Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Consumer Society"
An exchange on the viewpoint The Decline and Fall of Consumer Society?

John Ehrenfeld

As always, Maurie Cohen offers us much food for thought, but, in this case, the food produced a bit of indigestion. The article, as many others do, conflates economic growth and consumerism. The first is a term arising in economics and refers to the behavior of aggregate measures of output, while the second arises within sociology and describes the macro character of a social unit. These two distinctions are tied together in practice but should be treated separately in a critical article such as this one.

Growth is dependent on the attitudes that consumers bring to the market, but it is also affected by the resources available to them. The loss of personal resources in the recent recession and in prior similar economic downturns tends to suppress consumer purchases. Attitudes and motivation for making purchases may, however, remain relatively constant while the GDP and other measures of growth decrease. This micro-macro linkage is a fairly standard part of conventional neoclassical economics. If one is to tease out changes in the attitudinal or motivational basis for market activities, the macro-economic part must be very carefully controlled in any analysis. Cohen hints at this linkage but fails to make a clear cleavage.

The parts of his article suggesting that growth may be peaking are not particularly debatable. The standard theories that see scarcity as simply indicated by a large increase in the price of a good or commodity, as pointed out in the work of Herman Daly and others, are inadequate to describe an economy where actual physical shortage begins to curtail growth unaffected by the emergence of technological substitutes that alleviate the situation. But the connection between this phenomenon and the end of consumerism is very weak. In spite of the several new ways for provisioning mentioned in the article, there is little evidence that basic consumerist attitudes are changing. One can point to demographic, social, and economic niches where one finds such signs, but not so much as to indicate that consumerism is waning as the primary cultural driver in the US.

Economic institutions do respond to changes in the cultural engine that drives them as well as changes in the external world. The financial collapse attests to the rapidity with which such changes can happen. But this is not so with cultural attributes. The belief structure, in this case, the dominant psychological model of humans as insatiable needy creatures, will keep us locked into a consumerist mode until a different fundamental belief supersedes it. We are all immersed in consumerist cultural signals—ads, presidential exhortations (Bush’s “Go shopping"), cheap goods—which keep our existing beliefs and norms in place. A problematic generational change is in the offing when our young, at least in the US, enter the consumerist world very early on, e.g. 3-year-olds with iPads.

I certainly share Cohen’s concerns and aspirations. But let’s not get confused about what is happening out there with what we believe should and, maybe, must happen. Do not get overly excited over the emergence of alternate lifestyles. History is full of examples of the emergence and demise of such subcultures. The parsimony of the Shakers is hard to find today. For one last comment, we exist in a global world. We need to ask whether whatever changes away from consumerism we spot in the US and other affluent countries are being swamped by the rush toward consumerism seen in the rest of the world.

John Ehrenfeld
John Ehrenfeld is the former executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology and the author of Sustainability by Design.

Cite as John Ehrenfeld, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Consumer Society," Great Transition Initiative (May 2014),

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