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Themes from the Sociology of Consumption


Don Slater, Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths College, University of London

From the Reader distributed for the Consumption, Everyday Life and Sustainability Summer School 1999, Lancaster University. For table of contents with links to all of the other papers of the reader, click here

Presented at Consumption, Environment, and the Social Sciences Seminar, 6-7 July 1998


This short paper considers some themes in the sociology of consumption from the point of view of an interest in environmental issues. I am most concerned firstly to think about how the environment shows up within various perspectives on consumption; secondly to think about how current themes in the sociology of consumption might be problematic for environmentalist perspectives. I want to focus largely on the old idea that consumer culture is somehow incompatible with environmentalism, usually on the basis that modern consumption is characterised by an inexorable dynamic of increasing needs and goods which is either damaging to the environment or reaches its limits in crises of sustainability. This might not be the most current way of framing the issues but it is the one that leaps most readily to mind.


For the most part, theorists and critics of consumer culture have registered ‘the environment’ as an externality. On the one hand, the environment is the object world that comprises resources to be mastered in order to satisfy human needs. This is clear in the mainstream liberal traditions at the centre of whose universe is a desiring subject that relates to the world through rational calculation and choice of utilities, through technology and through ownership of things. It is equally clear in the Marxian theme of the heroic expansion of forces of production under capitalism, a process which through scientific and technical progress, exploration and discovery, discovers new use values (which in turn produces more highly developed human needs). On the other hand, ‘the environment’ appears in various crises that emerge between subject and object: either the insatiable needs of the modern consumer or the structurally essential production of never-ending needs by the capitalist social order meets its limits in an environment which cannot sustain such demands and starts exacting a toll in the form of shortage, damage to the eco-system, over-complexity, and so on. The environment is a limit to the insatiable needs generated within consumer culture.


Perspectives on consumer culture that do not start from the subject/object split, and therefore the environment as externality – or that consider this split as a social structural problem – tend to be utopian, as in those based on a Hegelian dynamic of reconciliation. For example, elements in Marcuse’s work as well as Adorno’s: the critique of instrumental reason – of the mastery of a disenchanted object world by a subject whose needs are the only source of meaning – naturally leads to a requirement that nature be accorded some form of subjectivity. The danger of utopianism, of course, resides in displacing all meaning onto a future state of transparency between people and their world, and labelling the social – in this case consumerism – as the source of all obscurity.


For example, there is a long and often conservative or even reactionary tradition of romanticism or organicism. From this perspective (which dates from the mid-C18 and can be mapped alongside Raymond Williams’ ‘culture and society’ tradition), consumer culture exemplifies the modern – industrial, capitalist, democratic – destruction of traditional ways of life. These are increasingly seen as organic, natural, in tune with nature and comprising a known, stable and unchanging world in which people knew their own needs as well as their social place. For example, Leavis and Thompson take as their benchmark of authentic living a preindustrial ‘art of life, a way of living, ordered and patterned, involving the social arts, codes of intercourse and a responsive adjustment, growing out of immemorial experience, to the natural environment and the rhythm of the year.’ (Leavis and Thompson, 1933: 3). Leavis’ nostalgia for a lost organic community, but also Marx’s utopian hope for a future overcoming of alienation, assume that an external relation to the environment is a specifically modern problem. In both cases, the fundamental cause of modern alienation is understood as a separation of production and consumption, a separation that arises from both industrial modes of production and market-mediated distribution of commodities: these destroy that organic world in which production is directly for consumption and therefore the relation between needs and things, human culture and natural resources is transparent and harmonious. This romanticism continues to play a significant part in contemporary environmentalism as well as modern primitivism, new ageism and so on.


Finally, it is important that many visions of overcoming alienation or reconciling subject and object assume a post-scarcity world. This is particularly the case within socialist and marxist perspectives where the alienations that arise from the drive to production – and which are poorly recompensed through being a consumer – are to be cured by yet further production, or by reaching a point of productivity at which the population is released from mundane drudgery (‘realm of necessity’) and enabled to fish in the morning and philosophise in the afternoon. The split between worker and consumer, between making and using things, is overcome by envisaging the end of work. In this case a recovered oneness with nature – accomplished at the exit point from industrial capitalism – is to be secured through an efficient exploitation of nature that assumes it to be infinitely sustaining.


