Why is “Consumer” a Bad Word?

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Sustainability requires that we be sustainers or customers, but not consumers. “Consumer” is banned because consuming is unsustainable.

The epithet “consumer” is banned from my sustainability courses. It is an epithet because it disrespectfully reduces the marvelous complexity of every human to merely a cog in the economic machine.

“Consumer” is banned because consuming is unsustainable.

However it doesn’t have to be this way. Consumption is not an inherent human characteristic arising from ignorance or greed. Consumption was planned as a panicked transition from booming wartime capacity suddenly silenced by peace in 1945.

Men were coming home; women had a taste of freedom, self-sufficiency and participation. Expectations were high. As U.S. retailing analyst Victor Libow wrote in the 1946 Journal of Marketing, “Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption … we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

In 1946, a good consumer was a good citizen.

State of the World 2010 Transforming Cultures reports that “consumer” is now often used interchangeably with “person” in the 10 most commonly used languages of the world.

Sustainability requires that we be sustainers or producers or savers or contributors or maybe even customers, but not consumers. Ban that epithet from your lexicon, too.

The question now is: how can we improve socially conscious consumerism?

Adjunct Professor Steven Moore teaches sustainability at the Queen’s School of Business and School of Environmental Studies.

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