Zero Waste SA Research SD+B, University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia
Keywords: consumerism and the environment; history of consumption; custodial consumption.
Abstract: ‘Consumerism’ can be seen as an ideological term referring to a relatively new and contested phenomenon, the advent of mass-consumption and its transformative effects in the twentieth century. Social practices around consumption have changed remarkably over the last century, from what might be termed more restrained and cautious ‘custodial’ forms of consumption, to an expansive individualization, where an accelerated cycle of consumption and discard seems justified in terms of an ongoing process of self-transformation and self-expression.
In this paper I explore some of the key moments and themes in the history of this development from consumption as ‘access’ to consumption as ‘excess’, and suggest that since the social practices of consumption are so dependent on social and material contexts, it seems important to look more closely at this historical process, especially at a time when the many of the contexts that once supported overconsumption are coming under considerable political, social and environmental pressure.
Consumerism can be defined as ‘a state of mind and way of life’ where the individual finds meaning and identity through various activities associated with consumption (Smart, 2010, pp. 8-10). But as the history of the term indicates, it has three other overlapping meanings. The first, dating from the early twentieth century, refers to the politics of consumption, and movements like the Consumer Associations which were formed to protect the rights of the consumer against inferior products and services (Hilton 2003). The second, widely used in the interwar period, refers to the still popular economic doctrine that the production of more consumer goods could lead to employment and a rise in the standard of living (Cohen, 2003). The third, widely used in the turbulent politics of the late 1960s, saw consumerism as an excessive attachment to material goods, and blamed this for many larger societal, political and environmental problems (Smart, 2010). This last meaning is still in popular use today.
As this suggests, consumerism is an ideological term referring to what is a relatively new and contested phenomenon, the advent of mass- consumption and its transformative effects on the individual, society, economy and environment in the twentieth century. The four definitions highlight the tensions in its simultaneous promise of access to basic goods and services, its apparent social inequities, its supposed benefit to the economy and society as a whole, and its increasingly serious environmental impacts (Hilton, 2003).
Consumerism seems an especially problematic term now that we must distinguish between more sustainable forms of consumption supporting pro-environmental practices, and various accelerated and intensive forms of consumption with more negative environmental and social impacts (Dauvergne, 2008).
Acceleration and consumption
Changing social and technological contexts during the second half of the twentieth century have had a dramatic effect on the range of objects and services available for consumption, and the speed with which they can be bought, used and disposed of. The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa suggests that three self- reinforcing, interacting forms of acceleration are now in play globally: the first is an acceleration generated by technological innovation and its application in different domains, the second a ‘social acceleration’ or an increased rate of social change and mobility that this wave of technological innovation has enabled, and the third a more subjective experience of things ‘getting faster’, which is reinforced by the first two forms of acceleration (Rosa, 2003).
Reflecting upon an essay by the philosopher, Herman Lübbe, Rosa considers this more interior experience of acceleration in terms of a ‘contraction of the present’, a narrowing of awareness of time created by these social and technological pressures. We are now forced to respond more immediately to others, juggling conflicting demands at home and at work. This results in our living in a sort of extended present, with only the recent past and near future visible to us (Lübbe, 2008).
While Rosa acknowledges that acceleration is the result of an increasing intensification of economic activity dependent on the expansion of corporate capital, he emphasises that this cannot explain its cultural engine, which he terms a universal ‘eudaemonic impulse’. This is a desire for ‘the good life’ – which I would like to suggest is increasingly made manifest through consumer desire and the choices consumers are daily presented with (Rosa, 2003; and see Dittmar, 2008).
While Rosa hints at the displacement of ‘contemplative time’ through acceleration’s ‘contraction of the present’, I would add that acceleration also displaces or overrides a slower, more secure relationship with goods and services that once characterized ‘normal’ consumption practices in many domains. I term this here ‘custodial consumption’, a more reflective, cautious approach towards all forms of consumption typical of the generation that attained adulthood before the 1940s. Now that we are forced to communicate, read, understand and make decisions more quickly than ever before, our capacity to reflect on what is being decided is clearly diminished (Manzini, 2002).
Individualization in consumption
Many forms of mass-consumption began to intensify and expand following World War Two. This process was led by technological innovations emerging from the War, including the new plastics, electronics and chemical industries, and a dramatic expansion of other older industries, such as car-making (Hilton 2009; Marling, 1998). New forms of consumption developed on the back of this worldwide industrial ‘reconstruction’, including the more widespread adoption of the car and a series of supporting systems that encouraged the further spread of mass-consumption (Schroter, 2005; Soron, 2008).
