Can consumer culture be environmentally sustainable?

The following essay was originally written in 2012 as part of the requirements for my second year studying BA Graphic Design.

The first part of this essay will explore and examine the effects of consumerism on current societies where people are indoctrinated into buying what they do not essentially need. (Lawson, 2009) It will also touch on commodities and explain how consumerism has contributed to waste disposal. It will then focus on the concept of sustainability and discuss whether consumer cultures can be environmentally sustainable, and if not, how things can be changed for the better.

Consumerism is not a new idea, it has been in existence since trading of goods began in pre-Roman times and shopping lists have been discovered from as far back as AD 75. In a way, the term consumerism has become connected with everything that people buy, from clothes to holidays, and health care to education. (Lawson, 2009) However, in contemporary culture there is a greater “demand for a wider range of goods” which has resulted in further competition between manufacturers that sell similar products. (Ambrose and Harris, 2009:p44) Consumer culture has made Western societies concerned with “‘having’ rather than ‘being’” (Julier, 2008:p56). Consumption prompts ideological beliefs of how humans should behave or what they should buy, what is good and how people should appear.

Since consumer culture has become a massive part of life for people all over the world, it is now a primary method for both individuals and groups to build their identities. (Julier, 2008) Life, for most people, used to be defined by what employment role they had and how much money they earned, however this definition has now progressed to what people do with the money their work generates. Certain people are now preoccupied with what they buy rather than what they do with their lives. (Lawson, 2009) People are constantly judged by what products they own especially, for example, items of clothing. Clothes in particular, but also other merchandise, indicate status which “also implies the existence of a group for whom a particular commodity has a particular meaning.” (Miles, Anderson and Meethan, 2002:p3) On the other hand, it has currently become the norm for certain people to be the owners of particular commodities which then affect how each individual is identified as many people begin to appear the same. This has affected cultures in general and it could be argued that “if we are all consumers of the same products then we are all the same culturally, no matter where we originate from.” (Corrigan, 1997:p69)

Loss of identity does not just affect individual humans; it can also affect brands especially when there are many brands selling similar items. Brand companies no longer focus on selling their product but rather focus on generating brand awareness so that customers throughout the world can identify with them. (Barber, 2007)

“Since the collapse of Eastern-style communism, consumerism has emerged as a global hegemonic idea.” (Grabriel and Lang, 2006:p97) There has been a revolutionary rise in commoditisation of everything throughout the world especially since brand identity has become so important and competitive, providing more products, more commodities, to grab the attention of the consumers. (Ambrose and Harris, 2009)

Commodities have become fetishisms for many people. Marx described a fetish as “anything which people like to select for adoration” (Jhally, 1990:p53) The intended use of objects has become less important to consumers, it is what these objects now represent that is more significant. Sue Collins quotes Varda Burstyn to demonstrate this in relation to sporting goods: “… it is the idea of the athlete the equipment represents, not the equipment itself that is so passionately emulated and identified with…” (2000) [Online] It is because merchandises are being commoditised that they become more appealing to the average buyers. (Benjamin, 1973)

Commodities have become progressively publicised through various means such as packaging and advertising. (Julier, 2008) Since the twentieth century, advertising has begun to reject the individual consumer and has focused, rather, on a society as a whole, transforming “‘class’ society into ‘mass’ society”. (Corrigan, 1997:p74) In this way, brands have been able to connect particular merchandise with certain groups of people such as feminists or those wishing to live a ‘green’ lifestyle in order that they can target their advertising towards a particular demographic. When advertising certain products the truth, including benefits of the product, is not always presented. People are not always told what the genuine positive impacts an item has neither on people or on the environment. Instead a fairly old method is often employed in which an idea or image, often unrelated, is connected with the merchandise. This may produce a positive subliminal message which then helps sell the product to the public. For example, in 1929 Edward Bernays was hired to create a campaign intended to encourage women to smoke. To do this he focused on the female movement of the period, the suffragettes, using images of women smoking ““torches of freedom” while marching in an Easter Day parade in New York City”. (Holland, n.d.) [Online] The connotation of freedom connected to smoking entered women’s minds on a subconscious level and triggered a rise in female cigarette consumers. “Smoking and freedom was in fact a totally irrational connection but it worked.” (Holland, n.d.) [Online]