Consumption and growth

The origins of modern western consumer culture are generally associated with a systematic growth in productive forces in step with a systematic expansion of needs, wants and material lifestyles. Both are often seen as a pushing beyond various natural limits so that the expansion of both needs and goods becomes an almost autonomous dynamic: there is no limit to what a consumer can dream of wanting, nor a limit to what a modern producer can make, or in what quantity. We will take up the issue of needs and natural limits again below. The central point here is that this limitless expansion is seen as systemic from the late C17 onwards, a key moment being marked by de Quesnay’s Tableau Economique, or later Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees. In both cases consumption – especially consumption beyond the ‘necessary’, ‘private vices’ – are regarded not as waste, as a deficit from economy but rather as a central point within economic reproduction. Economic stability and prosperity require sufficient effective demand in the economy to buy the increasing productive output. This new view is based on a technical view of the relation between needs and economies rather than a religio-moral ascetic condemnation of ‘luxury’ (backed up by sumptuary laws). It relates consumption to the systemic needs of an expanding, but crisis-ridden, capitalist economy rather than to the preservation of a traditional social order.


Although technical rather than moral, the shift to seeing consumption as a moment within the expanded reproduction of an economic system is linked to its own ethical framework, articulated best in liberalism: the needs of the individual are entirely private to themselves, are in a sense their own property and central to their liberty. The social contract and the social legitimacy of public institutions are not based on the pursuit of particular substantive goods – the satisfaction of certain needs, to a certain quantity, that are deemed socially good – but rather on the system’s capacity to ‘deliver the goods’, to respond to the self-defined desires of the individual (expressed through effective market demand, or occasionally through political voice). Hence the common critique that in a consumer culture, politics as public debate on the good life is replaced by periodic election of those experts who might best run the economy: substantive rationality is replaced by a formal managerial rationality which is nonetheless based on a substantive ethos of privacy and individualism.


The direct line of succession from de Quesnay runs through figures like Malthus, Marx, Keynes and French Regulation theory, all of which pose the technical problem of articulating a system of expanding production with its internally necessary system of expanding consumption. Contemporary sociology of consumption has generally thought these issues in terms of Fordism and the putative transition to post-Fordism. The mass production system that gathered steam from the 1880s required a system of mass consumption in order to absorb the massive volume increase and global distribution of standardised goods manufactured at ever lowering unit cost. This was achieved through such mechanisms as stable, managed increases in wages for unionised labour, managed through national bargaining systems to which government and employers were party, and allowing an ever higher standard of living subject to workers surrendering all control over production at the work place and accepting a system in which standard of living was increased through increased purchase of commodities. The modern worker and the modern consumer were born of the same moment, a moment which defined social progress in terms of steadily increasing needs and commodities. This articulation reached various limits, and new possibilities – economic, technical, cultural – in the 1960s and 1970s whereby the logic of needs and goods shifted to increasing diversification rather than massification as the vehicle for articulating the elements of a still-expanding system. Post-Fordist flexible accumulation, reliance on information technologies and niche marketing involve a logic of expansion which is not based on economies of scale but on an intensive cultivation of lifestyles and consumption cultures.


We might point out one set of problems in thinking through the articulation of production and consumption in relation to the environment: It is not obvious that expansion of the productive forces is in itself the central environmental problem, nor that capitalist systems are more expansive – and in an environmentally damaging way – than other modern alternatives. Above all, the issue is how to register future environmental costs in today’s production and consumption. Neither markets nor central planning have proved able to incorporate a future tense, though in theory either could: the issue has been largely seen as a political one of using expert knowledge of the environment to impose economic disincentives or statutory regulation (in both cases, the interests of the environment are again treated as external interests that have to be imposed on production/consumption). The alternative – which seems to be expressed in various environmentalist discourses – is a kind of cultural revolution through which we come to see the relation between needs, production and environment differently, for example through an ethos of responsibility, or of being caretakers of a world that needs to be passed on intact. However, it is hard to see how these cultural shifts translate into systemic regulation: what are required are modes of articulating production and consumption that are empirically efficient in coordinating highly complex and spatio-temporally disparate modern social actions, while registering collective and long-term consequences of those actions.