The belief of Western governments at this time was ‘consumerist’, that increasing the production of consumer goods would increase employment and raise living standards. An added bonus was that increasing domestic consumption could give working people, many of them ex-servicemen, the fruits of prosperity and a greater stake in their own nation’s democracy (Cohen, 2003; Oldenzeil & Zachmann, 2009). The political strategy followed could be summarised as an attempt to democratize ownership, through making housing, cars, appliances and other consumer goods more accessible to more people. However, this strategy began to falter in the late sixties, and came to a head during the oil crisis of the early-1970s (Marwick, 1998; De Grazia, 2005).
The political conflicts that marked the late sixties were both localized and global in their origins: a growing opposition to the Vietnam War, a growing concern with industrial and chemical pollution, and a concern that mass- consumption, supported by corporations tainted by their involvement in the Vietnam War, was creating more problems than it could possibly solve (Binkley, 2007).
A number of important groups supporting this greater democratization and the social and environmental justice it entailed were formed in the late sixties early seventies. Most shared the belief that through ‘consciousness raising’ an authentic individual transformation could occur, and then this could be spread by example to the wider society as a deeper social and political transformation (Binkley, 2007). From this perspective, acts of individual consumption seemed profoundly significant, an individual choice with multiple social, environmental and political effects. The Whole Earth Catalogue is perhaps the most visible representation of this individualistic, decidedly ‘alternative’ consumption movement, where new ways of doing everyday things, of producing and consuming, were canvassed, demonstrated and explained, sometimes in great detail (Binkley, 2003).
The Whole Earth Catalogue not only recommended changes in lifestyle but also the use of ‘alternative’ products and systems (Binkley, 2003). The history of Apple is indicative of how personal computers were initially greeted as one such ‘tool’ for self- development and transformation, with Apple’s famous 1984 advertisement suggestive of the myth of individual liberation and transformation behind this push for an alternative, more self- conscious and liberating form of consumption (Stein, 2002).
Early taken up by Madison Avenue, this type of ‘conscious’ individualization soon dovetailed into the lifestyle marketing and branding now dominant everywhere (Frank, 1998). This promised transformational change, the products and services being sold as a means of material self-realisation. Seeking out new, more stimulating and gratifying experiences in life’s journey of discovery through a changing array of possessions and experiences drew on an ‘emotional ontology’, as Campbell says, where what ‘felt’ good became the necessary ‘proof’ to the consumer of what was needed at any one time (Campbell, 2004).
In contrast, those who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s and endured both the Depression and the War had a very different experience of consumption, which was much more closely tied to seemingly fixed and stable needs. This last generation of ‘custodial consumers’ had learnt to accept the value of ‘waste not want not’ and to ‘make do’ with what they had through the experience of Depression and War. In an essay summarising the implications of her work on the social history of waste, Susan Strasser describes a home-based regime of use and disposal involving extensive reliance on repair and recycling, where most household waste was burnt, often in the kitchen stove, and ash, bone and human wastes collected for reuse for local industries and agriculture (Strasser, 2003).
This was a time when consumption was widely understood as providing ‘access’ to more essential goods and services, and not the pursuit of luxury or ‘excess’ for self- transformation and self-expression, as is now more common (Crocker 2013). This change in focus and style of consumption is reflected to some extent in the history of advertising, where earlier advertising presented products and services as various means to the ‘good life’, whereas later advertising increasingly positions consumption in terms of access to luxury, and as an end in itself (Belk & Pollay 1985).
This more custodial generation also had to be persuaded to accept new technological urban systems such as car-based transportation. While in the late nineteenth century most urban landscapes were largely pedestrianized, with mainly bicycles, buses, trams and horse-drawn carts for the majority to deal with, this changed more rapidly and dramatically between the Wars. After the War changes that had occurred in America favouring the introduction of mass- motoring were imported to Britain, Western Europe, Australia, Canada and South Africa, often involving joint ventures with American partners (Schroter 2005; Patterson, 2000).
The troubled history of various government attempts at disciplining pedestrians to remain on the footpath in response to motorization, nearly all of them very unpopular, is suggestive of how modern individualised systems of mass- consumption evolved slowly, often against considerable popular resistance. Moran, for example, notes that Britain’s once famous Belushi beacons, one of Britain’s first organised attempts at institutionalising pedestrian crossings, suffered from high rates of vandalism as irate pedestrians broke the glass spheres of their flashing lights with airguns or stones. Their outrage was directed at the government’s new expectation that they ‘must’ cross at these beacons, rather than enjoying the freedom of the road as they once had (Moran, 2000).
