Editor's Choice

Consumer atrophy

Rob Walker's column about the "new frugality" nicely skewers the concept.

We were told our willingness to spend more — on fair-trade coffee, eco-friendly totes, organic dog food — demonstrated a fresh consumer sophistication that would change the marketplace. Now, suddenly, our values are reflected in cheap shirts from Costco.

A new normal that revolves around buying lots of stuff while bragging about our bargain-hunting skills doesn’t seem to reflect changed values.

That's a good concise way of getting across something I've been trying to express but have managed only to formulate somewhat inchoately in posts like these.

Walker ends the essay on this faintly hopeful conundrum: "If there’s a deeper shift in our thinking, it’s still to come. And maybe it will. After all, the mere fact that we have managed to characterize consumer shock as frugality chic offers a perverse form of hope: That whatever happens, we’ll never lose our tendency toward optimism — even, it turns out, about our pessimism." But to be honest, this strikes me as all the more reason to be pessimistic, since optimism usually strikes me as ideologically induced naivete. It's better than being miserable, but it licenses our perpetuating in the same self-defeating practices with regard to consumerism all in the name of a dream -- that dream of finding our perfect reflection there in the world of things rather than discover it through the more arduous but more fulfilling route of making and doing. (I can anticipate the objections: Shopping is doing! Consuming is producing! I would argue that they successfully simulate those things while simultaneously promising an escape from them. Shopping has developed the alibi of plausibly passing as "self-actualizing.") I have a hard time reconciling optimism to anything but sunny yes-man-ism, and some critical scrutiny on a society-wide scale will be necessary to uproot consumerist fall-backs.

PSFK linked to this LA Times article that basically epitomizes the new dispensation on consumer behavior. The key goal for service-feature writers in the mass media is to show us how we can maintain the consumer mindset -- shopping with style for self-definition -- only without our having to spend as much (for the time being). This allows us to hold the cherished consumerist attitude in abeyance, keep it well-exercised and prevent it from atrophying while we wait for the economy to turn. Doing away with the mind-set is, of course, unthinkable.

Here, in this article, the formula is simple: Send a celebrity to a closeout discounter and watch him turn junk into magic with his imprimatur! In this case, Philippe Starck.

Famous for putting a modern spin on 18th century French furniture and for creating exquisite environments using expensive materials and craftsmanship, Starck also embraces sensible consumerism. Buy quality over quantity, he says.

"You must be very rigorous," he says, sifting through discounted wares in search of the gems. "Try to find the essence, the most iconic or simple representation of a thing. Look for the bowl that looks most like a bowl. That means we must avoid colors and patterns, and everything that can be trendy."

Starck is also worried about the kids:

"In a crisis, we have to think about our children and especially push their creativity," he says. "If capitalism is failing because it is a selfish system, we can teach them to reinvent society so that it is based on sharing."
A nice sentiment -- but what prompted this reflection? Prada green.
Starck is pleased by the store's furnishings and art supplies for kids. He picks out the aforementioned folding table and chairs, as well as sidewalk chalk, a 240-piece paint and marker set, a packet of paper in a color he dubs "Prada green" and a 10-pack of No. 2 pencils. Total: less than $50.

In general, the media-appointed style mavens always make an appeal to art and timelessness, which on its face seems ludicrous, since nothing is less enduring than fashion dictates. But the trope is important as an analogue for what is truly timeless from the point of view of the fashion industries -- that is, consumerism. The idea that we'll all reach a point where we don't care about the message we send with the "essence" of our bowls and our Prada green is too terrible for them to contemplate.

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