The Christmas season is a good time to think about why we are spending so much money, time and energy shopping for consumer products. During the holiday season, stores have extended hours and most everybody gets into an often-stressful shopping craze trying to get the perfect gift for everyone. In recent days, the electronics seller Best Buy kept trying to remind me and the rest of the nation’s consumers of the best way “to win the holidays,” which—not surprisingly—could be done by buying our loved ones the newest electronic toys carried in the Best Buy store down the street. It doesn’t even matter whether the gifts are wrapped nice; the most important thing is that we show our loved ones how important they are to us by spending lots of money. Consequently, the value of our relationships it seems can be measured dollars. But should it?
The American Research Group, Inc. recently conducted its 31st annual survey on holiday spending finding that Americans are planning on spending an average of $882 on Christmas gifts this year. A Gallup survey came to very similar results. To put this number into perspective, Gallup’s Lydia Saad notes that this year’s consumer holiday spending intentions are the “best” since 2007. These statistics are generally discussed in a very positive light. After all, increased consumption is good for retailers and thereby also for the country’s economy, or so the dominant economic paradigm makes us believe.
But let’s take a step back and rethink what this increased holiday consumption means beyond these standard fare conclusions. Apart from the fact that the vast majority of the products we will buy this year for Christmas are not made in the United States and therefore don’t create jobs here at home, spending more time shopping also means that we will have less time to spend with family and loved ones. Furthermore, Sociology Professor Juliet Schor argues that we are stuck in a cycle of work and spend in which consumption is the major form of reward for the long hours we spend working; and incidentally, the more we consume, the more time we will have to spend working to make more money so that we can afford the products we buy. In addition, Schor notes, consumption has become a social competition that we engage in to gain esteem, recognition, and status. Thereby, consumer lifestyles define who we are and how we fit into society. This means that consumption defines who we are and how we spend the majority of our time and we should ask ourselves if this is really what we want out of life.
In an interview with Stephen Colbert, social and environmental advocate Annie Leonard sums the status quo up as follows: “We used to own our stuff and now our stuff owns us.” This comes with great costs for our personal lives as well as for our planet. We have less leisure time than our European counterparts and we spend what leisure time we do have with shopping and watching television, both of which take the place of deeper happiness, Leonard argues. So what makes us happy? Studies have shown that leisure time, time with family, a sense of purpose, and quality social relations are what make us happy, not shopping. To account for that, some countries (e.g. Bhutan) as well as some U.S. states (e.g. Vermont and Maryland) have begun measuring happiness and well-being.
As for the planetary impact, the “work-watch-spend treadmill” disregards that “stuff has a secret life,” Leonard points out. Specifically, the environmental, health, and social costs associated with the production and disposal of stuff. Schor also argues that we are overusing the planet’s “natural capital” (i.e. the ecological resources of the earth). Consumerism treats ecological resources as free, but they are not—they belong to all of us.
So take some time this holiday season to consider what it is that really makes you happy and what stuff you really need in your life.