This now lost world of frugal individual consumption, of strong local relationships and communities, often close-knit and relatively immobile in social and spatial terms, and somewhat ambivalent about their status as ‘consumers’, was slow to change (Strasser, 2003; Moran 2000). ‘Making do’, that is managing to live ‘decently’ with what was available, was a universally admired quality, and ‘good housekeeping’ its prized companion.
My Father’s books
In practice, ‘making do’ involved a custodial consumption where the shame of wastefulness and ‘profligacy’ (once a favourite, semi-biblical word of condemnation) was still felt by many, especially those who had suffered some period of scarcity or hardship.
My father, who was born in 1902, exemplified for me this generation in his rather wary regard of shopping, banking and the use of credit. Although for much of his life he enjoyed a generous income from his work, he was clearly a ‘custodial consumer’ at heart. When he died I remember finding only four pairs of shoes in his house, one of them an old pair of English brogues from the 1950s, probably hand-made in India from an earlier original when he was stationed there after the War. This pair of leather shoes had been meticulously polished and maintained for at least forty years.
His books were another striking example of ‘custodial consumption’. A passionate reader, he amassed around 4000 books over his life, and as far as I can tell, never threw any out, only giving away ones he did not like (Cherrier, 2010). He read everything he owned, and inside the fly-covers of many of his books, especially those most valued ones he had bought as a young man in the 1930s when he had little money, he would write short reflections or comments. Some of these he had read many times, returning to old favourites like Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne, every ten years or so (White , 1932). These books, an extensive collection of classical music in records, and a few water-coloured scenes of the countryside on his walls, preferably without any evidence present of cars, machines or industry, were amongst the few indulgences he spent his money on.
His house was full of references to his own past, and the past of his own family and background, with the furniture all tastefully chosen neo- Georgian style reproductions, that had been popular in the 1920s, with furnishing to match, and almost no references, either visual or material, to the Modernism that so clearly had shaped the modern world. This reference to the past, and its cultural references, was again typical of his generation, who saw in these references a way of asserting their own collective identity, continuity and sense of place (Crocker 2015).
While always careful with his money, my father was still a generous man. He bought his friends fine wines when the occasion seemed to demand it and always entertained well. Loving good quality tea, he insisted on importing Darjeeling from India in small, sweet-smelling wooden boxes, having gained the taste for this in the years he lived there. The idea of teabags horrified him, as did instant coffee. In fact, he also loved good coffee, which he would brew in an old jug, simply hand-grinding the beans and pouring boiling water over them. In his old age he would send me off on regular errands to find an Italian coffee roaster he knew for supplies, long before Australia’s café culture had taken hold.
The custodial nature of his attitudes towards consumption, as for many in his generation, came to exist in an increasingly stark contrast to his neighbours, whom I also got to know as a regular visitor to his house (Mackay, 1997). Like many Australians today, these more typical ‘Baby Boomer’ middle-class consumers were busy working to pay off their debts, renovating their kitchens or bathrooms, going on overseas holidays.
From my father’s point of view, as much as he liked these neighbours, they lacked an awareness of the long-term risks overspending involved. ‘Caveat Emptor’ (‘buyer beware’) was one of his favourite sayings. Much of the waste that ended in their bins was made up of packaging and spoiled food, something my father and most of his generation would have denigrated as ‘bad housekeeping’.
Each week in his bin there was only one small plastic bag of household rubbish, with the cans, bottles and plastics carefully separated and washed. In fact he had grown up at a time when most households had to dispose of their own rubbish, either burning it or burying it, or giving it away to the various collectors that had once been so common (Strasser, 2003). Knowing what to dispose of, and when, for this generation, was again a necessary part of good housekeeping.
My maternal grandparents were very similar in their careful housekeeping and emphasis on quality rather than quantity, and on maintaining what they owned rather than discarding it. Typically, also, at least for those living in Adelaide in the 1940s and 1950s, they grew and preserved most of their own fruit and vegetables, and in my grandfather’s case, made and repaired their own furniture on the weekends. Again they avoided borrowing money. My father had no credit card, and nor, even today, does my now aged mother-in-law. My father would always pay for everything in cash or by cheques, which he would offer to bemused tradesmen and bank tellers.