The problem of needs

A central problem for the sociology of consumption has been that although it is fairly straightforward to characterise the overwhelmingly expansionist forces that build up within industrial capitalism, it is far harder to understand the massive expansion of needs and desires that seem to sustain it without resorting to explanations that are either functionalist (‘the system creates the needs it needs’), or conspiratorial (‘hidden persuaders manipulate us into needing what we otherwise would not even want’), or essentialist (‘people’s needs are naturally insatiable because they evolve through a logic of emulation/greed/pleasure principle/excess/etc’). Or – in the mainstream economic and liberal view – industrial capitalist expansion is merely a competitive response to the authority of a consumer whose expanding needs are simply a given, a fact of life to be (statistically) described but not explained.

None of these accounts of needs are viable; and all of them feed the least productive side of debates on consumer culture: the opposition between characterising needs as determined by social powers and regarding them as arising from autonomous individual self-determination, needs as slavery or as freedom. Nonetheless we will have to rehearse some of these arguments.

Firstly, as already noted, the transition from traditional to modern society is frequently characterised by a transformed dynamic of needs and desires: crudely, traditional society is held to be restricted both by scarcity and by social regulation to a limited number of basic and unchanging needs. ‘Luxury’ – desires beyond this repertoire – is appropriate only to the political obligations of representation and patronage that form part of ruling class life; in other parts of the population luxury – desires above one’s station – are an offence against the moral, religious and social order. Modernity removes these limits to desire (for some sectors of the population) both through its massive production of material abundance and through new constructions of individual and society. In the extreme utilitarian or liberal view, the concept of ‘need’ – of particular desires that are legitimate because they are more basic or natural – is entirely replaced by the idea of ‘wants’: desires that are legitimate simply by virtue of being experienced by a free citizen. One is free to pursue any desire; social judgement is reserved not for what one chooses to pursue but for the rationality with which one goes about pursuing it.


Secondly, the historical move from needs to wants is associated not only with a change in quantity or importance but also a shift towards needs and goods which are deemed somehow more cultural or symbolic. This is a particularly dubious but hugely prestigious basis for condemnations of consumer culture: in contrast to traditional or ‘organic’ communities, modern consumption has become increasingly governed by sign values, by logics of prestige, emulation, ‘codes’, positionality and status competition, and so on. The underlying argument, and condemnation, rests on three points: firstly, that one can imagine any forms of consumption in any society that are not fundamentally mediated through cultural forms, that one can treat ‘symbolic needs’ as somehow equivalent to luxury or surplus; secondly, that cultural forms are either ethically or practically less important than the pragmatic necessities they mediate, that culture can be regarded as secondary or as ‘artificial’; thirdly, that symbolic needs are somehow more manipulable, malleable and – again – artificial than ‘real’ physical needs, which are then treated as the basis of critical thought and resistance to forces (like advertising) that manipulate individuals through inculcating ‘artificial’ needs. Hence consumer culture is often characterised as infinitely expanding and insatiable on the basis of the open-endedness of the symbolic itself (in contrast to the limits physicality, equated with the real).


Thirdly, there are somewhat more interesting debates about the social consequences of a modernity that has lifted the lid on needs and wants, a society that takes the open-endedness of needs as a premise. For example, in Durkheim the deregulation of desire is fundamental to modern anomie, in which the individual becomes disoriented and without reliable standards and expectations. Simmel and Marx both characterise the consequences of deregulation dialectically: both argue that, on the one hand, the expansion of both subjective desire and objective culture complexifies the human, creating (in Marx) a subject that is potentially ‘rich in needs’ or (in Simmel) one capable of increasing refinement and discrimination; on the other hand, (in Simmel) under contemporary urban conditions this results in a wayward veering between neurasthenia and the blasé attitude, while (in Marx) the exploitative social relations of production split desire between a sybaritic bourgeoisie and a proletariat that has sunk below the level of human need altogether. Intriguingly, sustainability is not an issue for any of these authors; the limits on needs are rather the individual’s and the social order’s capacity to assimilate an expanding material culture.


