Is it possible to live a morally good life in a consumer-driven society?
This essay seeks to evaluate what defines consumerism in a consumer-driven society and how moral attitudes differ. It sets out to understand consumer ethics, anti-consumption, materialism and green consumption through the lens of consumer wellbeing by understanding how values conflicts arise (Lee and Ahn, 2016). It investigates the effects on consumer wellbeing of consumption ethics, prosocial behaviour, perceived value, values conflicts, environmental and societal issues in a modern consumer society (Lee and Ahn, 2016 and Furchheim, Martin and Morhart, 2016). The three main theories investigated are materialism concerning status, power and achievements; anti-consumption as a growing global phenomenon; and green consumption as a passive alternative in addressing climate change and overconsumption.
The literature has yet to define a common language to effectively communicate across disciplines to better understand the meaning of consumption ethics, which hampers academic efforts to develop a sustainable world (Carrington et al., 2020). Therefore, a multiple-use of terminologies will include hyper-consumption, ethical consumers, considered purchasing, conspicuous consumption, consumer ethics, consumer citizenship, anti-consumption, responsible consumers, conscious, ethical, political, prosocial, green and sustainable consumption are terms that will be used interchangeably to discuss the possibility of achieving the morally good life in a consumer-driven society (Carrington et al., 2020). Supposing such behavioural change is needed and whether it is possible to reduce consumption habits in a consumer-driven society.
It will investigate what consumerism means in contemporary consumer culture as ‘consumerism is considered a defining feature of contemporary life’ (Portin, 2020) and discuss the relevance and usefulness of the research regarding climate change, which has become one of the most pressing issues of our time. The relevance and effectiveness of this essay are in attempting to understand whether it is possible to live a morally good life for the wellbeing of our global futures. Finally, what role individuals, governments, policymakers and multinational corporates can take to act responsibly.
Climate Change and Consumption
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Climate change is an ‘impending ecological disaster’ that ‘over time, [will] affect all of humanity’ (Carrington et al., 2020). As Naomi Klein puts it, climate change is ‘a civilisational wake-up call’ whose message ‘is spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions’ (Carrington et al., 2020).
It is important to address consumer responsibility as overconsumption exacerbates climate change by overproduction to feed demand and, according to Portin (2020) we are now a culture ‘addicted to stimulation’ and ‘obsessed with pleasure’. We ignore those who suffer and instead turn to consumption as ‘retail therapy’, trapping us into an all-time consuming consumption loop while ultimately ignoring ‘our responsibility to recognise nature's wellbeing is in jeopardy’ and that people and the environment are suffering exponentially as a result (Portin, 2020)
Consumer Culture Theory and Consumer Ethics
Image Source: Ethical Consumer since 1989 – https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/about-us
Consumer culture theory and ethical consumption have highlighted the importance of socio-cultural dynamics and the role of identity, which naturally accompanies associations around attitude, behaviour and choice and where price can influence consumers’ ideals (Hiller and Woodall, 2018).In turn, this can create a conflict in breaking ethical practices as a trade-off in aesthetics and moral choice when making product purchasing decisions. These become ‘difficult value judgements’ (Moisander, 2007) can create a moral value conflict presenting ‘hard choices’ (McShane et al., 2011) for consumers attempting to be ‘responsible’ (Carrington et al., 2020) as mainstream cultural attitudes towards price, lifestyle, work, attitudes, behaviour, choice and moral norms are deeply ingrained in our psyche. It is, therefore, vital to understand the ‘consumer’s perceived value’ in marketing (Yong and Suryvadi, 2014). Consumers are preconditioned to make decisions based on good and bad in the exchange relationship when building brand relationships and what they decipher to be of the most significant benefit to them and how that relates to their decision-making.
