Having looked at the irrationality of human economic behaviour, Alasdair White takes another look at consumerism and concludes that major changes in consumer behaviour have already occurred, and that consumerism as we have experienced it for the last 70 years is now effectively dead.

Human behaviour is a response to stimuli experienced. The actual behaviour demonstrated is the result of learned responses that are deemed rational or irrational, acceptable or unacceptable, within the norms of a society or other bounded environment within which the person exists, and we all respond differently to different stimuli depending on the experiences we have had in the past. As a result there is no robust evidence that human behaviour is predictable at the individual level, but there is evidence that socialisation, fashion and societal norms play a strong part in governing behaviours and channelling them into what can be considered acceptable or normal. Our economic behaviour is no different.

In the developed or ‘old’ economies around the world and especially in Europe and North America, the dominant economic behaviour of the last 70 years has been based on ‘consumerism’ and its closely related cousin, ‘materialism’. Consumerism is a model in which an ‘economic actor’, the individual consumer, purchases a good (or service) which he or she does not necessarily need, uses it, and then disposes of it before the end of its useful life, before buying a replacement. Materialism is a ‘greed’ model in which we ‘value’ ourselves and others based on the material possessions we or they possess. And there are those who would argue these are the directed result of ‘capitalism’.

Now, the fact that materialism and consumerism are most obvious in capitalistic environments, and generally do not arise to the same extent in non-capitalistic environments, does not make ‘capitalism’ a causation factor as both are behavioural responses to psychological stimuli that exist outside the narrow definitions of the models developed in an attempt to explain our economic behaviour.

Let’s unpack the concepts so that what is really happening becomes clearer. Consumerism has an economic actor – a human engaged in deciding to buy from a supply of goods or services which he/she may not ‘need’. Now, a ‘need’ is a good or service that is essential to the economic actor’s survival in the environment which he inhabits. At the basic and most fundamental level, a ‘need’ is a physical or emotional requirement without which the human will die: according to the 20th century American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, these include food and drink, protection from the elements and other dangers inherent in the environment, air to breath, warmth, sex and sleep. This is, perhaps, too restrictive a definition in today’s environment and has been too narrowly interpreted.  It has been suggested that such things as smartphones can also be considered ‘needs’, given that in the modern developed world it is virtually impossible to survive effectively without them – this is a moot point.

The definition then goes on to talk about ‘using the good’, which is self explanatory, and ‘disposing of the good before the end of its useful life’. Perhaps one of the most vivid examples of this is the above-mentioned smartphone: I frequently ask my graduate students about their smartphone and all claim it is, for them in their western European world, an essential, but all admit to having acquired at least one replacement smartphone before their existing one had ceased to function – indeed, most of my students are on their sixth or seventh smartphone.

Clearly for consumerism to exist there needs to be a large range of goods or services available but there also needs to be a ready supply of money in the form of discretionary disposable income. Disposable income is that part of the economic actor’s income (or funds) that is in excess of that which is required to fulfil real survival needs such as housing costs, food and accommodation and the whole range of what we have come to regard as the regular fixed expenses of our lives. Disposable income is, however, often subject to periodic spending cycles for such things as social needs and so, in this case, the term ‘discretionary’ refers to that proportion of the disposable income that the economic actor can choose to spend on goods or services that are non-periodic.

So far so obvious, perhaps, but in economic terms, discretionary disposable income is a direct result of the development of a middle-class. Prior to that, those at the bottom end of the economic scale, the vast majority of economic actors, had just enough income to enable them to cover their survival costs, and often not enough even for that. While those at the top of the economic scale, those who owned the business and the land, had plenty of discretionary disposable income but made up only a small fraction of the economic activity. Once a critical mass of middle-class is achieved, we see the development of those wishing to supply it.

In the 1930s, consumerism was a far-off event: the emergent middle-class had taken a battering with the Great Depression, the impoverished majority had little disposable income, never mind discretionary disposable income, and there was no real range of goods.

The start of World War Two changed all that and created all the conditions for consumerism to arise, first in the USA, then in Europe.

In the USA and the UK, the demands of warfare created a massive boom in innovation, both in terms of technology but also in methods of production with the adoption of advanced versions of Ford’s production-line manufacturing. It also brought a mass intake of women into the labour force … and these women found themselves for the first time as breadwinners, family decision-makers, and financially independent. All this played to the strengths of the ‘anglo-saxon’ national cultures (see the work of Geert Hofstede) with their high levels of individualism, independence, competitiveness and success-driven self-confidence, and their relatively low levels of hierarchical power distribution.

