I ran and spoke at "Workshop 7: Changing Behaviour (the Psychology of Consumerism)"
I prepared a paper in advance; and, after the presentation and the workshop, amended the paper for inclusion as a chapter in the report of proceedings.
Here it is.
Chapter 10: Enough Materialism
“How can a ‘mass behaviour of enoughness’ be brought about?”
— David Fell (Workshop Speaker)
Consumer spending typically accounts for about two thirds of economic activity in industrialised economies. As such, consumer behaviour strongly influences the behaviour of the entire economy. Under the current system, consumer spending and economic growth are inextricably linked — increasing consumption spurs the economy to get bigger, with all the accompanying side effects.
The character of consumer spending has evolved since the mid-18th century. Contemporary “consumerism” — a social norm that gives pre-eminence to “consuming” rather than “doing,” “being” or “producing” — emerged in the 1960s and is widely seen as a dominant driver of behaviour by individuals, corporations and governments.
Since Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in the late 19th century consumerism has been the subject of continuous critique by economists and social scientists. The negative consequences of consumerism, as outlined by David Fell in his [work on] the 'economics of enough' can be summarised as follows:
- It is a behavioural paradigm (“more”) that is fundamentally inconsistent with the finite quantity of material resources on the planet;
- It is a behavioural norm comprising an unsustainable “hedonic treadmill”. No matter how fast individuals run toward happiness and fulfilment, they are always one step away, a setup that may contribute to widespread mental ill-health;
- It co-creates and reinforces systemic inequality both within and between nations and communities.
Given the negative consequences of consumerism, the challenge is to create an alternative model of consumption in which the vast majority of citizens are routinely choosing “enough” rather than “more”. Hence, “enough” would become an inherent feature of a new value set that would drive positive changes, such as reduced resource consumption, improved psychological well-being, and greater equality. Such a revolutionary change in values — and it is a revolution rather than a series of incremental adjustments to the prevailing orthodoxy — is unlikely to happen quickly or easily, given the forces lined up against it and the anxieties that will inevitably arise about such a transformation.
In summary, the challenge is to seek ways to instigate a shift to a “mass behaviour of enoughness.”
It is no simple task to bring about a “mass behaviour of enoughness.” To understand the proposals that follow, it is worth analysing the context of this behavioural shift.
The revolutionary change in values envisaged would be enacted within an economic system which is complex, open and dynamic — a system in which the objectives of institutions and groups are not fixed but are, in large part, emergent properties. Social norms can be conceptualised as the emergent properties of social groups, and they are enormously powerful determinants of behaviour. The contemporary social norm of consumerism is one (powerful) set of emergent properties that dictates significant behaviours for many individuals in industrialised economies.
Not all behaviours, however, are subject to this social norm. Older people, for example, often spend less of their income on “things” and more on “experiences,” which tend to have a lower material impact. In addition, increasing numbers of people, either as individuals or as groups, choose to live “downshifted” lifestyles or choose to live “off-grid.”
This context (consisting both of norms that emerge from social groups and of pockets of people already possessing a value set consistent with the desired model of consumption) contains the starting point for bringing about a “mass behaviour of enoughness.” The main proposal offered by David Fell in the Workshop on Changing Behaviour is for a rapid diffusion of new values through the manifold networks that comprise contemporary society. Such an exercise would be system-wide and would entail multiple points of influence, many of which would be beyond the remit of government. Some mechanisms which would help make this proposal a reality include:
· Influential individuals: Influential individuals occupy pivotal positions in social networks and are key figures in the processes by which new social norms emerge and diffuse through those networks. Such individuals need to be recruited as agents of change.
· Community activism: Organisations with objectives that challenge or contradict consumerism need to be supported and encouraged, both to expand their membership and to transmit their values and insights to the wider community.
· Promotion of alternative hedonism: Innovative media outlets can promote the benefits of non-materialistic lifestyles to specific target groups in a proactive manner.
· Enabling new forms of institutions: A particular role for the state lies in creating the enabling infrastructure in which new forms of corporate and civic entities can emerge. Examples include organisations that manage assets for the purpose of delivering long-term well-being to asset owners, rather than delivering short-term financial returns to managers (e.g. land use planning, innovative taxation arrangements, and new classes of legal vehicles).
