I am an independent consultant focusing on business development, marketing, communications and strategy for mission driven companies. Previously, I served as Director of Business Development for Viv (a Bay Area environmental start-up), Program Manager for Social Venture Technology Group (a boutique consulting firm focused on measuring social and environmental impact), and Associate Consultant at ...
How can we disentangle consumerism and celebration?
Reflecting on Halloween, I wonder, why do American festivities involve an abundance of unnecessary and increasingly disposable stuff?
A few examples:
- Take Halloween: More and more people buy ready-made costumes, many of which have been manufactured and shipped from China. Those who make their own costumes tend to buy materials for the occasion - cardboard, swaths of fabric, face-paint, wigs, fake blood etc - that will likely be used only once and sit in a costume basket thereafter. God forbid you wear the same costume two years in a row. And each household will traditionally buy several Halloween-sized bags of individually-plastic-wrapped candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters. And then there are decorations. I think you can imagine the scope of the waste and nearly useless junk that is purchased and then tossed into a closet or trashcan.
- Now let's consider Christmas: Depending on a family's traditions, the exact formulation will vary, but most households I've encountered adopt a form of holiday consumerism that involves each of us buying gifts for each family member and friend. And then wrapping each gift in pretty paper. And often mailing the whole thing in a box with a card. And all too often the gift is something the recipient didn't want or need, so it may not get used. Or the gift will ultimately be exchanged for something else, spurring a trip to the store which opens up the door to more shopping. And there are also loads of decorations.
- Don't forget Mardi Gras: Up to my ankles and even calves in a rainbow ocean of plastic beaded jewelry, throughout New Orleans' parade routes. Enough said.
- Even elections: I personally received at least 100 fliers in the mail enticing me to vote no on prop K, yes on prop 11, replace Pelosi with Sheehan and so much more. Not to mention that the voter guide, an arguably essential trapping of democracy, is a tome distributed to all registered voters, and this year's San Francisco ballot itself was comprised of 4 pieces of cardstock paper and a large envelope. And don't forget the myriad lawn signs and candidate collateral and paraphernalia - all seen as essential.
The roots of these celebrations and events did not involve so many things, if any. Yet somehow most events come along with a consumerism that renders the event unrecognizable. It's a chicken and egg conundrum which I don't dare unpack - have we developed to be such a consumerist society because consumers demanded more and so companies supplied it, or did companies overproduce and then push products onto consumers with heightened marketing and sales. Likely some of both.
More importantly than answering "whose fault is this?" - what can we do about this? I think the central problem is that our capitalist economy thrives on buying and selling more and more stuff, and we have bought into it, myself included. While I understand our economy runs on selling holiday junk (holiday sales are vitally important in retail), I also think there is something better out there for us in the way of a shift from a product to a service-based economy. Think bringing a repairman to your home to fix or upgrade your electronics rather than buying new and tossing the old. And with the clean energy revolution at hand, services like sustainability consulting, home energy upgrades and renewable energy installations will be increasingly in demand.
This kind of shift will take time. And to get there both corporate America and consumerist America will need to take action.
Corporate solutions fall in the category of cradle to cradle design. Consumer solutions involve restraint, frugality, inventiveness and dropping the disposable habit. One example of a step in the right direction was when my family rewrote the Christmas rules a few years back. We used to celebrate by exchanging gifts with each family member. Thanks to my father's anti-consumerist sentiment, our holidays are now modest and simple. Each person buys one $50 gift for one pre-selected person and that's it for gifts. Additionally, we all make a modest donation to a thoughtfully-chosen charity in the name of one family member. So at the end of they day, we've each spent under $100, likely not wasted too much time and we walk away with one gift and one charitable donation in our name. At first I despised this change, though I've since come to see the wisdom behind it. In any case, this is just one step, just one example of a way to cut down on holiday consumerism.
Amie Vaccaro is an Associate with Social Venture Technology Group and is interested in environmental entrepreneurism and sustainable innovation. You can read her blog, ecofrenzy, which is focused on green business happenings and related commentary.