By the end of 1946, experience of the war had wrought a profound change in the societies of the USA (in particular) but also in the UK … they had won the war based on their industrial might and national characteristics and they wanted to reap the benefits. The men had put their lives on the line for six long years and wanted well-paid jobs that delivered a high sense of self-worth and delivered the material benefits of a changed world. The women, financially independent and used to making decisions, had no desire to return to the domestic existence that had been their lot pre-war. But for the manufacturing companies facing the end of the demand-driven boom years of the war, the change was potentially catastrophic: they urgently needed two things, (1) new product lines and (2) a strongly growing domestic demand plus export markets.

Manufacturing enterprises were the first to react and in a burst of innovation they quickly adapted the new technologies and production methods to producing items that matched the peace-time demands for labour-saving devices and the need to be released for domestic ties. Washing machines and refrigerators replaced tanks and planes, the vacuum-cleaner was developed, affordable cars replaced military vehicles, radio and then television were developed, and the whole lot were supported by the hard-sell strategies of the new advertising agencies as they ‘created’ the demand. All this was focused ruthlessly on the new aspiring middle-class families of suburban and small-town America … and they responded, creating an advertising-led, supply-driven or ‘push’ demand.

But there was a finite size to the domestic market and the US government was not slow in the creation of the Marshall Plan in which American funds were distributed to re-build war-ravished overseas economies so they could absorb the growing supply of US-made consumer goods. As early as the 1930s, manufacturers realised that selling just one unit to a buyer was wasteful and so designed their goods to become obsolete, no-longer functional and/or unfashionable after a certain time frame. By the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, planned or built-in obsolescence was the norm, thus forcing buyers to continually upgrade or replace their appliances and goods. In 1960, Vance Packard, a cultural critic, published a book called The Waste Makers as an exposé of ‘the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals’ perpetually seeking the latest most fashionable version of products even though the current version still had life in it. Indeed, the post-war manufacturing boom created the consumer demand which led inexorably to the human economic actor becoming irrational to an extreme degree. Consumerism was a self-destructive and non-sustainable model but the consumers, faced with an ever growing and more sophisticated array of goods and unable to resist their debt-driven gorging, had accepted it as both desirable and inevitable.

The ability of advertisers to ‘create a demand’ for goods and the advances in miniaturisation and computing led to a second major wave of innovation in the 1990s, something that lasted until the early years of the 21st century. This second wave of innovation in manufactured goods started slowing before 2010 and is now finally well towards the bottom of the down-wave, and focus has shifted to making the current technologies do more with the development of software and ‘apps’.

Interestingly, politicians and economists have not fully understood the linkages inherent in the consumer model and it wasn’t until 2008, when the financial and banking sector imploded so spectacularly, that the debt-driven binge-buying that had created asset bubbles out of all proportion to their value finally registered with the consumer as being absolutely not in their self-interest, and they stopped spending, started saving, and reduced growth of western-style economies to almost zero. Inflation also shrank to almost 0%, something very much in the economic best interests of the consumer, but politicians beat their collective chests and appealed to the consumers to start spending again. Regulation was introduced to encourage individuals to return to being in debt, economists bleated about the need for inflation, politicians told their electorate they were being irresponsible by not spending or wasting their money … but the consumers have been resolute, mostly, and the great over-inflated consumer bubble has burst.

And with that burst bubble has come the inevitable result: manufacturing companies needed to downsize, stock piles grew and pushed prices down even further (very much in the rational self-interest of the human economic actor), manufacturers are more or less having to give away their goods just to generate cash-flow, technology and innovation has created new ways of doing business so there is a glut of commercial properties, both office and retail, people are using the technology to shop on-line and are better informed about the products thus making retail space much less important, which in itself results in the current glut of empty high-street shops, and even the huge generalist retailers are experiencing no or slowing growth, opening the way for artisanal and specialist retailers closely linked to their manufacturing base.

Having abandoned the self-destructive and irrational behaviour that drove the consumer model, the modern consumer is now more picky about what they buy and what service they expect, we have moved solidly away from a supply-side-driven push environment to a demand-side driven one that is opening the developed economies in a way that allows those manufacturers using just-in-time methodologies to dominate. The critical decision-making factors are now about life-style choices –consumerism is not dead nor will it die, but consumers are more critically aware, better informed, willing to spend but demanding better durability, better performance and better reliability for their money. Personal debt mountains are shrinking, inflation-driven asset markets such as housing are slowing, and the economic world has changed profoundly.

Alasdair White is a professional change management practitioner, business school professor, and behavioural psychologist with a keen interest in behavioural economics. He is the author of four best-selling business and management books and, under the pen name of Alex Hunter, has published two thrillers. April 2016

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