These hard choices become further compromised for the ‘environmentally minded consumer’ (Hiller and Woodall, 2018). For example, the clothing industry is the 2nd biggest global polluter, causing many social and environmental issues, thus posing difficult choices for the ethically minded when buying ‘eco-fashion’ as style can be lacking with limited selection and often a higher price tag. Creating value conflict and guilt when breaking ethical practices can be described as a ‘balance sheet of gains and losses’ when weighing up aesthetical fashion choices and moral values (McGoldrick and Freestone 2008). Explaining how ethical consumers’ purchase habits are a ‘sociological lens’ where an understanding of the subconscious and conscious reflection is part of new habits of considered purchasing and advocating environmental behaviour change (Hiller and Woodall, 2018)
Ethical consumers are ‘carriers of social practice’ where we can begin to understand the dilemmas of attempting to be ethical by putting a lens on everyday habits and understand that ‘it is not easy living a sustainable life’ (Hiller and Woodall, 2018). These value conflicts can be inconsistent given ‘the nebulous and temporary nature of saving the planet’ Where even the most committed ethical consumer will ask what is in it for them (Hiller and Woodall, 2018, p.897)
Moral values are like a pendulum. As marketing strategies are designed to increase desire, consumers are susceptible to temporarily forgetting their ethical values. However, the more we embed ethical habits into our daily lives, the more immune we will become to hyper-consumption. Living an ethical lifestyle is not an exact science but is instead ever-evolving, just as it is difficult to decode what ethical or sustainable means. Brands communicate conflicting sustainable messages in their marketing efforts through greenwashing and virtue signalling confusing consumers through misinformation and responsible consumers are left to try and determine if a brand’s sustainability claims and transparency are valid.
Image source: Grazia Magazine, April 2021.
A heuristic approach to ethical living with no fixed perspective in mind is more realistic and ethical living is ‘a patchwork quilt’ where the perceived personal advantage is experiential as our priorities are constantly shifting due to influencing factors from both a macro and micro perspective (Hiller and Woodall, 2018). Hence, values are never assumed and continuously evolving similar to a lava lamp where values are ‘endlessly in motion, splitting and reforming in limitless ways’ (Hiller and Woodall, 2018). Values are intertwined with any purchase decision where the perceived personal advantage is analysed with consumer wellbeing and self-interests for both personnel and societal concerns (Lee and Ahn, 2016).
Anti-Consumption, Materialism and Green Consumption.
Anti-consumption or intentional reduction of consumption such as re-use, repurposing and repairing is different from green consumption, which does not change buying behaviour in the way anti-consumption does (Anderson, Hamilton, and Tonner, 2018). It is ‘intentional non-consumption as an act of resistance against careless consumers’, where ‘modern throw-away objects’ are rejected. Anti-consumption can be challenging for consumers, creating a loss of pleasure as a perceived gain of buying new products.
However, anti-consumption lifestyles have emerged to contribute to sustainable goals, with anti-consumption moving from niche topic to global phenomenon (Lee, Egea and Frutos, 2020) Research suggests consumers are interested in buying less and not just replacing shopping habits with green substitutes. Vivienne Westwood advocates a similar message: ‘Buy Less, Choose Well, Make it Last’. These emerging trends are motivated by a desire to avoid waste and to champion environmental sustainability in search of a morally good life (Hiller and Woodall, 2018).
There are still a sizeable proportion of materialistic consumers globally, and the consumption rate is rising. For example, the predicted increase of consumption growth between 2009 and 2020 in China was 375% (Peattie and Peattie, 2008) giving rise to the need to market towards sustainable lifestyles with consumption reduction at the heart of behavioural change through an ethical ‘awakening’ (De Groot et al., 2016) instead of being stuck on the ‘hedonic treadmill’ (Furchheim, Martin and Morhart, 2016) resulting in low consumer wellbeing and further damaging the environment (Hiller and Woodall, 2018).
In light of these concerns, prosocial behaviours are becoming more political with a growing number of consumers expressing concern and demanding change from macro-environments. For instance, Extinction Rebellion has repeatedly extolled the need for behavioural change through large organised peaceful protests over the lack of action on climate change. Waste is a catastrophic contributor, and motivational change is necessary at both an individual micro level and at a macro level (Tyer and Muncy, 2016).