Stores are promising various guarantees for their products such as “happiness, every label guarantees high quality.” (Miles, 2010:P98) Advertising not only includes promoting individual products or brands but is effectively a process “drilling into our collective heads” the idea that buying and owning more ‘stuff’ leads to success and happiness. (Hamlett, n.d. a) [Online] Slogans have been a way of subconsciously telling people that they need to buy a particular item or consume a specific brand. Seiko, a brand of watches used the slogan “Seiko. It’s your watch that tells most about who you are”. (Textart, 2012) [Online] Therefore it could be suggested that as well as watches Seiko is selling people an extension of their identity. In this sense, companies are constantly selling people their identities. (Lawson, 2009) Banksy argues that advertisers are effectively telling people that they are inadequate, not good enough, and not sexy enough. He concludes that they are bullying people with the advanced methods of marketing: “They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.” (Solomon, 2012) [Online]

Since consumer society has effectively prompted people to buy more things that they do not necessarily need the amount of waste produced is in turn rising. Many commercial items are now built with the intention that they will eventually be disposed of. This can be referred to as built-in obsolescence, “a method of stimulating consumer demand by designing products that wear out or become outmoded after limited use.” (Attwood, 2008:p115) This process has been embraced by a variety of industries since the 1950s. At this time Harley Earl declared that the process of obsolescence should be sped up “In 1934 the average car ownership span was five years; now it is two. When it is one year, we will have a perfect score.” (Whitely, 1993:p16) Obsolescence is what consumers want which is why disposable products are increasing.

There are obvious items such as razors that make it clear that they are to be disposed of regularly however other products which, in the consumers’ eyes, are expected to last, are also disposable in their own way. The average life of electrical products used to be around 10 years, yet now commodities such as computers are only built to last 3 years and people are replacing other electrical items, for instance mobile phones, every year or so which is not always necessary. Before, people used to repair damaged goods and make do with what they had, but these skills are disappearing from modern culture, which effectively in turn causes more waste. (Lawson, 2009)

It is not just about the amount of waste that is produced that has risen but the amount of unused products that are eventually thrown away. An example of this is food waste; people buy unnecessary items on impulse or in response to advertising. Food has become the largest commodity that is thrown away, totalling up to 21% of the total waste produced in Britain alone. (Lawson, 2009) A questionnaire, by Brian Wansink to find out why people buy items they never use, revealed that many people end up with unused items because the intended purpose the product was bought for never occurred. Over 50% of the 412 American homemakers questioned admitted that they end up just throwing away these unwanted items. (CNN, 1999)

Disposal of waste has become increasingly challenging in recent years, partly as a result of the growth of consumer society. However there are a wide range of disposal methods at hand today such as landfill, incineration, composting and recycling, including reducing and reusing waste. Recycling is one of the more environmentally sustainable methods of disposal which involves “collection, separation… processing of wastes into reusable, marketable products.” (Mansvelt, 2011:p454) Despite this, landfill is still the most common method of waste disposal throughout the world as a whole. (Mansvelt, 2011)

People tend to forget or are not aware that it is not just the disposal of the product that can be environmentally harmful but also the production. Just packaging alone can be a massive issue in terms of sustainability. It begins with the manufacturer producing the raw materials, which are then turned into the required material, such as cardboard. The packaging then needs to be passed around to several people to pack and sell to the end user. Finally the product can be recycled. (Computer Arts, 2007b)

