Consumer Society: Critical Issues & Environmental Consequences
Smart, Professor Barry
Sage Publications, London
Barry Smart's Consumer Society is pitched somewhere between the more esoteric academic analysis and the often polemical popular literature on consumption and consumerism, neatly drawing together disparate perspectives and approaches. While it could have benefited from more explicit signposting - there is no dedicated introduction and the chapters begin and end rather abruptly - the thread running through the narrative quickly becomes apparent and is easily deducible from the clear chapter titles.
First, Smart traces the historical emergence of consumerism, that is, 'a way of living that revolves around the wanting of things, the longing for things, [and] the purchasing of things' (p.5), and of a corresponding consumer age. The story is familiar, beginning in the eighteenth century with an initial expansion of available luxury goods, through mass production and mass consumption, and culminating in the conflation of freedom and consumer choice characteristic of contemporary neoliberalism. Where others have emphasised contrasts between today's consumer society and an earlier 'society of producers' (e.g. Bauman, 2005), Smart also stresses the continuities, specifically 'the persisting pursuit of increases in economic growth and capital accumulation' (p.13) that underpinned the transition: 'the problem was no longer how to produce enough of the things people needed and wanted but how to get people to want to purchase the increasing number and range of things which were being produced' (p.24).
Chapters 2, 3 and 4 discuss, respectively, the 'rhetoric and reality' of consumer choice, the role of advertising in 'cultivating' consumers, and maintaining consumer demand through planned obsolescence. Taken together these chapters challenge two long-standing (and already well-critiqued), polarised depictions of the consumer: the sovereign 'hero' and the manipulated 'dupe' (Slater, 1997). In conclusion Smart offers the, again, familiar compromise that consumers 'do actively exercise degrees of choice', but subject to 'a force field of influences' including financial means, 'historically formed and culturally variable' tastes, desire to emulate others and a 'growing repertoire of marketing techniques' which play on these other influences to 'increase existing predispositions to consume' (pp.107-108).
The next three chapters (5, 6 and 7) detail some well-known negative impacts of consumerism. Human consequences range from an 'increasing polarization between rich and poor' (p.138), nationally and internationally, to disillusionment on the part of consumers, as 'imagined pleasures ... frequently prove illusory, at best fleeting, or temporary' (p.147). Meanwhile, environmental problems include large-scale generation of waste, squandering of finite resources, and, 'perhaps most significantly of all, increasing evidence of global warming' (p.160). This sets the scene for two final chapters, imagining two divergent 'consuming futures'. The first portrays sustained pursuit of 'economic growth, continually rising production, and ever-increasing levels of consumption' (p.184), qualified by an assumption that future, 'generally unspecified' technological innovations will overcome the worst of the dangers highlighted above. Smart is rightly critical of this 'business as usual' scenario, but stops short of any detailed discussion of how this future might look. Second is an introduction to existing attempts to consume less and in more sustainable ways, offering insight into what alternatives to 'business as usual' might entail. Again, more detail could have been illuminating here, for example on the tensions of trying to live differently within today's consumer capitalist context.
One real strength of Consumer Society is its simplicity. It presents a series of straightforward arguments, none particularly novel in its own right, but brought together to make a compelling case, supported by an impressively broad collection of literature and documentary evidence. Smart is especially successful in demonstrating how a set of interrelated social and environmental problems are intrinsic to consumerism and, in turn, to the pursuit of endless economic growth: waste 'is a direct corollary of the objective at the center of consumer society, to continually increase the supply of commodities', while disillusionment with goods that quickly lose appeal is 'a necessary part of the consumer cycle' (p.154), hastening the next replacement purchase.
The style is dry at times, with perhaps a few too many numbers to digest, and it is less provocative than, say, Baudrillard or Bauman, but at the same time more accessible. Consumer Society is clear, concise and broad in its coverage, making it an ideal introductory text, although breadth and brevity necessarily mean some complexity is lost.
Sheffield Hallam University
ReferencesBauman, Z. (2005) Work, consumerism and the new poor, second edition, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Slater, D. (1997) Consumer Culture and Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press.