Cultural Concepts: Making and Unmaking Consumer Behavior

The photo above is a portrait of our broken relationship with stuff. Self storage is one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. In 2016, more than a billion dollars was spent to erect new corridors and towers of rentable units across the country. There’s something surreal about these landscapes. Occupied bays entomb the stuff we’ve run out of room for in our homes. Renters pay hard-earned money to keep their things here indefinitely. So how did we end up with so much stuff? How do we really feel about acquiring and holding on to so many belongings? And is continued overconsumption and storage expansion inevitable?

We don’t have to look very far into the past to find the onset of our country’s “need” for personal storage facilities. We began to see their construction in the 1960s, after the boom of the Golden Age of Capitalism, the result of our nation’s post World War II economic expansion plan. During the war our grandparents and great grandparents were thrifty stewards of their objects, who mended and repurposed their material belongings. They had to be — money was tight. And they were encouraged to be by the U.S. government. Campaigns called on citizens to grow their own fruits and vegetables in “Victory Gardens” to take the pressure off the under resourced agriculture industry.

And citizens responded to the call. Amazingly, backyard gardens produced up to 40% of food consumed by americans during the war. 8–10 million tons of food were harvested from these gardens in 1944. People invested their time, money, and hard work into a solutions of self-sustainability. And a sense of pride in that accomplishment fed back into the effort of the American people.

After the war, politicians and economists knew that in order to jumpstart spending and grow the economy, we needed to totally reinvent cultural norms around consumption. In 1955, economist and retail analyst Victor Lebow declared in the Journal of Retailing,

“Our enormously productive economy, demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption… The very meaning and significance of our lives today is expressed in consumptive terms… We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

This was not a critical observation, but rather a call to cultivate a new culture of spending to increase economic prosperity. Lebow made a brilliant observation about human psychology. He understood the power of tethering peoples’ sense of worth to the purchasing of goods. His use of the word ritual, underscores how imbuing the act of buying something off a shelf with a sense of meaning could lead to habitual spending and disposing behaviors. Acts to be performed unquestioningly. Acts that would quickly become new American pastimes.

Since this moment in U.S. history, public environments all around us have been designed to encourage us to consume and discard stuff at a breakneck pace. Escalators in shopping malls are laid out so that to get to a store on the 3rd floor you have to walk past dozens of other store window displays filled with merchandise meant to catch your eye and tempt you. More expensive brands are strategically placed at eye level in grocery stores. Today we have lots of devices through which we are reminded of our desire. You may click on a company’s site on your laptop for instance, and the next time you scroll through Instagram on your phone, an add for that company appears in your feed. Fashion brands change the cut and colors of their collections from one season to the next, not because the new designs are somehow objectively better or more beautiful than those of previous seasons but because business thrives when we succumb to pressures to buy the latest so we don’t feel that we ourselves have become obsolete.

So is it working? Are we finding meaning in our purchasing decisions? Are we a happier more, prosperous nation in the wake of this consumer cultural awakening? There is a growing amount of research that suggests the opposite is true. Using archaeological approaches in a study conducted in California in 2012, writers and researchers set out to learn more about how living with so much stuff affects us. When interviewed by psychologists, study participants responsible for the management of items in their home (most often mothers) reportedly showed spikes in cortisol levels (the stress hormone) when they described organizing the family’s belongings. Having an abundance of stuff to organize, shuffle, and maintain is not helping us lead happier, healthier lives.

So what do we do? How might we redesign our rituals of spending and purging to move away from our endless wanting of stuff to more emotional and environmentally sustainable practices? Could we for instance assuage our value emphasis on material things?

In 2015 Fast Company published an article titled: The Science of Why You Should Spend Your Money on Experiences, Not Things. In it researchers point to adaptation as one of the “enemies of happiness.” We buy a new thing, it makes us excited and happy for a short while, we adapt to it and then crave that excitement again.

Studies show that an experience, like a vacation, seeing a performance, or going to one of the hundreds of nearby museums you’ve never been to, though finite in the time spent at the actual event, can actually provide more sustained happiness than a new article of clothing or tech device. While the happiness from material purchases may diminish over time, experiences become a part of us because they exist in our memories and the memories of those who shared them with us. Experiences are the stories we tell each other.

Our relationship with stuff is broken. But the way we consume in this country is not who we are as human beings. What we can learn from the shift from a nation of victory gardeners to a nation of storage unit renters is that our consumer behavior is based on a cultural concept. It’s possible that these concepts are flimsier and more malleable than they seem. Perhaps we underestimate just how much we might drive our own meaning-making boats. People and systems of people formed these concepts. People — individuals and groups of people can form new cultural concepts that better support us moving forward.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Learn more about our object design theory at Matter-Mind Studio.

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