Is a Transition Beyond Consumer Society a Realistic Prospect?
Maurie J. Cohen,
Professor of Sustainability Studies and Chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
This chapter considers a growing pattern of speculation over the past two decades about the pending end of consumer society as a predominant mode of social and economic organization. While such conjecture has long been a staple of certain modes of eco-catastrophic and related modes of thought, it began to assume greater prevalence at the start of the new millennium (Ekins 1998; Schwarz and Schwarz 1999; Kaza 2000; Scott 2001; Trentmann 2004; Princen 2005; c.f. Stiglitz 2008). The 2007 financial collapse ‒ which exposed in especially graphic form the fragility of the international banking system and the fecklessness of its most prominent institutions ‒ gave this work newfound relevance (Benett and O’Reilly 2009; Frank 2009; Hamilton 2009; Perez and Esposito 2010; Etzioni 2011). Also important have been supplementary modes of thinking that have considered the failing imagination and adaptability of mainstream media and marketing industries (Lewis 2013), new forms of hedonism (Soper 2013), and several so-called “headwinds” due to demographic contraction, income inequality, and slowdown in productivity improvements (Heinberg 2011; Galbraith 2014; Gordon 2017; King 2018). Other scholars have ventured ambitious views and sweeping assessments of pending futures both as a result of evolving processes of social change (Silla 2017, Vänskä 2018; c.f. Pérez and Esposito 2010) and disruptive economic and environmental upheavals (Campbell et al 2019). The COVID-19 pandemic provided a new and mostly unanticipated jolt to this speculation as governments implemented lock-downs, workers vacated central cities, and shoppers abandoned their customary practices (Cohen 2020, Goffman 2020; Wells 2020; Bodenheimer and Leidenberger 2020).
This series of recent disruptions has generated a modest literature focused on the related themes of “post-consumerism,” “beyond consumerism,” and “end of consumer society.” Authors variously suggest that it is not unreasonable to anticipate a transformation of historic proportions where frantic shopping and consumption-fueled status acquisition fades away and are replaced by new practices and aspirations (Varey and McKie 2010; Cohen 2013; 2015a, 2015b; Cohen et al 2017; Blühdorn 2017). Importantly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there is quite a bit of divergence ‒ and indeed polarization ‒ on the basic contours of the era that might replace consumer society. Some commentators foresee a dystopic future characterized by multitudes of economically precarious neo-peasants and depleted natural environments (Standing 2011; Wallace-Wells 2019; McKibben 2019) while others offer more optimistic portrayals premised on, for instance, a digitally-driven leisure society (Rifkin 1995; Ferris 2009; Srnicek and Williams 2015).
This chapter traces out several of the main features of an anticipated transition beyond consumerism. The next section situates the discussion within the context of the familiar Stages of Economic Growth model originally introduced in the 1960s by the American economist, political theorist, and presidential advisor W. W. Rostow. The third section highlights how demographic contraction in most affluent countries will make it more difficult to achieve requisite annual increments of economic growth and this situation will lead to the active implementation of new metrics that supplant GDP. The chapter concludes with a few brief comments about the importance of governance in an eventual transition.
- The Rise of Consumer Society
One does not need to be a strict adherent of Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth model to accept its basic premise that societal development in many countries over the past approximately 200 years has tended to follow a broadly generic pattern of modernization (Rostow 1960; see also Rist 1997) (see Figure 1). Despite its neo-colonial conceptual underpinnings, the approach continues to attract considerable contemporary attention on the part of mainstream institutions and policy makers more than a half century after its initial formulation (see, e.g., Costa and Kehoe 2016). Starting from a baseline condition of “traditional society,” countries are envisioned to proceed to the “pre-take-off” stage and then to the “take-off” stage. Stability is achieved during the “maturity” stage and the process culminates with the “high-mass consumption” stage. To be sure, some nations have moved more steadily through the various phases and others more sluggishly; there are even indications of cases ‒ Pakistan is a prominent example ‒ of societies stalling out at a mid-stage of the progression. Further, there are instances that suggest it is possible under certain propitious circumstances to leapfrog particular stages of the sequential process (Soete 1985; Steinmueller 2001). The immediate point, however, centers on Rostow’s contention that the end-state of the linear evolution is achievement of a “high mass consumption” society.
