In my freshman-level sociology class, one concept that I teach concerns the unintended consequences of capitalism, in which people must exchange their labor for wages. According to Karl Marx, owners attempt to drive the cost of labor down as low as possible to increase their profit (profit = value of commodity produced minus the cost of labor). My students are often shocked to find out that luxury handbags, designer sneakers, and diamonds – all of which have been portrayed as valuable and exclusive – have a huge mark-up but cost relatively little to make, as workers are paid subsistence-level wages; these allow for a sizable profit margin for the firm’s owners. My students also usually express their surprise and horror that workers are often children and young adults who must forgo education to labor in debilitating and dangerous conditions. In general, consumers often don’t know that goods and services have a “back story.” Increasingly, some consumers are deciding to patronize local producers or places that rely upon fair labor practices, or they have altered their consumption patterns to decrease waste.
Rev. Billy’s What Would Jesus Buy? documentary follows the Church of Stop Shopping’s attempts to get consumers to consider where their low-priced goods come from and why they are spending money on consumer goods. In one scene, Rev. Billy and his crew mention that they are trying to get people to think of alternative ways to express their love or affection besides buying goods as gifts. Burning Man has had a similar message in its prohibition of corporate advertising and sponsorship and its promotion of the gift economy.
To rethink how we engage in consumption, we first need to understand why we engage in it. Several ethnographers have both observed and interviewed people, including children, about why and how they consume. For Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture (2009, University of California Press), Allison J. Pugh conducted a study of affluent and poor children living in Oakland, California. She found that children used possessions to make connections with others, and that parents didn’t want their children to be excluded by their peers for not having the “right” things.
Elizabeth Chin gave children living in New Haven, Connecticut $20 each to spend as they saw fit and followed them on their shopping excursions. Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture (2001, University of Minnesota) shows how these children, all of whom came from families living in poverty, bought gifts to share with others, reinforcing relations with family members, their teachers, and even their tag-along researcher.
In The Purchase of Intimacy (2007, Princeton University Press), Viviana A. Zelizer shows how intimate relations, such as sexual relations or the provision of care by family members, are intertwined with economic activities.
Consumption is not an inherently bad activity. However, we should think about other, creative ways to make connections with people that do not have such dire implications for others’ quality of life.