Contexts and contrasts
Custodial consumption is not a particularly mysterious phenomenon, but a series of linked social practices typical of earlier generations, with the last such generation now mostly gone (Shove 2003). It is often overlooked in our quest for solving the larger problems associated with today’s overconsumption, and assumed to have been simply a condition of relative scarcity on the more significant road to an emerging ‘growth economy’. But this is a mistaken assumption, since what today’s ‘hyper- consumption’ has dislodged from the practices that make up everyday life is highly significant (Lipovetsky, 2011).
While my father’s early life included periods of economic hardship, including of course the Depression and War, the culture of self- conscious thrift associated with it was in fact much older, and once typical in different cultures around the world. My father’s generation also experienced a much less intrusive printed media, and during the War their inherited culture of thrift was praised and valued by government propaganda and rather falsely, in ‘supporting’ advertisements. As this suggests, the social shame which now encourages us to spend to ‘keep up’ with the Joneses, was then deployed to demonstrate one’s care and ‘good housekeeping’ (Dwyer, 2009; Arvidsson ).
My father’s generation enjoyed a more localised economy, where buyers and sellers knew each other, and often too, knew exactly where the goods they bought and sold came from. This now vanished world had fewer cars, and many more systems that required some collaboration and interaction with others, from relying on the tram each day, to helping absent neighbours cope with the milkman’s daily deliveries (Strasser, 2003).
The subsequent post-war ‘Long Boom’ was dominated by an increasing individualization and technologization of mass-consumption, with more and more products introduced into the home and workplace that had short-lived mechanical and electronic parts, from gramophones to washing machines and cars, and later TVs, computers, tablets and mobile phones (Park, 2010; Slade, 2007). These items could not be easily repaired or maintained, and many in the older generation suffered from a relative ignorance of how these things worked.
The intensification and increasing spread of mass-consumption after the 1970s makes Rosa’s theory of ‘acceleration’ particularly relevant here. Computerization and globalization increased not only the speed of communication, but all commercial transactions and the dynamics of consumption itself (Rosa & Schleierman, 2013). The personal computer and mobile phone brought these changes into the lives of the end-users themselves, displacing many of the slower place-based relationships of the past that had sustained older, established practices of custodial consumption. Many independent artisans involved in repair and manufacturing, for instance, ceased trading at this time, and older- style shops closed; milkmen were replaced by trips to the supermarket, and shopping centres opened everywhere (Marling, 1998).
However, many of the historical contexts that supported the growth of this overconsumption are showing some signs of retreat or structural change: after the Great Recession of 2008 the spending power of those in employment, apart from a relatively narrow elite, have fallen; some Malls in America are in trouble or closed; worries about scarce resources and the increasing stringency of environmental regulations have made many corporations more wary of their environmental impacts; ‘down- sizing’ has become fashionable, and second- hand trading has become a lively subculture; and there are more and more schemes involving swapping or sharing goods and services (Seyfang, 2009).
I have tried in this little paper to show how today’s ‘hyper-consumption’ is the product of a unique set of historical circumstances that are once more in a state of change. This is not to say that we are going back to the 1930s, but simply that many of the conditions favouring today’s accelerated growth or ‘throwaway’ economy are in a state of crisis and potentially ready for change. Scarce resources, rising fuel costs, unaffordable real estate, environmental anxieties, unsustainable debt levels, and increasing environmental regulations, can all act as drivers of change, encouraging a return to a more custodial style of consumption, where locality, quality, greater durability, recyclability, and repairability are more valued. Product- service systems, demonstrably better for the environment in many situations, are also enjoying a revival (Roy, 2000).
The new communications and information paradigm and the ability to use large amounts of data to ascertain the environmental impacts of a particular object, component or building, perhaps also encourages us to think in terms of interdependent relationships, and a continuing iterative circle of improvement towards forms of production and consumption that are less intensive and destructive (ENOLL, 2015).
To find a better model it is often more useful to examine what has been discarded on the road to our ‘high consuming’ society, and why, rather than to assume this was simply a ‘stage’ towards our contemporary situation. De- individualising, normalising and making more affordable and accessible less intensive products and services should be the long-term goal of our pro-environmental strategies, and understanding these as a return to an earlier ‘normality’ will assist us in a number of ways. For this provides a rich resource of exemplary practices and pro-environmental systems that could well be revived, especially where they can be enabled by contemporary science and technologies.
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