All of these points relate to a sense that modern consumer culture both deregulates desire and actually constitutes an engine for generating new desires – which the production system can meet – on a theoretically unlimited scale. The response – which has informed much environmentalism – tends to be a desire to return to basics, to find a degree zero of (qualitatively and quantitatively) indisputable need which would place a limit on demands on the environment. This degree zero may be identified moralistically (a puritan condemnation of ‘excessive’ consumption or of consumption as such) or pseudo scientifically through claims about human nature.


Although sociologists of consumption have veered rather wildly between relativism on the one hand and critical positions based on notions of ‘real needs’ on the other, neither position is in itself tenable, and the real lessons from consumption studies lie at a deeper level: Firstly, all consumption is cultural, meaningful, historical. Even the most apparently universal bodily and existential needs are not only mediated through culture but may indeed be sacrificed to higher cultural goals or values. Notions of the sacred or taboo, for example, may regularly cancel out supposedly unquestionable needs of survival. Needs, goods and consumption can only be generated and experienced within particular languages, practices, relations.


Secondly, however, while an environmentalism based on a return to, a stripping down to, basic needs may be highly questionable, nonetheless notions of real or basic or necessary needs are hugely important within most societies. Claims about basic needs or real needs are political claims – they are ways of putting forward and contesting statements about desired forms of life and the resources that are necessary in order to produce and reproduce them. The point for the analyst is not to decide on what are really real needs, but to look at the ways in which visions of the good life and claims on resources are adjudicated within a given society. On that basis, we might think about a society based on commodification, market exchange, profit motive and so on, all of which have a stake in proliferating both desires and commodities in relation to short term gain. What kind of ‘politics of need’ do we need? The issue is not how to establish some baseline of real need, but to think through what kinds of languages, institutions, processes, resources might allow people fully to articulate and elaborate through dialogue their notions of the good life, to debate both those notions and their implicit resource claims with others, to bring to bear on all need claims the most developed empirical knowledge of how to realise them efficiently and with full cognisance of environmental consequences, and so on.


Thirdly, there are dangers in treating culture as a secondary or historically later addition to need, or culturally specific wants as somehow less important than ‘universal’ or bodily needs. To treat culture and meaning as a surplus or luxury above basic needs is politically to marginalise the central importance of consumption: the reproduction of a specific desired form of life through material resources and social practices. The environmental issue of sustainability cannot be formulated in terms of reducing culture down to ‘real’ or bodily needs; the issue is one of establishing systems of provisioning and ways of life to whom sustainability is an integral and conscious issue.


Civic consciousness

There is another, possibly less frequently voiced, theme within the sociology of consumption that directly addresses the possibility of an environmental politics, or environmental consciousness.


Most critical theories have reckoned the role of consumer to be antithetical to that of citizen on at least three counts: individualism, materialism and an orientation to the present rather than to a collective sense of history or future. This judgement mirrors western judgements of both trade and domestic reproduction and goes back to ancient thought (Arendt 1958). In Arendt’s formulation, ancient thought conceived these to be enslaved by needs and the daily rounds of struggle for survival which they dictate. This orientation is incompatible with striding a public stage that concerns itself with the social, the heroic, the good life and the construction of a culture and honour that is to persist beyond the individual’s life into ‘all eternity’.


In addition to the classical and neo-stoic ideals of politics existing at a point of freedom from the needs of material reproduction or gain, there is another ideal of politics as offering a transparent or demystified relation to material reproduction, a way of raising these imperatives out of the individual, the material and the present tense. At a further point, both politics and market-based consumerism are transcended by rational planning, as in the tradition of scientific socialism, based on the properly rational ‘administration of things’ rather than people. The ideal is for questions of needs to be removed from the private and individual domain to the public domain of scientific planning and of democratic decision making.


