I was at Macy’s on Tuesday December 23rd at a time when I’m usually doing my last minute Christmas shopping. Since my immediate friends and family and I decided not to exchange presents this year (we donated two water buffalo to the Heifer Project instead) I basically just used the day to visit the local mall to pick up some things I needed.
While walking through Macy’s at the top of my mind was a recent online presentation I watched called The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard. I think my little younger brother Bryon was the one who sent me the link recently although I remember hearing about the Story of Stuff first about four months ago when my friend Katie and her husband Shawn linked to it from their wedding website. The Story of Stuff is a great discussion of the negative long term affects on American culture and the environment caused by the consumer products industry.
Essentially the process works like this:
- Companies rape the earth of natural resources through political and economic leverage
- Those resources are processed into products through chemical processes that add a number of harmful substances into our environment and the products themselves
- We ship the products around the globe and then buy them in large volumes
- Within three years 95% of those products are sent to waste processing facilities where some are burned which creates toxic gases and others are put into the ground in dumps.
Over time this process essentially cheapens the earth and leaves us with little value while big corporations make profits all along the way. The Story of Stuff seems to be quite anti-corporate in nature so the bias is obvious but the validity of the process cannot be denied, at least upon my analysis.
The Story of Stuff goes on to explain that the primary driver of demand for the high volume of products in this process a strategy put in place by big corporations called planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence means strategically building and designing products in a way that they must be replaced within a short period of time. Annie explains that planned obsolescence was an important idea that entered the corporate scene several decades back and that it has worked very well for the corporations. Essentially if the big corporations can convince people that the products they currently have are not the newest and best products available or if those products become less useful for a variety of reasons then consumers will have to purchase the new thing. This keeps steady cash flow coming to the corporations over time.
Annie believes that American corporations have taken planned obsolescence a step further by advertising and marketing the act of frequent consumption as a type of success or exercise of personal freedom that is rightly American. She even cites George Bush’s plea to Americans to shop after the tragedies of 9/11 as if even our president wants us to remember that blind consumption is our fundamental right… a right that the terrorists threatened and that we should now flex in response. The point here being that if these corporate advertising and marketing campaigns have brainwashed Americans successfully then we don’t make buying decisions anymore based on fundamental needs. We instead make them based on fulfilling our psychological need to consume more and frequently.
I tell you all of this to return you back to my story of walking through Macy’s at Southpoint Mall in Durham earlier this week. After recently reading the Story of Stuff and having blind consumer consumption on my mind I saw a great sign above a table top of discounted jewelry. The sign was large and colorful and stylish and it was the only indication of what I might find on the table below. Instead of explaining some of the reasons that I might want to purchase jewelry (ie: show a loved one how much you care, or mark a special occassion) or highlighting the fact that discounted jewelry would save me money (ie: more money in your pocket, or same great product at a new lower price) it instead suggested I spend more through a trickily crafted message of consumption. The sign read “CLEARANCE EVENT” in large letters and then following in a festive holiday ribbon it said “if you get a good price on one, splurge on another.”
Could you imagine actually saying this to someone in person? What if you were telling this to someone who needed to purchase four new tires for his/her car? Sir, if you get a good price on these four tires, splurge an another. In this case the ridiculousness of it all is obvious. You don’t need five tires for a car so spending more because you can get a good deal just doesn’t make sense. On the other hand splurging on more jewelry totally defeats the value one would normally get from a clearance event in the first place but it isn’t quite so obvious. I’m reminded of the common advertising saying “the more you buy the more you save” which for years has dumbfounded me how this could possibly have any influence on people. It must since I continue to hear it being used in TV and radio messages for furniture stores across North Carolina every day.
So, in closing I’d just like to make my own plea of the American consumer. When you are shopping please, please, please use your logical brain to consider what advertising and marketing messages are trying to get you to go. Determine and understand their bias and don’t fall victim to the use of consumption motivation tactics that try to correlate your spending more with your fundamental rights and needs as an American. In my opinion real freedom probably has more to do with the ability to think for yourself than the ability to express yourself through consumption.