· Overcoming resistance: Resistance to the scale and type of change implied is sure to come from large corporations and the state. Mechanisms to overcome that resistance (e.g. consumer boycotts, support for new forms of enterprise, organised media campaigns, political lobbying, etc.) needs to be developed and enacted.
Workshop participants expressed broad agreement that the mechanisms for behavioural change outlined in the proposal provide a solid start, but they also felt that, in some cases, it is necessary to examine more deeply the root causes of the problems raised by consumerism. As one participant put it, “It is not enough to bring about change at the level of fashion.”
Four main themes ran through the discussion and characterised potential paths to develop the proposal further: (1) values, (2) motivation, (3) dealing with power, and (4) visualisation of change. These are explored below:
· Values: There is an implied acceptance across most of society that the self-seeking, individualistic values which form the backdrop to consumerism are reasonable and necessary. Part of this acceptance has been brought about by an evolution from community-based values to individualistic ones. This trend needs to be reversed. There was a very strong feeling in the workshop that people could and should take a personal stand. As one participant said, “We need to set an example by living our values and rejecting unnecessary consumer items — otherwise we lack the moral authority to inspire change. We need to be aware of the importance of our prophetic voice.”
· Motivation: Motivation is key to the process of behavioural change. People who are happiest are those who have intrinsic motivation and inner contentment. There needs to be a greater focus on the positive image of the alternative life and a demonstration that a consumer lifestyle is deadening and boring. Consumerism only appeals to some of the core human motivations (hedonism, status, achievement). Love, connectedness, friendship, spirituality and creativity are equally powerful sources of motivation, and it is crucial to tap into these.
· Dealing with power: There is an urgent need to curtail the power of large corporations and the media, both of which exercise so much control over people’s lives. It is important not to underestimate this power, which often resorts to subtle and even subliminal methods. Bankers, advertisers and manufacturers, however, are simply responding to consumer demand (including demand they create themselves). The shift needs to originate from people’s personal values, and from understanding the “mass infantilisation” programme to which the public is subjected. Such a shift requires greater awareness of communication methods, persuasion, and psychology.
· Visualisation of change: Alternative hedonism is an attractive concept. People need to be able to visualise what a sustainable lifestyle looks like in concrete terms. Celebrities can be helpful in providing highly visual role models, but celebrity culture is also part of the problem. As one participant exclaimed, “We should recognise that we can be the influential individuals. We don’t have to ‘buy in’ to celebrity!”
It is possible to use existing networks and leading-edge projects to elicit change. There are opportunities for change within our work places and local communities. The Transition Towns Movement is an effective approach; it has captured many people’s imaginations and catalysed the formation of new social groups. If politicians see change happening on a sufficient scale, they will be under pressure to respond. Potential also exists for initiatives connected with a shorter working week and a citizens’ income to contribute significantly to a different way of thinking about consumption.
In the light of the proposals presented to the workshop, and the subsequent discussion, the following “arenas for action” were highlighted as worthy of further exploration:
· Taking a strong personal stand, based on non-consumer values and motivations;
· Community activism based on local initiatives to develop alternatives to mass consumerism, either by buying less, producing locally, or boycotting mass consumer outlets;
· Putting pressure on local and national government through specific lobbying campaigns;
· Influencing institutional culture (for example through places of work) to change patterns of consumerism in large and medium sized organisations (with the National Health Service as a prime potential candidate);
· Influencing professional practice (again within the workplace, especially those with ‘levers’ in society like law firms); and
· Systematic use of the power of consumer pressure to influence manufacturers and the media.
The main obstacle identified was one of complexity in that big changes in consumer behaviour require massive shifts at a personal level and a societal level. Hence the questions for ongoing investigation can be categorised into the same themes that spanned the discussion and reflect the need for dealing with this complexity at both a micro and a macro level.
Answering these questions will be a crucial step, but the journey of transitioning from the value of “more” to the value of “enough” can get underway with other steps. Ample approaches for diffusing ideas through existing social networks are available — we simply have to put one foot in front of the other.