Ways out from the social life of mass and excess consumption?

Ways out from the social life of mass and excess consumption?

Magnus Boström

Mass and excess consumption permeate social life in developed welfare countries. All of us living in these societies are surrounded by fashion, status brands, electronic devices, cars, toys, sport equipment, candies, fast food, games and all sorts of entertainments associated with shopping. We experience social status and confirmation through our behaviour as consumers and cultivated tastes. We socialize by shopping and confirm our relations by giving gifts and consuming together. We learn to desire consumption and the hunt for the objects. Yet, our new awareness of climate and ecological footprints inform us – unless we deny the facts – that our mass and excess consumption patterns are fundamentally unsustainable.  Shifting lifestyles and consumption patterns in order to protect the long-term wellbeing of humanity and millions of other species is, indeed, no small task, given how impregnated mass consumption is in social life. Nonetheless, it is necessary and a task that calls for radical transformation of society and lifestyles.

I argue that we need to understand how social mechanisms at the level of social life contribute to reproduce and even accelerate unsustainable consumption habits. Otherwise, there is little chance to confront the habits and initiate transformative change. It is essential to underscore the important connection between consumption and social relations. To be sure, macro structures forcefully compel people to reproduce and accelerate patterns of mass and excess consumption. These include capitalism; big brand businesses and their enormous resources and marketing expertise to wire consumers into spending habits; industrial/technological development; systems of transportation and shopping centres; internet and online shopping; and a complex network of ideologies, consumer culture, media and social media that legitimizes relentless growth.

All these structural forces have contributed to a far-reaching commoditization in contemporary welfare societies, pushing people to make marketplace choices in more or less all areas of everyday life. Nonetheless, even though structures forcefully constrain or facilitate individual action, they do not do it deterministically. It is indispensable to consider also the role of social relations within the meso- or micro-level of social life when understanding and explaining the reproduction and growth of excess consumption, as well as to consider the potential for transformative change. Based on my own research, I exemplify six important mechanisms:

Everyday rituals. When people socialize with each other, consumption is central as both material setting and focus of attention. Consumption functions as social bonding. For group members, everyday rituals create social bonds, norms, valued symbols and positive emotional energies. Rituals are in many ways tied to consumer objects (fashion brands, gifts, motor vehicles), activities (shopping, dinners, holidays) and settings (the shopping mall, the café); and this intersection is seen in expression of love, care, and friendship.

Social comparison. Social science has since long demonstrated how important status consumption is for both demonstrating affiliation with a social group and making distinction vis-à-vis others. Fashion anxieties, the fear of deviating from norms, and the urge to stand out and demonstrate cultural capital drive people to engage in conspicuous excess consumption.  People try to match up with reference groups to develop their cultivated taste and identity as successful citizen. Social media expand the reference groups by creating myriads of possibilities for comparing. In the family context, parents buy stuff for their children so they can keep up with their friends in possessing status symbols and avoid bullying. Social comparisons thus lead to an upward spiral of excess consumption.

Restlessness. We celebrate everything that appears novel, fresh and innovative.  Fashion, novelty and rapid change is the spirit of modern urban life. The span of opportunities grow incessantly. By commoditization, market expansion, 24/7 accessibility, credit cards, and discounts the supposedly happy life is almost within reach. Yet, proliferation of opportunities mostly imply proliferation of missed opportunities. There is a constant fear of missing out in social life, which cause envy, anxiety and frustration, and restlessly fuels the spiral of excess consumption. Promises remain unfulfilled. The cycle of desires continues to spin and shopping life continues to thrive.

Normalization. There is nothing natural with contemporary levels and styles of consumption, but it easily appears so. The rise of standard of living is gradual and creeping, and thus generally unrecognized. A person socialized into a particular generation will perceive its levels of consumption as normal and natural, and not reflect on their historical antecedents. Standards of normality concern a broad range of matters: house sizes, indoor temperature, cleanliness, walking distances, lifespan of products, relevant holiday destinations, and so on. Normalization creates social norms and fear of being stigmatized as deviant. Once something is taken to be normal, it becomes difficult to see it as changeable.

