layer of a different kind of consumer object, which we have even less of an obligation to because it was already used before we got it?” She plans for students to document their own trash for one week, and by this means, to evaluate their consumption habits.
The Problem with Modern Consumption: Waste. Lots and Lots of Waste.
While we still continue to communicate self-identity through consumption and while we’re still trying to find that ethical line about what types of consumption is acceptable and how much, we are facing a new, unique problem for our consumption habit in contemporary America. Disposability and waste. Americans alone created 254 million tons of trash in 2013, according to the EPA, and that year was not an anomaly. This adds a new layer to the debate between luxury and excess.
Kolk has spent the last few years studying the Campbell House Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, a house museum that enshrines the bulk of the possessions of an upper-class family who moved into the house when it was new in the 1850s. To modern eyes, the Campbell House seems to epitomize Victorian excesses and conspicuous consumption. It is crammed full of objects, many with highly specialized functions. But in fact historically, wealthy people such as the Campbells who “overconsumed” in this way, she says, were also very committed to the care and protection of their objects (by servants). They would pass them down as heirlooms, or donate them to museums. “Most of us don’t do that anymore,” Kolk says. “To say the least.”
Visiting the museum shows her students a wholly different relationship to material life than their own. It also invites consideration of why keeping old things like this house and its contents around as ‘heritage’ has been important to subsequent generations of St. Louisans, the subject of Kolk’s forthcoming book on material culture and memory.
By stark contrast, our relationship to our own possessions is often a passing one. When we’re done with it, “we hand our stuff to Goodwill, or put it out on the curb, assuming somebody will come along and reclaim it. Have you ever walked around your neighborhood on bulk trash pick-up day? I’ve seen perfectly good rocking chairs, furniture, toys, and electronics, all just left out on the curb. Somebody else’s problem now,” she says.
Why are we comfortable with disposing of these objects so easily? “I think there's a growing distance between our everyday experience and the production that generates the objects,” Kolk surmises. “Since we are distanced from that, we don't have an obligation to the people who made it, or the materials that were necessary to produce it. We’re ambivalent about them.”
The Effects of ‘Disposability’
Many of the objects we now use in our everyday life have now been developed to be ‘disposable’: coffee lids, plastic cutlery, straws, plastic wrap, food packaging, menstrual products, batteries, cellphones, and on and on. “When you look at those things up close, you realize how much care was taken in designing them, and that they served a very specific function even if they have a short lifespan,” Kolk says.
In an increasingly digital world, Kolk does see a potential psychological connection to our consumption. “As our lives and social interactions become more mediated by a device, the sense of precariousness of our relationships becomes more and more profound. So the tangible objects of our everyday existence become consoling in new ways,” she says. “They ground us in ways that we might not be able to fully articulate.”
While this theory seems to refute our culture’s love of the disposable, Kolk thinks disposability offers a distinct modern kind of comfort. “Disavowing the responsibility of ownership gives us a sense of control and power over the material world. Choosing to keep, or choosing not to keep, are curiously empowering acts. People talk about cleaning their basements in this way, right? That I'm taking control of my world. That I can really free myself. Free myself from the obligation of doing something about my own consumer habits.”
“This is what I think when I see all the bulk trash out there on the curb. If you make it go away, then you are no longer responsible for the behavior that led to its arrival in your house in the first place,” Kolk says.
Because, in reality, all these things don’t disappear. They do go somewhere, like the landfill, where it the plastic will sit for thousands of years without breaking down; or the ocean, where it will join the trash islands and poison marine life. This level of waste adds a new dimension to the old moral debate between luxury and excess. The world is actually now facing a trash crisis, so perhaps it’s time that we, as consumers, looked hard at our habits, at the true cost of our consumption and disposability, and whether we can express our identity in more sustainable ways.