You’re with a friend in a bar and a friend of theirs, unknown to you, comes to say hello. They sit down and join you. You chat, the three of you, and it’s all lovely and jovial and perfectly fun until the mutual friend – the single thread holding this entire, precarious social situation together – leaves to go to the toilet. Silence. Eye contact. An exchange of pained but trying not to look pained smiles. You know someone’s going to say it. I mean, you can’t just sit there in silence, can you? You open your mouth but they beat you to it: “So, what do you do?”
We are obsessed with what we all do for a living. We base our identities around it; head up our twitter and instagram bios with it; use it to ascertain status, political standing, power and wealth. What we do for work has come to completely define us. But now there’s another nugget of information which is in contention with job title for sussing someone out: what we buy.
In a capitalist society, we turn to possessions and advertising to find a reflection of our values. We want diversity? We look for it in new season ad campaigns. We want a voice? We search for the perfect slogan t-shirt. We want to show we’re checked out of the mainstream? We sling a tote from an independent shop over our shoulder.
We equate shopping locally with a sense of morality and buying luxury goods with status (or indeed irresponsibility based on who’s buying them). We are defined by what we buy as much as by what we do, perhaps even more so in an era of multi hyphen careers and side hustles. But I’m not going to blast anyone for embodying that, for expressing themselves through material things, because we have to find ways to thrive within society, even if ours is built around a system that we don’t particularly relish.
I do it. I go out in my coat made from recycled plastic bottles, or in my second hand clothes, armed with an organic cotton tote bag from a vegan food shop. I shop independent and I buy green tea in unbleached tea bags. My most recent purchase was a pair of organic cotton socks. You could, if you wanted to, build a pretty accurate picture of who I am simply by looking at what I buy. And that’s exactly how big brands like to group us together: as consumers.
Yes, I buy things and yes, they are, in some ways, an echo of who I am but the thought of being reduced to nothing more than a consumer is utterly depressing. Call me a friend, a writer or a teacher. I’m hard working, thoughtful, creative. I’m northern. I’m a Labour supporter, a vegan, a sister, a daughter, a girlfriend, a cat owner, 1980s murder mystery fan. I am all those things – and many more – before I’m a consumer. I have a purpose beyond spending money and bumping up someone’s sales figures. We all do. And yet, when money leads the way, how much of it we have and where we choose to spend it is how those who shape and uphold the system choose to classify us.
And it’s not just that the word itself is reductive, it’s that in most cases it’s flat out wrong. The initial title for this post, discarded after about three seconds was, ‘I Don’t Eat My Clothes’. I’m sure you can see why I opted to change it but it doesn’t make it untrue. I do not eat my clothes and nor, I assume/hope, do you. However, we are sold them as if we do. Just as we are cars, shoes, handbags, phones and just about anything else you might care to list. Why is that? It’s all about creating demand.
Copywriter Earnest Elmo Calkins has a lot to answer for in that respect as he devised the concept of ‘consumer engineering’; creating artificial demand through advertising and planned obsolescence. The 1932 book ‘Consumer Engineering: A New Technique For Prosperity’, written by two of Calkins’ employees, expanded upon the idea further, calling upon brands and advertisers to consider the things that people use – such as cars and clothes – in the same way as things that people use up – such as food and soap.
If a woman bought one handbag and used it until she wore it out, it wouldn’t provide much income for the retailer, so it made sense, under consumer engineering ideals, to make her feel as though she needed a new one after just a few months, just as it made sense to tell a man he should buy a new hat even if the one on his head was in pristine condition. Calkins wanted people to desire the newer, more attractive model just as Apple wants us to work ourselves up into a frenzy over exactly what we already have in our pockets only with curved corners or a marginally better camera. And all that might be fine if we really did eat our clothes (or our phones or our handbags) but we don’t. So we leave a graveyard of waste in our wake with headstones that read, ‘I was due an upgrade’, ‘I went off it’ and ‘I’ll just give it to charity’.
So no, I’m not a consumer because I don’t consume most of what I buy. I wear it or I use it and once I’ve worn it or used it, it’s still there, existing, requiring water to be washed or energy to be charged. So call me a wearer, a user or an owner if you absolutely must categorise me in terms of what I buy for your faceless reports, and account for the stuff that you create and the environmental and psychological burden that comes with it. But better yet, call me a citizen, a human being or, you know, Sophie.
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What a fabulous post, especially about consumer engineering and Apple. All I think about lately is this “iphone frenzy”, get the latest and greatest. I feel like the latest and greatest is already old news before it gets into someone’s hands. I have an iphone5 that I bought used a few years back. It still works and supports my apps, it’s slow as hell, but I don’t care. I’m sticking with this one until the end…hmmm, sort of like a marriage.
My phone is getting increasingly slow too, but if it works I’m going to keep it for as long as possible. Love the marriage analogy – maybe we should have to sign a contract to keep what we buy! Wouldn’t be quite as easy to throw it away…