The idea of sustainability is a more recent concept. People, in general, are becoming progressively aware of how unsustainable societies have become globally. Developments have been made in technologies without realising just their potential impact for the environment. In the past, individuals and communities were unaware that the world’s resources could run out. “Effectively, what we have done… is to treat the planet simply as an infinite resource at our disposal.” (Fry, 2009:p1)

For many people today, the environmental challenges that consumerism faces is finally clear especially since the world has provided evidence of shortages of resources that consumerist societies need, including “oil, water, land, soil, clean air and minerals.” (Gabriel and Land, 2006:p196)

These challenges, however, have not necessarily hindered the consumerist culture. It is apparent in some instances that companies have utilized this issue as a proposition to increase sales. Some businesses are openly dedicated to making the world a better, sustainable place. On the other hand, for some it is a useful message to make consumers buy. Consumption is “the leading device through which individuals construct their identities.” (Julier, 2008:p57) The ideological belief that everyone should be greener causes masses to buy the products that will make them appear in this way. Now increasing numbers of companies are constantly inundating the public with messages from various advertising campaigns instructing them to “buy our products… and you will end global warming, improve air quality, and save the oceans.” (Greenpeace, 2012) [Online] These companies are not necessarily sincere in these claims; their products will not necessarily end global warming. This process is called Greenwashing, which is a term coined by Greenpeace around 1990.

Greenwashing has been likened to whitewashing through which unpleasant facts are effectively covered up. (EnviroMedia Social Marketing, 2012) The reality is companies have spent time and money on logos, slogans and packaging to make them appear environmentally friendly, whereas they could have been using the same time and money to actually do something to make a difference to the world’s problems. (Greenpeace, 2012)

It has been shown through greenwashing reports compiled by TerraChoice that things are improving with the number of greener products rising between 2009 and 2010 however 95% of “greener” products identified are still committing at least one of the “sins of greenwashing”. (TerraChoice, 2010:p6)

The opinion has been voiced that “green advertising is fragile” (Tuerff and Davis, 2011) [Online] because convincing consumers to buy products based upon exaggerated claims can do more, unintentional harm to the environment. Businesses that are honest and use sustainable tactics will help to improve the world whereas greenwashers will hinder any developments by using money to make themselves look better in order to sell. (Tuerff and Davis, 2011)

“Good design respects planet, profits and people.” (Aiga, 2011) [Online] Designers can be hired to make a company show through designs, such as packaging and advertisements, that they are environmentally sustainable. Designers are open to challenges that are connected to environmental concerns. Sustainability is more relevant to the environment than design itself, however designers can use the opportunity to fulfil the clients wishes whilst causing no, or very little, damage to society. (Aiga, 2011)

Environmental concerns were already in existence back in the 1960s. At the time certain designers and philosophers, such as Victor Papanek and Ivan Illich, expressed the belief that designers ought to combine commercial needs together with environmental requirements. However there is still a concern today that designers are not in powerful enough positions to make a genuine impact, also the potentially higher production costs and prices of sustainable items and products can hinder both designers and consumers when trying to become environmentally sustainable. (Chapman and Gant, 2007)

Design as a profession has become regarded as a feature of consumerism. (Hamlett, n.d. b) However Jonathan Barnbrook suggests that designers need to stop thinking in only commercial ways. To become more sustainable and actually help people, designers need to be aware of exactly what is going on within their own communities and the rest of the world. Barnbrook argues that design is first and foremost about communication. (Penfold, 2008) “Designers have a responsibility to make clients aware of the environmental aspects of what they’re asking for.” (Computer Arts, 2007b) [Online] Designers need to know all about the production and disposal methods commonly used in order to use a minimal amount of resources.