This Photo: Unknown Author
Changing lifestyles towards a morally good life is an ideal and genuine aspiration, where a pragmatic approach to solving environmental and societal issues is critical. Ethical consumers are trying to do the best they can by not conforming to consumer mania (Hiller and Woodall, 2018).
Attempting to live a morally good life is about developing an open-minded attitude by creating a myriad of integrated practices with an individual’s motivation to search for new moral norms and changing behavioural habits. These lifestyle changes are not limited to switching to ethical goods nor wholly the participation of social or political causes related to consumption practices. Instead, a multi-faceted approach is needed to make the necessary changes to address environmental and societal problems through consumer responsibility. Ultimately, the end goal is to confront habits of overconsumption and minimise waste. Learning the art of considered purchasing rather than conspicuous consumption is vital.
However, this conflicts with other priorities where the changes needed are significant in shaping new habits to adapt to a simple lifestyle (Carrington et al., 2020). Values take time to establish and manifest, particularly and temptations which are always present and in need of constant monitoring through control, resistance and avoidance.
The desire of wanting, the so-called ‘hedonic treadmill’ of continuously purchasing new things is essentially wanting what we do not have and creating an endless loop of dissatisfaction (Lee, Egea and Frutos, 2020 and Furchheim, Martin and Morhart, 2016)). This desire is a part of learned behaviour and preconditioned values based on past experiences such as conspicuous consumption. These practised behaviours are about values based on status, power and achievement related to materialistic consumerism (Furchheim, Martin and Morhart, 2016). They create overconsumption and lead to compulsive buying (Crompton and Kasser, 2009). Both these tendencies contrast the anti-consumption phenomena and are therefore less sustainable (Hurst et al., 2013), suggesting materialistic principles are fundamental in demonstrating life’s achievements. As a result, modern society views material possessions on a metric scale to monitor life’s successes, suggesting that reversing such ingrained beliefs will be difficult (Furchheim, Martin and Morhart, 2016).
Catherine Germier-Hamel, 2015 http://www.millennium-destinations.com/md-stories/promoting-pro-environmental-behavior-50-shades-of-green-consumption
Green values present a different set of moral values to materialism and, to a lesser extent, anti-consumption principles, which is a motivation to change behavioural patterns by consuming less and thus contributing positively to social and environmental issues.
Green orientations are connected with transcendental experiences of self-awareness and personal growth which result in positive wellbeing, prosocial behaviours and ethical consumption. Living according to these moral values naturally gives a strong sense of well-being. However, temptation can lead to psychological tension (Furchheim, Martin and Morhart, 2016) and efforts to maintain a high standard of value balance in a consumer society can cause significant challenges as our values are our moral compass in any decision-making process. This can be highly conflicting for the green consumer with mixed marketing messages and our increasing awareness that our behaviours are affecting societal acts and causing a state of discomfort for the morally conscious consumer (Furchheim, Martin and Morhart, 2016).
This suggests there is a conflict between materialist desires and environmental consciousness for consumers (Hurst et al., 2013). Conflicting values can lower a person’s sense of self by confusing identity and moral norms. A strong sense of self-concept through clear sustainable intentions is essential for happiness, well-being and overall satisfaction with life. Value conflicts are a swinging pendulum between green orientations and materialistic preconditioned behaviours in consumer society and can create ambiguous signals about one’s self-concept. This can induce stress and anxiety and negatively affect the quality of life (Furchheim, Martin and Morhart, 2016). However, materialism alone is also associated with higher levels of stress and lower satisfaction with life. Value conflict and trade-offs between environmentally green orientations, anti-consumption aspirations and materialist desire significantly affect consumer wellbeing. Anti-consumption may threaten consumers who consider possessions a central source of happiness, even if they still seek to protect the environment (Richins, 2004; 2017).
