Can materialism make a better world?

Group of people with variety of shopping bags.

When 90% of global wealth is in the hands of just 10% of the population it’s unsurprising that questions are asked about the role of capitalism and materialism and their impact on society more generally. Over time, a black and white picture has evolved of materialistic consumers. They live in a different world, making choices where social responsibility and any kind of self-sacrifice have been crowded out. The focus is solely on the acquisition of money, material possessions and the status that comes with them. This kind of view risks oversimplification. And when it comes to finding more balanced and sustainable versions of consumer culture for the future, it’s important we start out with a full understanding of the materialists, as people, and not demons. In particular, the status-oriented materialist is assumed to be the product of the West and the cultural dominance of the individual, a product of the individual’s rights and freedoms. There are lessons to be taken from other cultures, where Western forms of capitalism and consumerism have been embraced. Populations of countries with cultures that have traditionally emphasised the importance of the collective have now become some of the world’s most enthusiastic materialists and highest spending shoppers.

The newest temples to consumerism are in places like Dubai (which has the world’s largest Mall), in Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, Tokyo’s Ginza; while the luxury boutiques of London, Paris and New York are filled with visitors from East Asia and the Middle East. Being a conspicuously high spender appears not to contradict an identity as part of a “collectivist” society - and, if anything, appears to be less controversial than in our individualist version.

All for Spending, Spending for All

People in more “collectivist” societies tend to see their membership of the group as a central part of their identity, and develop personal values that reflect the goals of the collective. This might be in terms of sacrificing their own self-interest for the sake of collective interests, as well as maintaining harmonious relationships with others. So in principle, the collectivists are likely to look for and value ownership of things that allow them to keep up those collective interests and goals. In emerging markets and among ethnic communities, people consume conspicuously, via the luxury brands or imported products, that cast a positive light upon their group in general. The wisdom of Confucius, for example, sees aspirational consumption as a means of demonstrating a social virtue, a form of

fulfilling a duty to the family. It’s also true, of course, that individualistic cultures will also engage in collective-oriented consumption, such as gift-giving, public donation, and green consumption, as a way of demonstrating qualities of altruism and social concern. There’s a trend globally towards more socially aware consumption. In a Nielsen survey in 2014, around half of international consumers surveyed said they were willing to pay more for products and services from companies committed to making a positive social impact.

Unpacking the Buyers 

In our research we surveyed 1,200 consumers split between what is regarded as a highly individualist culture in the USA on one side, and on the other, those from China, India and Thailand. There’s an interesting mixture of cultures and factors affecting attitudes to wealth and how it should be used. In the USA there’s the ‘‘American dream’’, the model of success and happiness based on monetary wealth; but which also includes consumers who value ideals such as equality, religious faith, and charity. The Asian cluster is made up of a geographically and culturally diverse set of countries. China, India, and Thailand were chosen as a way of representing distinct cultural clusters in Asia. China is part of the Confucian-influenced cluster (alongside Singapore, Japan, and South Korea) that centres around social hierarchy, observance of standardised rituals, and collective harmony. Thailand shares these Confucian traditions, but their collective ideals are also shaped largely by Buddhism, which advocates compassion and kindness (alongside Indonesia and Malaysia). India displays similar collectivistic traditions to China and Thailand in its hierarchical classbased system, commitment to tradition, conformity, and strong family ties, but is also relatively more individualistic than China and Thailand, as its religious foundation in Hinduism believes that individuals are responsible for leading the lives that positively impact on their rebirth. A common factor across these Asian countries is the emphasis on interpersonal relationships, embedded across people’s daily rituals.

Our focus has been to understand the nature and consequences of “collective-oriented materialism”; does this kind of behaviour exist among consumers across the different cultures, and what impact does it have on consumer choices?

Material Balance 

Results from our research show that collective-oriented materialism can be found across all the country groups, but exists in different ways. US consumers highlight a fundamental tension and conflict in attitudes and values. Generally-speaking they see a significant gap between materialism and any kind of collective-oriented values, they are different worlds. The self-oriented culture of materialism remains rife in the US; but at the same time, the group also had a stronger sense of the value of the religious and spiritual opposition to the materialistic. Merging or balancing the two sides is a clear issue. And as a result, those US consumers who subscribe to the importance of both sides, to individual wealth as well as a degree of spirituality and responsibility to the wider society, prefer to keep their consumption inconspicuous, non-branded and at lower levels in terms of cost. In the Chinese, Indian, and Thai data, there’s an essential difference: materialism positively links to collective-oriented values - there’s a social purpose to their consumption.

These insights are important to understanding consumers internationally, and for looking at future efforts to make consumption more responsible and sustainable. For example, the findings show that shoppers in China, India, and Thailand actively respond to products that will increase their acceptance and reputation as part of their society and community over the more expensive and ostentatious brands. So global businesses and non-profits are likely to benefit from promoting their offerings in a way that clearly demonstrates the consumers’ duty and commitment to their social group: marketing promotions that advocate interpersonal ties (such as filial piety) or employ visible logos to mark their link to charitable funds and socially responsible activities; anything that helps customers to publicly display their social commitment.

Marketing to different cultures requires different strategies. In the US, consumers respond better to the abstract and spiritual, alongside ways to reduce their reliance on price and brand-visible purchases, rather than the interpersonal ideals of the collective. Global marketers and policymakers who wish to tap into the potential for collective-oriented materialism in individualistic societies, particularly in Western countries, should be looking to promote the private incentives and rewards such as tax rebates, cashback and the kinds of seemingly unrelated personal challenges - such as the social media campaign on ALS, the ‘‘ice bucket challenge’’ - which consumers can use to reaffirm their social conscience rather than via consumption as such.

There is great potential for a collaborative effort by global businesses, NGOs, and those involved in developing policy to promote collective-oriented materialism, steering a course which better balances economic prosperity and materialism with social goals and needs. Such a commitment, however, will require a conscious engagement in marketing activities with mutual benefits in mind.

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