Can We Afford Our Constant Consumption?

November 23, 2011
  • Ted Howes

    Former Director, Advisory Services, BSR

Thanksgiving. I love this holiday. The opportunity to sit down with family and friends, enjoy one another’s company, and share a feast is indeed something to be thankful for. In my family, we always go around the table sharing what we’re grateful for. It’s a profound moment of connecting and appreciation for what we have, and it often turns out that we’re thankful for the small things—the ones we can’t purchase.

It’s ironic, then, that Thanksgiving is followed by the Super Bowl of shopping. Over this weekend last year, total U.S. consumer spending reached an estimated US$45 billion, with 212 million people shopping in stores and online.To further capitalize on this trend in an uncertain economy this year, some retailers have decided to kick off “Black Friday” by opening at midnight Thursday, a move that has launched an opening-hour race among stores. While some shoppers may be ecstatic that bargain hunting can begin sooner, and some employees may appreciate the additional hours in a down economy, not everyone is happy about the intrusion of shopping into Thanksgiving—including employees who are initiating online petitions to save Thanksgiving and consumers who have declared that they’re opting out.

It seems some are dissatisfied being defined solely as consumers, and I wonder if this has something to do with the growing awareness that we can’t afford our constant consumption. Certainly this is true from a financial sense: "Seventy percent of the economy depends on consumer spending, but 80 percent of families are experiencing declining wages.” There’s a convergence with other concerns as well—resistance to consuming for the sake of consumption is only going to increase with water and resource scarcity.

As more retailers pursue our scarce dollars by expanding shopping hours into what has traditionally been a time for families to give thanks, will more people start to think about what level of consumption is really desirable and necessary? The post-Thanksgiving sales results will start to tell the story, of course, but even if the gambit is successful this year, the questioning of our roles as people rather than as consumers is inevitable. After all, where does the encroachment on a holiday end? That won’t end well for companies that are pushing in that direction. People will start pushing back even harder, and it could well end up tarnishing the brands that perceive people primarily as consumers.

We have an opportunity to reconsider what sustainable consumption might look like: While people are recognizing that a more sustainable lifestyle is necessary, they’re confused about how to get there. And the need is ever growing. Shopping is not just about consuming products, but consuming experiences—there’s community, competition, and excitement in chasing sales. How might we integrate that experience with reduced consumption and increased connection? How might we build the same sense of visceral excitement into experiencing shopping without consuming anything?

This is an ongoing opportunity for companies that are seeking to redefine how they enlist consumers to help co-create what they really want for the shopping experience, while at the same time reducing consumption. And that is an evolution that I would truly be thankful for.

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