Consuming values

04 Jul 2003|Christoper Ireland

I took a much needed break this week. Hopped in a rental car in LA and drove up Route 1 along the California coast as slowly as I possibly could. I kept most business thoughts out of my head, but one kept popping up, prompted mainly by my surroundings and a conference I’d recently attended. That thought was how pervasive consumerism is. Every where I went, people were buying and selling things. Not just yuppie corporate types who are typically accused of trying to brand the world, but everyone. In Santa Barbara, the descendants of Chumash indians were selling beaded artifacts. In Cambria, Hippie artisans hawked colored glass. In Big Sur, New Age shamans were selling mediation aids. In Carmel, pet-loving senior citizens were selling needlepoint signs. I returned home to the Bay Area in time to attend an event at Stanford where professors were selling music and fireworks.

As context, I personally am a conservative shopper. I’m an environmentalist who practices what I preach, so I didn’t return from my trip with bags of new stuff. However, I, like most of the human race, enjoy “consuming”. I don’t think of it as evil and I doubt that it’s the downfall of the world. I find it a fascinating transaction between individuals–one based on shared value derived from different starting points. For example, I bought a pair of earrings on my trip. For these items (that I will probably wear for a few years), I parted with $40. The artisan who made the earrings parted with a little silver, a little glass and probably 2-3 hours. We traded through the intermediary of a store and chances are we all are very satisfied with the result.

My point is that consumerism has a value as well as a cost, and that value is extended to a very wide network of people–not just corporate types. While I applaud the study of the effects of consumerism on a global scale, and I understand the well-based environmental concerns, I think the debate needs to include both sides of this equation. “Consuming” does not automatically equal environmental degradation, just as not consuming won’t automatically improve the world. If we were all to reduce our consumption, the world would not necessarily be a better place. For starters, there would be a lot of people out of work along the California coast.

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