Figure 1: Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth Model
What is for current purposes especially pertinent about Rostow’s model is that the “developmental” process terminates with the high-mass consumption phase. The framework does not consider what might happen when the structural underpinnings of this stage began to erode and what might supplant consumption as the organizational logic under such conditions (see Soper 2017; Trebeck and Williams 2019). While Rostow may have regarded mass consumption as the zenith of human civilization, other modernization theorists have long anticipated industrial revolutions that would supplant prevalent forms of consumerism (Bell 1976; Toffler 1980; see also Harrison 2016). Especially notable in this regard are the so-called “long-wave theories” of Nikolai Kondratieff (2010 ) and Joseph Schumpeter (1994 ) that posit the unfolding of sequential upsurges and downfalls of technologically driven development (see Figure 2). These conceptions have contributed to various expressions of techno-utopianism of which the most familiar manifestation today is Industry 4.0 that anticipates a future propelled by artificial intelligence, intelligent manufacturing and cyber-physical innovations (Schwab 2017) (see figure 3). Popularized by the World Economic Forum, the proposition is that we are on the verge of a massive wave of technoscientific change driven by advanced robotics, big data analytics, 3-D printing, the Internet of things, and more.
Figure 2: Schumpeterian Waves
Figure 3: Timeline from Industry 1.0 to Industry 4.0
It merits stressing here that a high-mass consumption society is not, as implied by Rostow, the inevitable endpoint of a developmental process. More specifically, the entrenchment of consumerism is attributable to massive assistance the part of policy makers, economic planners, and numerous others beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century. In the first instance, specific strategies were implemented to shift long-standing and deeply engrained propensities of would-be consumers to save surplus income rather than spend it on what in prior times were regarded as mostly superfluous goods. In other words, a prerequisite of consumerist lifestyles was the establishment and diffusion of a more present-oriented mindset. This shift entailed the implementation of publicly provided systems of social security, the assurance of a living wage for most workers, and the encouragement of lenient lending standards by financial institutions (Glickman 1997; Hayden 2002; Cohen 2003; De Grazia 2006; Hyman 2012; Cogan 2017). In addition, a consumer society rests on interdependent infrastructural and provisioning systems for housing, transportation, agriculture, and so forth to ensure cost-effective production and delivery over long distances (Lewis 1997; Rubenstein 2001; see also Petroski 2016). In addition, consumerism requires communications networks that allow ‒ and indeed encourage ‒ the permissive dissemination of promotional inducements to enliven and maintain demand (Jacobson and Mazur 1995; Schor 2004). And schools and other educational facilities need to adapt their curricula to emphasize instructional content that stimulates among students a desire to consume both presently and in the future (Molnar 1996; Spring 2003; Lin 2004).
To put these factors into a historical context, the contemporary consumer society ‒ at least the vanguard manifestation of it that exists in the United States ‒ arose from many of the same factors that gave rise to the Roosevelt-era New Deal. Chief among these catalysts was the need to incentivize consumers to absorb the surplus output of increasingly productive manufacturers and farms and to avoid the over-accumulation crisis that contributed to the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 (Douglas 1934; Jacobs 1999; Robbins 2017). Many of these same policies were then amplified following World War II to ensure stable and vigorous demand for houses, automobiles, and other durable consumer goods (Walker 2012; see also Harvey 2012).
While there has been variation across different countries, a unified storyline has in recent decades persisted across virtually all countries of the global North in which economics, politics, and policy making have been impelled by an expansionary logic. Central to this logic has been the expectation that population, affluence, energy use, and material consumption, would continue to increase into the indefinite future (Collins 2000; Schmelzer 2016). It was generally acknowledged that recessions of differing lengths of time were unavoidable but the general expectation was that economic growth was the accelerant of human well-being. Sustainability scientists, historians, and others have described this period as the “Great Acceleration” and have documented its implications across a wide range of material flows (Steffen et al 2007; McNeill and Engelke 2014).
