Why are People called CONSUMERS?

When did we become “consumers”? How did it seep into our mainstream culture so that it’s commonplace to refer to each other as consumers?

It’s pretty clear why people over the last several decades started referring to each other as consumers: wealth and greed. Today, about two thirds of our economy is based on “consumer spending.” If we stop spending, our economy will likely fall into a recession, or worse. While our standard of living (measured in possessions) has never been higher, the quality of our life is not what it once was. Until recently, Americans have enjoyed an economic boom like no other, though it’s hardly shared among all citizens. But now, our spending habits have seemingly caught up with some of us.

We’ve discovered that owning lots of stuff often gets in the way of achieving a satisfying and fulfilling life. As a result, we’re revisiting our values and reorganizing our life around better meeting them. When we do purchase something, it’s as a “conserving customer”. If we own a business, perhaps as an ecopreneur, we offer products or services that seek to make the world a better place. Our enterprise, either for-profit or non-profit, is a means by which to create the changes we seek in the world.

With awareness building about our far-reaching and global impacts, we’re changing how we live, work and play — becoming conserver customers, not consumers. Instead of borrowing from the future or burning through resources, reducing the possibilities for future generations, ecopreneurs are seeking to thrive in a restorative economy that’s life giving. It’s a change in consciousness not merely a change in shopping habits. Ecopreneurial businesses, by how they operate and what products or services they offer, foster this conserver behavior. Ironically, many so-called conservatives are more concerned about conserving their present way of life and the status quo, refusing to pay attention to the changing world around them.

At our small-scale Inn Serendipity, created from a four-square farmhouse on five and half acres, our guests can relax, savor a local breakfast with most of the organic ingredients harvested from a hundred feet from our back door and drive away knowing that their carbon dioxide emissions were carbon off-set through our participation in the non-profit Trees for the Future Trees for Travel program. The revenues we generate from our business enterprises, besides meeting any financial obligations, are devoted to the good work of improving soil quality, producing more renewable energy than we use and contributing in various ways to helping others who wish to launch their own enterprise or live in a more sustainable way. Our profits fund our purpose, rather than the purpose of our business being solely to make profits.

I’m pretty certain that we cannot merely shop our way out of climate change, or any of the other issues facing the planet. But business and the conserving customers they serve can play a pivotal role in transforming our economy into one that respects ecological realities and seeks to prosper through fair trade, not free trade. After all, if half of all Americans had a solar electric or solar thermal system on their roof or grew at least some of their own food in a community garden or backyard, it would fundamentally change our sense of local self-reliance which is one of the hallmarks of sustainability.

Perhaps the first step is simply calling one another a citizen of planet Earth, then getting to work together to cooperatively make the world a better place, starting in our community.

  1. Meryn Stol

    “Perhaps the first step is simply calling one another a citizen of planet Earth, then getting to work together to cooperatively make the world a better place, starting in our community.”

    That’s a really good point. That’s why I love all grassroots and bottom-up initiatives like Wikipedia, open source software, citizen journalism, community activism, etc. It shows that people are far more than consumers, employees and passive voters.

    Right now, you see this slowly beginning to dawn at incumbent parties. On the consumer side, we have crowdsourcing (like MyStarBucksIdea and Dell Ideastorm), businesses are given employees more and more autonomy and responsibility, and the most Obama innovative politician of the USA very successfully engaged people to spread his message. But far more is coming up.

    I think we could best call this process “emancipation” – like the emancipation of women, but then for all of us. Just the fact that we need to eat and drink, need a place to live, and like to use technology to be more connected to our friends and family doesn’t make us “consumers”.

  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    All of what you say is right on target. I have been really touched by the new King of Bhutan instituting “Gross National Happiness” as the measure of the country’s “wealth” and state–from the individual citizen level to the national/state level. America (Americans, that is) could do well to follow suit.

    The idea of ecopreneurship is really excellent, too. But I think it is crucial that large-scale corporations, especially the Wal-Marts and Starbucks and so forth, make eco-friendliness a core of their practices. They have to offer eco-friendly products to consumers because otherwise many of their consumers–WHO ARE THE MAJORITY, REMEMBER–othwerise will not know of them, be able to afford them, or bother trying to buy them. So in a lot of ways, at least at this point, I think environmentalism NEEDS capitalism, green NEEDS greed….

    Keep up the great work at Serendipity, by the way.

  3. MattKelly

    Great article! I have taken some of these principles and applied them to myself–I moved closer to work and now walk to the office. Also, going from a house with a detached studio, to a studio meant ridding myself of so much that had not been used for years. I just put out boxes of stuff marked “free” and it all was taken. This has simplified my life in ways I am only beginning to experience, but I like. I’m also on a bent to limit my consumerist instincts–after all, what do I really need? I have a car, enough clothes and a nice place to live cheaply–so now, I’m into saving my dollars instead of spending them and love the feeling.

  4. Ari Herzog

    Today, about two thirds of our economy is based on β€œconsumer spending.” If we stop spending, our economy will likely fall into a recession, or worse.

    Because of the skyrocketing costs of oil and gas (CNN, on my TV right now in the background, has another headline of oil surging), people are driving less (AAA accurately predicted this for Memorial Day weekend) by either walking, bicycling, buying and using electric scooters or even motorcycles, or taking advantage of ridesharing and public transit.

    So, in just one segment of society, we are spending less. What does that say about consumerism and pending recessions?


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