Flip side of consumerism

By Zubeida Mustafa

ONE of my earliest childhood memories is that of my father’s Standard four door saloon. It would rank as a vintage car today. A sturdy, dark green box shaped car with a black footboard this vehicle which served the family well for 15 years was by no means an ideal one as far as luxury went. On wintry mornings its cold engine needed a crank with a handle to jerk it into action. Yet there was no talk of changing the car because, its old-fashioned technology notwithstanding, it served our needs well. It was like another member of the family and we were heart-broken when the car was sold.

This was no extraordinary case. Most people of that generation have a similar story to tell about practically every consumer item that they possessed. Most items were purchased with the idea that they would last a lifetime. My own household appliances of a much later age have lasted decades. They were expected to and manufacturers also prided in the fact that the hallmark of their goods was durability.

Not so any more. I learnt of this when a new model kitchen hand mixer that had given me excellent service for eight years went kaput one day. When I marched off with it to the services section of  the multinational brand, I was told – after the salesman gave me a quizzical look — that the machine was irreparable. It was declared to be too obsolete for the effort.

This should not really have surprised me. After all it is the ‘age of consumerism’ we live in today. Having adopted the market economy with a bang, we must also be prepared to embrace consumerism in a big way whether it makes some of us feel squeamish or not. Economists accept consumerism and the free choice it implicitly offers as the engine that drives economic growth by creating demand for goods. This in turn promotes production. But if it was as simple as that one need not have worried. The problem is that pushing this approach too far results in the reshaping of human nature. If this change was for the better one would not have quarrelled with it. After all change is a good thing – but that is if it produces positive results.

Why I feel unhappy with consumerism is that generally experts equate the ‘material possessions’ promoted by consumer culture with ‘personal happiness’. This is inevitably the result of consumerism being accepted as the linchpin of a demand-driven economy. By making the concept of ‘choice’ the underpinning of  this philosophy, economists have made advertising, marketing and the manipulation of consumers an integral part of the manufacturer/sellers’ policies.

It is this aspect of consumerism that creates its flip side. The over-sell techniques adopted by the producers of good actually creates a false sense of want in the consumer. On many occasions – in fact most of the time – the customer does not actually need an item. It is the way the producer as the seller and advertiser promotes an item that makes the consumer feel that he needs the good very badly. It is made out to be something indispensable for him. It is packaged so attractively and effectively that it is difficult to say ‘No, thank you’. To provide funds to make an item affordable to those who actually cannot afford it, arrangements for easy loans, lease and deferred payment facilities are instituted.

Then starts the vicious cycle. A consumer is lured into the debt trap. He ends up buying something that is beyond his resources. He has to take a loan. Even before one loan is paid off he has bought something else and taken another loan without acknowledging that he was happy enough previously when he did not own the goods for which he has landed himself in a debt.

Soon enough he is caught in the consumer culture and the spending spree it entails. There are people already owning cell phones – and reasonably good ones – whose urgent need is to buy another one. Why? Because it is a new model. Because it has a new gadget in it. Because it offers an extra facility. Because, in a nutshell, the customer wants to keep up with the joneses.

One may argue that if one can ‘afford’ it then why grudge him this little pleasure? One reason is that this approach breeds cupidity and avarice. It kills man’s conscience and drastically changes human values. When a man goes and spends Rs50,000 on a cell phone to please his whims and fancy, and not because he actually needs it, one begins to wonder are our priorities misplaced? After all this amount could save many under-nourished children from certain death Consumerism of this kind in Third World societies has something rotten to the core. It is something we can ill-afford.

A basic precept of the market economy – consumerism is basically its offshoot – is the unequal distribution of wealth it spawns. Small wonder the rich get richer and the poor become poorer. The income gap grows to vulgar proportions. That is why the wretched of the earth cannot indulge in the luxury of throwing money on consumer goods. The rich can. The not so rich also chase consumerism and grow poor in the process.

This rich-poor divide, so some studies have established, creates an unhealthy mental health environment for the people. The media fuels a revolution of rising expectations and increases the frustration of the poor. It is believed that in such societies people suffer from more health problems than people in societies that are equally poor. There people are contented and are not pushed to the brink of frustration on account of their inability to realise their consumerist dreams.

Martin Jacques, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, once wrote about the  three trends that are the direct result of consumerism and are profoundly changing the basic nature of society. One is the rise of individualism. The second is the proliferation of the market in every area of society that has led to greater competitiveness. Third is the spread of communication technology. As a result our private space is shrinking and  the encroachment of the public domain into our personal time is expanding. All this is accelerating the pace of living.

These changes are not good omens. Add to this the tendency to look for avenues to make a quick buck. Gone are the age old ambitions of people to work hard for a lifetime to earn enough to achieve their dreams. Consumerism will undermine the human values and relationships  we have cherished for generations. It is sad that the market is making people  identify strongly with the products or services they consume, especially those with commercial brand names that are considered prestigious. Globalisation has exacerbated the crisis as all major multinationals are now operating in Pakistan. Isn’t it time that this policy of promoting consumerism was addressed. Why does all the investment have to go into the manufacture of consumer items? It is a myth that this policy has created jobs, for unemployment has gone up – from 5.8 per cent (2.3 million) in 1999 to 8.2 per cent (3.7 million) in 2004. It is time the long term effects of the consumer culture were studied and alternatives found such as diversification of the economy, increasing the real purchasing power of the people, curbing inflation and checking the easy leasing policy for consumer items.

There is also the need to revisit some old-time values which were the hallmark of the days of yore. Instead of attaching ourselves to material goods wouldn’t it be better if we opted for human attachments.We should think of returning to relationships with people than with objects – to a culture that prided itself on promoting interaction with people and brought friends and family together to talk, chat, play and relax rather than focus on the rat race to enhance one’s purchasing power.

Source: Dawn 13 Nov 2007

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