Consumerism, Media

Are You Being Cheap or Being a Mindful Consumer? Some Thoughts

While most people reacted positively towards my post “What Does My Baby Need?  The Balance Between Necessary Consumption Versus Over-Consumption”, I did receive a few emails from readers alarmed by the fact that I was being ‘cheap’.  In essence, I was told that, if a parent loves their child, they would buy it anything and everything it needs.  According to these readers, there is no such thing as over-consumption when it comes to raising a little one.

These comments—which were shared thoughtfully and respectfully—made me think about the importance we place on material things as tokens of love.  I don’t think that showing love through material things is a bad thing (and those who have given me gifts can attest to how I love receiving them!)  However, thinking that love can only be expressed through the gift of material things makes me quite uncomfortable.

How did this equation come to be?  And what other overly formulaic equations coexist with it?

Companies’ Hope for Consumer Behaviour

The first thought that comes to mind is that, within the context of aiming for ever-increasing profits, companies have to convince consumers that their stuff is worth buying again and again and again, be it because they need to be replaced or updated.  One of the most powerful emotions being that of love, it would make sense for companies to want consumers to link it with purchasing material things.  The most obvious example of a company tying the concept of love with the purchase of an over-inflated item as a token of undying love is, of course, the diamond.  One can’t help but be horrified and fascinated by the meticulous creation of this construct by De Beers, further enhanced by the false belief that diamonds are rare and valuable and therefore an essential sign of esteem (check out this amazing piece in The Atlantic).

And so it could be that an honest belief in consumers that buying more as a token of love is basically the consequence of really good marketing.

A Fear of Poverty

Everyone aims to have some form of security in their lives.  One type of security is financial; one sign of financial security is the ability to be able to buy whatever one needs or wants.

Sometimes I feel like even the act of reusing something is seen as a reflection of financial insecurity.  I remember with crystal clarity an incident that happened to me a couple of years ago; I was reusing my tea bag and someone asked me if everything was OK.  Further into the conversation, it became clear that the person was concerned about my financial situation; they couldn’t understand any other reason for my reusing my tea bag.

For the record, I don’t like waste, don’t drink my tea dark, and oftentimes reuse a tea bag not just twice but even thrice to make three cups of tea that are just as good as the other.

While the friends’ sentiment was really sweet, I found it a little odd that he was convinced that the only reason I was reusing my tea bag was financial insecurity.  It suddenly dawned on me that perhaps this is one of the biggest obstacles to leading environmentally sustainable lifestyle.  Could it be that the first two steps in decreasing our consumption—reducing and reusing—are so intimately linked to signs of financial insecurity that we avoid them, at the cost of the health of the environment?

Feelings of Inadequacy

There seems to be a lot of pressure on the modern day North American parent to do it all for their kids and to do it perfectly, while at the same time having a perfect house, clean cars, an active social life, and being physically perfect.

I don’t know about you guys, but even those of us without children have a tough time pulling all of that together.  How in the world can regular, middle-class parents accomplish the same, what with all the responsibilities they have?

Taking into consideration the way advertising triggers all kind of insecurities to convince consumers that they need to purchase certain products, could it be that buying stuff for one’s kids is a way of covering up feelings of inadequacy, faced with the abovementioned impossible tasks of doing it all, and doing it perfectly?  No doubt a lot of great parents, bombarded with messages that they are not enough, would want to do more, but not having enough resources to be the “good” parents they are told they should be, they take the only path they have access to: buying stuff for their kids?

So…  What’s Next?

Just like with so many things, a mindful step-by-step approach that includes moderation and open-mindedness seems to be essential.  There is no need to stray away from buying anything.  If you want a diamond, go ahead and save and get yourself one.  But don’t feel like you have to get it.

I would say that as consumers, we have to make sure that we are buying the right thing for the right reason.  And as members of a community, we have to accept that “the right thing” and “the right reason” will vary from person to person, from generation to generation, from culture to culture, from one gender to another.

This means that the conversations that can be had in the process of figuring what is “the right thing” and “the right reason” are numerous and no doubt rich—and I look forward to continuing it on my blog.

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4 thoughts on “Are You Being Cheap or Being a Mindful Consumer? Some Thoughts

  1. I also went with the less is more idea when it came to having kids. The idea of buying things that would only serve a purpose for months at the most maybe me twitchy. I much preferred the items that were multi-use and grew with my kids. Things like burp clothes, blankets, and cloth diapers stand out in my mind the most after five years. And you’re very right, a one size fits all approach to anything but especially parenting doesn’t work.

    1. Thank you for the comment Jennifer, and thank you for sharing your experience! Did you ever have to deal with the guilt that comes with marketing/other parents pressuring you?

  2. Most people are familiar with the term “conspicuous consumption” which was coined in 1899 by the economist Thorstein Veblen. They’re less familiar with his concept of “invidious consumption,” which means buying things with an eye toward making others feel envious or inferior. When it comes to parenting, a *lot* of people use their children as an excuse to purchase goods and services to make themselves look like parents who give their children everything. I think they do this because, like all parents, they worry that they aren’t doing a good enough job–and buying lots of stuff allays that fear, at least for a while. As a parent who consciously chose *not* to give my children everything they wanted (but to make sure they had everything they needed), I think it’s hugely important to ask ourselves why we’re making any purchase and whether that money might be spent in ways that will ultimately be more meaningful. We vote with our dollars every time we buy something. I try to think hard about what I’m voting for.

    1. Oh my good Pam, I never heard of the concept of “invidious consumption”. It’s rather disconcerting that enough people would do it to warrant it being named… I have a feeling that all parents always worry about not doing enough, but that buying more doesn’t help–when I think of my parents, it’s not what they bought for me or didn’t buy for me that stands out, it’s all the love and constant effort they put into creating a home filled with joy that stands out. And yes, I completely agree that we vote with our dollars! Thank you for sharing, I really appreciate it–and great advice! PS: any specific reading about both conspicuous and invidious consumption to recommend?

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