- Anticipating a Future Beyond Consumer Society
Over the past approximately thirty years, new sensibilities have gradually begun to creep in and it is no longer heretical to speculate about the demise of consumer society. Separate from ‒ but in some cases in reaction to ‒ there are today numerous examples from around the world of people turning away from consumerist lifestyles and challenging long-standing commitments predicated on the idea that a good life is effectively achieved through material accumulation. Some lapsed consumers are joining communal networks that encourage participants to share a diverse range of products rather than purchase their own (Sekulova et al 2013; Schor 2010; Cohen 2017). Oher putative post-consumers are purposefully downshifting by cutting back on working hours while making proportionate reductions in consumption (Alexander and Ussher 2012; Kennedy et al 2013; but see also Lindsay at al 2020 and Antal 2020).
These defiant efforts are notable and represent what transitions researchers refer to as “niche-based” innovations (Cohen et al 2013; Geels et al 2015; Greene 2018; Welch and Southerton 2019). However, it requires ambitious vision ‒ and a big leap of faith ‒ to envisage how they might scale up and become more than interesting countercultural social experiments. Not infrequently, these initiatives encounter indifference, but they can also become targets for vociferous opposition because they fly forcefully in the face of existing societal arrangements and raise difficult questions about the efficacy of the prevailing political and macroeconomic order (see, for example, Kaufman 2009; Berry and Portney 2017).
Whole counties, regardless of the underlying reasons, can also find themselves impugned for diverting from the customary expansionary path. Especially notable in this regard is Japan which despite having the third largest economy in the world as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), has consistently struggled over the past three decades to meet standard growth expectations for affluent nations (Berman 2015; Pilling 2018; see also Klien 2016). The reasons for the country’s negligible rates of economic growth are complicated but the situation stems in large part from low fertility and demographic aging. Since the collapse of its widely celebrated “bubble economy” of the late 1980s, Japan has been trapped in a mostly unremitting process of contraction that has extended from the “lost decade” of the 1990s to the “lost decades” of the 2000s and 2010s (Fletcher and von Staden 2014; Funabashi and Kushner 2015). Most policy efforts to reverse this pattern ‒ for instance by incentivizing families to increase reproduction ‒ have failed to achieve their objectives.
Japan, however, is not alone and across large parts of Asia (Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore) extremely low fertility rates have become normalized and ‒ unless there is a highly unlikely reversal ‒ these nations will continue to follow in the path of their regional neighbor (Eggleston and Tuljapurkar 2011; Suzuki 2013; Pesek 2014). Recent demographic evidence from China suggests that even in the world’s most populous country, the future is apt to entail demographic (and economic) shrinkage in future decades. This is realization of the long-anticipated problem whereby the country is not able to become rich before it gets old (England 2005; Eberstadt and Verdery 2021)
Demographic contraction is by no means an exclusively Asian phenomenon. Most of Europe and North America is following a similar trajectory and absent significant changes in immigration policy will find themselves with smaller populations by the middle of the current century (Last 2013; Cohen 2016; Douglas 2020). It becomes extremely difficult, as the forerunner case of Japan demonstrates, to maintain positive rates of economic growth when population is shrinking.
As it becomes more challenging for countries of the global North to achieve satisfactory rates of consumer-driven economic growth, the extant circumstances will become discomfiting and will eventually become politically necessary to find new measures with which to demonstrate achievement. This pressure will be even more intense if nations such as Bangladesh, Egypt, and Vietnam continue to lead the international competition as they did in 2020. It is thus likely that governments of already affluent nations will need to deploy a new yardstick with which to demonstrate distinction. This situation brings to mind the economist Milton Friedman’s famous dictum that “Only a crisis ‒ actual or perceived ‒ produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
There is currently no shortage of alternatives “laying around.” Over the past three decades, economists and others have formulated novel measures that do not merely measure the aggregate size of a country’s output, but that rather focus on criteria that are more meaningful and important for enhancing credible conceptions of well-being (Fioramonti 2013; Lepenies 2016). Already familiar alternatives include the human development index (HDI), the index of healthy life expectancy (HLE), the genuine progress indicator (GPI), and index of sustainable economic welfare (ISEW) (Stockhammer et al 1997; Bleys 2012; Giannetti et al 2015). Interestingly (and probably a precursor of what is to come), several countries have already begun to calculate and publicize their performance on these alternative measures. Probably most famous is case of Bhutan that has long relied on its National Happiness Index (NHI) to assess societal progress (Bok 2013; Hayden 2015). In 2010, the French government sponsored a commission led by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi that produced a report entitled Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up that received a great deal of international attention (Stiglitz et al 2010; see also Thomas and Evans 2010 and Bijl 2011). The same year, the UK Office for National Statistics launched its Measuring National Wellbeing Programme and the results of an annual survey are published on an online dashboard and distributed through other means (Hicks et al 2013; Everett 2015). In 2019, the government of New Zealand began to use a wellbeing measure to set its national budget priorities (Roy 2019; Charlton 2019).