In general, then, the consumer is judged ignoble in comparison to the citizen, who represents the true dignity of man (sic) and is judged incapable of attending to long-term and collective interests. The environmental upshot is a society that has at its core, its engine, a self-serving creature wedded to material wants that it pursues mindless of any consequence; and an institutional and ideological structure – market liberalism – that equates this creature with liberty, justice and the good life.


This is no more adequate a basis for contextualising social relations to the environment than is the liberal lionisation of unconstrained individual liberty. Firstly, the critical disdain of materialism, discussed above, is clearly connected to a specific disdain of material reproduction and all those responsible for it – all women and socially subordinate men, a disdain that Veblen brilliantly and bitterly savaged long ago: dependence on useful labour in the private domain is the real object of an essentially patrician and patriarchal attack. In the contemporary disdain of consumerism, figures of the private domain – women, children, the elderly, minorities – are at once seen as confined to the realm of mundane necessity and drudgery and at the same time are seen as frivolous, irrational consumers. They are characterised as essentially unfree whether by association with basic physical reproduction or with ‘artificial’ consumerist desires. The point is that either way they are seen as figures of private desires rather than of a social publicness. It would seem then that what is needed is a critique of the split between private and public, between what are deemed domestic needs as opposed to collective ends. An environmentalism that in any way endorses this splitting off essentially throws out the deeper political issues of gender, sexuality, familialism and their mapping onto ‘race’, class and other structural divisions.


Secondly – and closely related – just as, for Arendt, the ancient counterpoint to the individualism and present-tenseness of need was the collectivism and eternal time-frame of public culture, honour and achievement, so too there is a tendency to treat ‘the global’ – the temporal and spatial scale of ‘the Earth’ – as the proper perspective from which to view mundane needs and responsibilities. This is another form of splitting off which unhelpfully transforms actual social systems of needs and wants from cultural datum into objects of moral condemnation. It may also reproduce a peculiarly modernist or Romantic form of self-righteousness on the part of those who take the side of Mother Earth, the animal world, Nature, whose self-understanding as representatives of the universal allows them to see the entire existent systems of social need and provision from outside and as somehow easily and properly dismissable.


Thirdly, on the other hand, environmentalist campaigns have been amongst those movements which, as children of the sixties, learned to see politics everywhere, particularly to understand politics as located in the everyday and to understand the everyday as political. This entailed a broadening of politics into culture and subjectivity, into new forms of organisation. More specifically, environmentalism – along with consumerist boycotts such as over South Africa – is one of the few perspectives from which the consumer role and actions can be reformulated in political terms. While this has clearly been evidenced in new forms of action and organisation, there has also been a marked tendency to moralise rather than politicise consumption: firstly, a tendency to see consumption in terms of individual responsibility – reckoned in either guilt, self-righteousness or cynicism – that merely perpetuates the logic of consumer culture; secondly, a moralistic and purist tendency simply to condemn modern consumption and the majority of consumers that merely replicates the vanguardism of so many modernist political and cultural movements.



Possibly the main lesson of the past twenty years of sociology of consumption is that consumption is not an object to be critiqued (or indeed applauded) from an external moral standpoint, as if one could, in conclusion, decide that ‘it’ is a bad thing that we should do without. This position may take a puritan (or indeed Stalinist) viewpoint that consumption is in itself bad – morally, technically, politically – because only work and future-oriented investment is good. More usually it takes the form of comparing contemporary consumption against some external yardstick of a (pre or post modern) society that is deemed more transparent, organic and rooted in indisputable needs.


To the contrary, once one has taken seriously the cultural and historical character of all consumption, the omnipresence of both needs and wants, the contextual character of any distinctions between basic and secondary needs, or basic and luxury goods – then one is in a position to think more analytically and critically about what is particular about consumer culture, about the specific conjuncture of modern rationalism, industry, capitalism and democracy as a basis of developing and resourcing systems of need.



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