Buying green substitutes could offer a compromise between materialism and anti-consumption ideals in managing value conflict, especially in boosting self-concept and wellbeing by redirecting the moral compass to contributing to and acknowledging the need to address behavioural consumption patterns. An added value for ‘green materialists’ can be associated with higher social status. Therefore, green consumption could be valued as ‘classic prestige goods’ and become symbolic of status (Burroughs, 2010).
Thus, identifying as a ‘green consumer’ could enhance wellbeing by contributing to saving the planet by way of a token gesture instead of committing to changed behaviour through addressing the challenges to living a sustainable lifestyle, which may seem unappealing to many consumers.
Green substitutes, of which there are many, could help mitigate our environmental footprint while minimising value conflicts between materiality desires while associating with green values. However, this proposed solution does not address the critical issue of overconsumption nor the broken business models of overproduction, which we have not discussed in this essay.
Green substitutes are not a complete solution as green products also need to be disposed of; lowering consumption is a far better option (Furchheim, Martin and Morhart, 2016). However, such value conflicts present significant limitations for consumer well-being and satisfaction with life. Mixed marketing messages add further complications to consumer decision-making influences as ‘marketing seeks to encourage consumers to increase consumption habits’, causing further moral conflicts (Peattie and Peattie, 2008).
We need to move beyond current value conflicts and conflicting marketing messages towards a collective attempt to partake in the anti-consumption movement by reducing our consumption rather than merely switching to ethically-tagged products (Carrington et al., 2020). However, this presents many challenges in a consumption-intensive lifestyle (Peattie and Peattie, 2008). A better practice may be to inhibit materiality attitudes in younger generations to avoid overconsumption. Parenting in a non-materialistic way may be beneficial in creating new family moral norms to foster pro-environmental behavioural attitudes as values develop over a long period, so this may be a more realistic option. Attempting to promote anti-consumption goes against our highly consumption-oriented dominant social paradigms (Peattie and Peattie, 2008). Despite this, research suggests that people aspire to lower stress through less consumption with a satisfying lifestyle a growing trend. There will likely be a shift towards a global ethical ‘awakening’ (De Groot et al., 2016) in consumer society. This is encouraging, as the ecofootprint of humanity is unsustainable with current rising global consumption patterns.
For this reason, the importance of understanding moral value conflicts and the consumers' dilemmas by way of identification, attitude, behaviour and choice is increasingly attracting academic interest and drawing the attention of activist organisations, government bodies, journalists, media, celebrities, primary industry, manufacturing sectors and retailers. Research and action are vital to go beyond changing attitudes to changing behaviours. Going beyond ‘token green’ or ethical purchase substitutes to adopt a significantly different lifestyle instead of careless consumer mania patterns is a critical challenge globally. Further research is needed to understand how to achieve this when modern society is so entrenched in hyper-consumption (Campbell, 2015). Addressing customers, stakeholders, media, regulators, businesses, governments and policymakers is vital to encouraging sustainable best practices.
Partnerships with NGOs, companies and communities to tackle consumer mania as a social issue is equally worth exploring. It follows that a shift towards a radically different consumer society through consuming less is an admirable goal where consuming less becomes a mainstream lifestyle choice that is enjoyable, accessible and desirable. Potential messages towards such goals could be ‘you do not buy happiness in a shop’, or ‘we need to consume less', or ‘following fashion makes you a victim’ (Peattie and Peattie, 2008). Current influences in such messages are REI #optoutside to encourage a more meaningful lifestyle by closing their stores on Black Friday and paying their employees to take the day off instead.
The purpose of this essay was to explore academic theories based on the concept of whether it is possible to achieve a morally good life in a consumer society as current consumption rates are unsustainable. Research data has not been presented, but rather a critical discussion on theories around consumerism attitudes from various scholars who specialise in this emerging topic. This essay is an initial effort to understand the implications of consumer choices and the effect of such behaviour on society and the environment. The value conflicts and materialist desires that arise are connected to status power and achievements. Anti-consumption as the ultimate goal and the consequences of green substitutes were explored in consumer culture theory and consumerism in modern society.