Is consumerism shaming us into a culture of unsustainable living?
Guests had already arrived and I was waiting for my mom to be back from her job so that she could lessen the awkwardness of hosting. After a wait of some time which seemed longer, my mom enters the house with some groceries and a pack of new plastic water bottles. I wondered if we needed new bottles as we already had plenty. I thought my mom had forgotten or misjudged their need and told her that we already had bottles in the fridge.
“It doesn’t look good on us to keep water in these," she replied.
The very despised and "looked-down-upon" product in my fridge were reused soft drink bottles. It led me to think if our society makes us conform to its less sustainable methods of living with social acceptance and fitting in as bait.
We live in a culture that encourages competition.
The kind of competition that often favors those who “seem” or “look” well to do, a blatant misjudgment of the standard of living, is happening as a result of our heuristical thinking. In order to look rich, it seems obvious that one would try to afford more specialized products, which inevitably results in going against the reduce-reuse-recycle formula (a mandate of our moral science lectures).
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In an attempt to first convince ourselves, and then others that we are well to do, we often believe that we should get rid of practices that may seem “too middle-class”, heavily mistaken that these practices reduce waste, promote the judicious use of resources, and inevitably help the environment. Using myriad cosmetic products and staying away from home remedies, throwing away containers and glassware with the slightest hint of a crack, or getting new products in an attempt to keep up with the trend, all take us deeper in the spiral of consumerism leading to greater waste generation.
However, it might be narrow-minded to assume solely the individual’s predispositions in determining the causes of such behavior. It is often a result of societal and our immediate cultural forces that willingly or not make us fall into the trap. We feel compelled to discard repairable, still-usable items with the slightest defects, and why?
The “What Will People Say” syndrome takes the wheel because it doesn’t look good upon us. Sadly, sustainable living demands a degree of shamelessness and immunity from the judgment of society to the extent that those who practice sustainable living are often seen as superhumans, thus it is perceived as deviant from the natural way of living.
Such kind of normative influence of the society’s consensus can also pave way for unique ways of turning a crisis into an opportunity. In a study by Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius (2008), it was found that normative appeals relevant to a person’s immediate environment were most likely to cause a behavior change as compared to descriptive and traditional appeals. This also indicates that social change campaigns can make use of such appeals to get people to comply with sustainable standards.
Even after several efforts to make people more aware, it remains a matter of concern that sustainable ways of living have not yet become the norm and require resistance of subtle social pressure of conforming to the consumeristic, and hence, more waste-generating lifestyle. However, as more people find the courage to defy its normative influence, it is likely to encourage others to adopt healthier ways as they might have always wanted to. As time passes, people are educated about this issue, and the awareness spreads, it is likely that soon enough sustainability becomes a trend and is seen as a more natural and Taoistic way of being.
Goldstein, N. J. C. Robert and Griskevicius, Vlad (2008),“. A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels,” Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 472-82. https://doi.org/10.1086/586910
Titiksha Pathak is a psychology major looking to tackle "sustainability shaming" and enable a culture of sustainable living through behavioural change.