In 2001 designers, in general were unaware of processes and the amount of resources needed especially for packaging of consumer goods. They were also unaware just how significant the impact cycle of packaging has in relation to the environment. Charter and Tischner suggest that a common rule within packaging design should be that the materials used should “be easily recyclable… or should be made out of natural materials that can be disposed of without causing any problems to natural cycles.” (2001:p135)

The problem then arises when selling to the consumer that may involve changing consumption patterns. As previously mentioned, consumer culture is a massive aspect of life for everybody as it has been used as a means of constructing identities. (Julier, 2008) Possible strategies to promote ecodesign are to make sustainable goods more attractive in order to appeal to and interest potential buyers. With packaging there is the opportunity for designers to provide details about sustainability. This can also be achieved through advertisements and education. (Charter and Tischner, 2001)

Being ‘green’ has been used by some as a selling point however this has become a widely used and recognised approach for promoting many brands. (Swift, 2008) This can cause problems, as mentioned previously, with certain companies employing greenwashing methods to convince people their products will change the world whereas, in reality, they will not. (Greenpeace, 2012) Swift (2008) [online] maintains, “green advertising is still searching for its visual language.”

Despite such potential setbacks, the designer Rick Poynor is convinced that designers have the ability to communicate and influence consumer societies through their work. They can “persuade, change behaviour, initiate and spread visual trends” (Poynor, 2012) [Online] in order to inform society about the environmental challenges that everyone is facing and what can be done about it.

In 2007, the British Design Innovation (BDI), who represent Industrial designers, conducted a survey that concluded that as little as 13% of design businesses had a sustainability policy. (Computer Arts, 2007a) One example of a design business that does have such a policy is Viola Eco-Graphic Design, based in Australia. They make the claim that they are “devoted to best practices in ecologically sustainable design” (Sherin, 2008:p115) Viola designers do not just concentrate on creating appealing designs for consumers, they also focus on what materials they will use including printers. By choosing sustainable technologies they effectively respect the environment thus when the product cycle reaches consumers they are also helping them to become environmentally sustainable.

Anna Carlile, the founder of Viola, believes that there is now a great opportunity for graphic design to impact on the current consumer society by working alongside recognised brands and companies that have made the environment their key concern. Carlile believes that “in the very near future sustainable thinking and a working knowledge of responsible production will be an absolute must for designers.” (Sherin, 2008:p116)

To conclude, it can be seen that societies have tried to become more environmentally sustainable. Companies have begun to adopt more ecological tactics and consumers have become more aware of the effects of waste disposal on the planet. However there are still problems such as greenwashing that mislead people in their attempts to be ‘green’. Although there is evidence of this improving the problem has still not been eradicated. Therefore in a consumer culture it is impossible to be entirely environmentally sustainable. There will always be the consumer demand for new products to replace the old; consequently the issue of waste disposal will never be solved. Sustainable items have become commodities themselves as they have become attractive to current consumers who want to be identified as eco-friendly. So unless consumers stop buying what they do not need and adopt a fully environmentally sustainable lifestyle, it is not possible for a consumer culture to do so. In spite of this improvements can be seen and there are individual companies such as Viola Eco-Graphic Design who are doing what they can for the natural world, nevertheless it will take entire communities to start behaving in the same way for any significant difference to be made. Therefore, to conclude, consumers have the potential to become environmentally sustainable, but currently consumer culture is not.

References:

Aiga (2011) Good Design Respects The Environment [online] Available from: http://www.aiga.org/landing.aspx?pageid=10592&id=52 [Accessed on: 26th February 2012]

Ambrose, G and Harris, P. (2009) The Fundamentals of Graphic Design, AVA Publishing SA, Switzerland

Attwood, J. (2008) Edexcel A Level Design and technology: Product Design, Pearson Education Ltd, Essex

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Chapman, J and Gant, N. (2007) Designers, Visionaries and Other Stories: A Collection of Sustainable Design Essays, Earthscan, London

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Secondary Resources

da Silva, T (2000) The Curriculum as Fetish, Taboo, Volume 4, Number 1, p:26-27


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One thought on “Can consumer culture be environmentally sustainable?

  1. No wonder you did so well in your course with work like this and how relevant it still is today. A brilliant piece of work Hazel

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