WHEN CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION BECOMES OVERLY CONSPICUOUS
We are all consumers now. The globalising tendencies of the world in which we live mean that, with very few exceptions, we seek to earn income to buy the things we need to live. Most of us no longer provide all we need from within the household, or within the community, but we engage in impersonal transactions, buying not just what we need, but if our income allows, then also what we want from people and places who, increasingly, we do not know.
The way in which wealth affects what we consume is, in some sense, obvious. But somewhat more interestingly, perhaps, is what happens to what we consume as we become wealthier. Writing in 1899, the institutional economist, Thorstein Veblen, wrote
the means of showing pecuniary strength, and so of retaining a good name, are leisure and the conspicuous consumption of goods. Accordingly, both of these methods are in vogue as far down the scale as it remains possible;…
…the utility of both [leisure and conspicuous consumption] alike for the purposes of reputability lies in the element of waste that is common to both.
Veblen’s view was that, in a society where wealth went hand in hand with ‘a good name’, conspicuous consumption was fashionable, and that waste was also in vogue. I wonder whether things have changed so much in the century and more that has passed since Veblen wrote these words.
Where people have lower incomes, they find value in things. We barely know how much waste in India is recycled because what is recycled is largely collected by waste pickers who are, for the most part, not part of the ‘formal’ waste management system. It’s also possible, in countries with very high average incomes, to make something approaching a decent wage from collecting beverage packaging in those jurisdictions which have implemented deposit refund schemes. One reason for this is that many people can’t be bothered to take a bottle back to a store to receive their deposit. Often these bottles are simply littered, and in the case of plastic, this can find its way to oceans, contributing to that most modern of environmental problems, that of marine litter: the word ‘boomerang’ could barely be more apt, as we now find ourselves consuming microplastics in the fish we eat.
Waste is a societal problem. It’s also one on which everyone has an opinion. Of all the problems that politicians have to cope with, waste is not usually the most expensive to ‘get right’. And yet, it leads to particular problems–of vermin and vector-borne disease–if it’s ‘done wrong’. Getting waste management right isn’t just about shifting the discarded materials away from people as rapidly as possible: increasingly, we understand that we need to capture the value in the materials that we discard. That value is multi-faceted. Consider, for example, that materials are embodied energy–we use energy to make what we consume. When Einstein wrote–around the same time as Veblen–about the difficulty people had in grasping the concept of the duality of matter and energy, he was talking about the subatomic realm, but he might just as well have been speaking about materials in waste. We know that making things from recycled materials uses less energy than making them from materials. As a result, managing waste better can help mitigate problems of climate change.
Just as materials are embodied energy, so parts of products have embodied value. Some complex parts of products take time and money to manufacture, and embody the capital investment and labour used to make them. Is it so surprising, therefore, that we see growing interest in re-manufacturing of parts of products that we consume? Why even resort to ‘only recycling’ if we can extract the parts of products that can readily be reused in new products, and avoid the cost of making those parts anew.
And why just reuse parts? If we made things differently, why would we not rely more on repair of items to ensure they can be reused? That might require that for products where it made sense to do so, we made things to be more durable than we currently do (so we could be con dent that they had a life after repair).
Looking at some of the entries for this year’s competition, a few themes struck me. First, that more and more of us are engaged in what Veblen once called conspicuous consumption, often through consumption of throw-away items which are consumed in massive volumes. And yet, at that time, what made this wasteful consumption ‘conspicuous’ was its exceptional nature. Now, wasteful consumption is all pervasive.
The second theme was the one of how waste moves. Just as primary commodities are traded internationally, so materials and products extracted from waste are also traded widely. This trade is not, however, always well controlled, and the money to be made in moving waste across countries is driving illegal movements in waste.
The third theme was one of the reliance of many families in Hong Kong on income from dealing with waste materials. So much of how people perceive the value in waste materials relates, at the moment, to people’s income: one man’s disposable can is another’s valuable aluminium. Extracting value from waste will, at whatever scale, generate income for those who do it successfully.
Fourth, there is the downside in that as products become more complex, and as they incorporate a wider range of potentially hazardous materials, we should be concerned about the effects of improper management of these materials. Ideally, we would design products such that these hazards were barely, present, if at all. In the absence of that, how can we help families to retain their source of income, but without causing damage either to themselves or to the environment?
As a final comment, the competition gives artists an opportunity to look at the matter of ‘waste’ through, literally, a different lens. The marriage of artistic creativity with the world of production and consumption is crucial if we are to manage materials better in future. We need to become as crafty at dealing with discarded products and materials as we are at making them. We can make that task much easier by thinking–at the product design stage– what might happen to the product, and the component parts of it, over its life. There is, after all, as the saying goes, no such place as ‘away’.