This is only a partial list of initiatives that have started to sideline GDP as the primary headline indicator of national progress and it seems inevitable that more governments across the global North will take similar action as they continue to encounter difficulty delivering on customary notions of success. In an effort to demonstrate that they “can get the job done” the goalposts will shift and new indices will gain greater prominence, over time supplanting GDP from its preeminent position.
Once the focus for evaluating the achievements of political parties becomes oriented less around impelling consumer-driven economic growth and more toward robust and effectual measures of well-being, we will likely start to see the withering of consumer society. This mode of socioeconomic organization will not be able to survive without the pump-priming public investments, enabling policy inducements, and tireless boosterism that governments have regularly been able to confer.
The foregoing discussion arguably helps to provide some insights into how consumerist lifestyles could recede but questions remain about what will follow. It remains difficult to discern whether the eventual demise of consumer society will give rise to a successor that privileges solidarity, equity, and inclusivity as opposed to disharmony, inequality and exclusivity. Much will depend on how we govern a transition beyond consumerist lifestyles and the choices we make along the way. This will mean purposeful planning of social change and dispensing with outmoded doctrines that have long ceased to provide useful guidance. We will likely need to develop new frameworks and vocabularies for talking about sufficiency, planetary boundaries, and societal obligations in novel and innovative ways.
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[*] The author is Professor of Sustainability Studies and Chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
 It merits noting that interest in post-consumerism tends to overlap with a number of other contemporary concepts involving the end of economic growth (post-growth, degrowth, and beyond growth), the winding down of capitalism, and the emergence of alternative conceptions of both prosperity and well-being. See Speth and Courrier (2021) for a useful synthesis of this complex and extensive literature. Also relevant here is research carried out over many years by Ronald Inglehart (1977) on “post-materialism” and more recent work by Amitai Etzioni (2004) on the “post-affluent society.”
 It is difficult to overestimate the extent to which Rostow’s conception has shaped thinking about the rocess of modernization over more than a half century (see, for example, Gilman 2004). It also merits notating that related conceptions such as the Kuznets Curve (and the Environmental Kuznets Curve) share many of the same tenets.
 This apparent termination, of course, brings to mind the famous and ferocious debate over Francis Fukuyama’s (1992) post-Cold War contention about the “end of history.”
 In addition to rising incomes, favorable consumer-finance arrangements (especially for home mortgages), ample supplies of consumer goods, and public investment in infrastructure it is important to acknowledge the role of industrial designers in facilitating the manufacture of products purposefully intended to prematurely breakdown and become obsolescent. The success of this business model was further abetted by an associated strategy whereby goods were (and continue to be) designed to need replacement because they are no longer fashionable. For detailed discussion of this issue, see Slade (2006).
 Popular expressions of moves away from consumerism include minimalism, small-scale living, zero waste, car-free lifestyles, shopping avoidance, plastic-free living, capsule wardrobes, meat-free diets, slow food and travel, and overcoming fast fashion (see Mackinnon 2021 for a useful overview).
 According to the World Bank, the five countries with the fastest growing economies over the five-year span 2013‒2018 were Ethiopia (9.4%), Ireland (8.6%), Ivory Coast (8.3%), Djibouti (7.7%), and Turkmenistan (7.6%).
 The literature on sustainable consumption governance provides a useful point of departure. See, for example, Fuchs and Lorek 2005; O’Rourke and Lollo (2015); Keller et al (2016); and Bengtsson et al (2018).