Mass ignorance. Ignorance about the consequences of once habits is a powerful force for reproducing them. Mass ignorance is about neglecting the social and ecological consequences of matters connected to production, distribution and waste. The here and now is systematically prioritized over the distant and future. Temporal and geographical distance causes ignorance. When most household consumption was based on domestic production, consumers had a better chance to be knowledgeable about the conditions of production. Contemporary consumers in welfare societies buy most of their material goods that stem from complex global supply chains and, consequently, know very little about what it means to be a producer of physical goods. Ignorance also concerns lost competences that stem from commoditization, such as those associated with creating, building, renovating, handicraft, repairing, gardening, sewing, and sharing. Lay knowledge in many areas of everyday life has been replaced by specialist technology or expertise.

Collective dilemmas. We continue unsustainable excess consumption habits because everyone else does. The consumer looks at other people and other social groups, or the state or business sector, which they perceive having more responsibility, power and money to solve the problem. This is a collective action dilemma; everyone points at someone else. ‘Why should I care if others don’t?’ ‘Why should I sacrifice if others don’t?’

Ways out?
Much individual consumption is strongly shaped by existing societal structures and must be dealt with collectively. Moreover, there are limits to how much a person can deviate from dominant consumerist norms no matter how concerned she is. Nonetheless, the potential for bottom-up change should not be underestimated. It is evident in growing critique and anti-consumerist movements as well as in rising awareness of planetary crises. Growing numbers of citizens recognize that increased consumption is not the path to happiness, health and well-being.

Despite some positive signs, I argue it is crucial to understand how the standards and norms of social life continue to rely extensively on mass and excess consumption. Even the very conscious and caring citizen-consumer must continuously confront inhibiting norms and structures. The barriers are not just external but are embodied, habitualized and deeply internalized by socialization. They are profoundly integrated into the practices, rituals and dynamics of social life. Anyone who set off for a lifestyle change will need to undergo a demanding and long-term transformative learning process, recognizing and scrutinizing:

how one’s excess consumption intersects with social bonding through (commoditized) everyday rituals;

how important comparison through consumption is for establishing identity and social status;

how one is restlessly hunting new, quick and superficial experiences while the range of (missed) opportunities is constantly growing larger;

how one’s standard of living is historically and socially constructed and how negative emotions (anxiety, shame and fear) arise because of the risk of not appearing normal

one’s lack of competences to DIY and how little one knows about the social and ecological consequences of one’s consumption regarding all steps of the product life cycle

how one’s thinking and justifications are part of collective dilemmas

To some extent, some transformative learning might have been involuntarily initiated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdown and social distancing policies because a number of consumer patterns have been difficult or impossible to maintain. To what extent have the disruption revealed previously normalized consumption? What are the possibilities for a new sense of responsibility-taking?  How do people feel by not being able to continue the restless hunt for certain consumer items? To what extent have families and friends invented new non-consumerist ways of spending time together and cultivate their relations? It will be interesting to see if, how and to what extent the disruption started such transformative learning processes.

Perhaps most citizens will hastily go back to previous mass consumption habits as soon as they get the chance. In any case, as mass and excess consumption patterns are inherently social, transformative change too must be social. Transformative change cannot be achieved by isolated individuals but needs to involve the social group: families and friends, social networks, associations, workplace, communities, and institutions. Various social and community support can provide people with ideas, inspiration, role models, alternative norms, resources, sharing platforms, and, not the least: a sense of being part of a larger, collective change process.

Boström M, Andersson E, Berg M, Gustafsson K, Gustavsson E, Hysing E, Lidskog R, Löfmarck E,  Ojala M, Olsson J, Singleton B. E., Svenberg S, Uggla Y & Öhman J. 2018. Conditions for transformative learning for sustainable development: a theoretical review and approach. Sustainability 10 (12), 4479.
Boström, Magnus 2020. The social life of mass and excess consumption. Environmental sociology. 6(3):268-278. Open Access here.


Magnus Boström is Professor of Sociology at Örebro University. His current research interests lie within environmental sociology and the sociology of consumption, and generally concern politics, representation, consumption and action in relation to transnational environmental and sustainability issues.