The shopping spree is over

The once almighty market has lost control of consumers, argue Tim Lang and Yiannis Gabriel

Tim Lang,Yiannis Gabriel
Saturday 02 September 1995 23:02 BST

AS THE 20th century draws to a close, the consumer appears to be an unchallenged and god-like figure, before whom markets and politicians bow. Consumers dictate production, fuel innovation, are courted by manufacturers and create new service sectors in advanced economies. They drive modern politics and even have it in their power to save the environment.

Yet at its moment of triumph, consumerism is under threat. Even the 45- to 64-year-olds with grown-up children and surplus cash - dream consumers according to the market researchers Mintel - are now too busy working or feel too insecure in their jobs to pursue the spendthrift habits of the past. Overwork, fear and job insecurity are not good motivators for consumption.

All this undermines the idea that cultural progress can be measured in material goods (the "feelgood factor" first heralded in Britain by Harold Macmillan in his celebrated "you've never had it so good" remark). People are placing greater stress on home, security and emotional warmth.

Reluctance to spend is one symptom of the current malaise of consumerism. Western consumers have also been afflicted by ethical consumption, or concern about the circumstances of production of the goods they consume or their environmental implications. Nor do they just quietly withdraw their custom from products they deem undesirable. Ethical Consumer, the magazine that monitors and supports boycotts, reported last week that there are currently 36 national boycotts in the UK. Three are targeted at Texaco: for exploitation of tribal lands (called by Survival International), for refusal to hire anyone either carrying HIV or refusing a test (called by Act Up) and for investment in Burma (called by the Burma Action Group). Some boycotts have been going for years, such as the Nestle boycott for its alleged irresponsible marketing of breast milk substitutes. Others are more recent, such as Animal Aid's appeal to consumers to boycott poultry meat on grounds of ill-treatment en route to the slaughterhouse. The emergence of this truculent consumer challenges not just business but consumer organisations, whose membership is steadily declining.

WESTERN consumerism has been based upon an unwritten deal pioneered by Henry Ford for his employees early this century: ever increasing standards of living in exchange for a quiescent labour force. Ford summed it up thus: "If you cut wages, you just cut the number of your customers." At the heart of the Fordist Deal lay the concept of control: control of the worker through the machinery of mass production; control of the consumer through the ideological machinery of advertising and the images disseminated by the mass media.

Western industry is finding it increasingly difficult to deliver its side of the deal. Lean production techniques, pioneered by Toyota engineers and currently followed by almost everybody, lead to lean companies, staffed by a smaller, more flexible, more highly skilled and better-paid workforce. Trade liberalisation, the globalisation of markets and deregulation have decimated whole industries in industrial countries. The idea of a job for life is vanishing as workers get used to alternate periods in employment, self-employment, semi-employment or unemployment.

The link between consumerism and economic growth is becoming less certain. The purchasing power of those in work has slowed down. The influx of women to the waged workforce will not stem this slow-down, as a recent statement from the International Labour Organisation made clear. They earn two-thirds of men's wages, many of which were declining anyway. The Low Pay Network reported last week that half the job vacancies at British Job Centres were paying rates below those which applied when Wages Councils set them for 2.5 million jobs. Lower wages, less consuming. But the ideology of consumerism has remained in place.

Consumers embody a simple modern ideal, the right to choose, sanctified by liberal economists and celebrated by starry-eyed post-modern cultural theorists. Choice, the consumer's friend, the inefficient producer's foe, can be applied to things as diverse as soap-powder, holidays, healthcare or politicians. This could be safely contrasted with the West's ideological foes - the Soviet Union and China. We have choice; they do not, went the political analysis. In fact, the dream for business is not choice but predictability of consumer behaviour.

An entire industry has developed since the Second World War dedicated to studying, analysing and pigeon-holing consumers to enable business better to predict and manage them. As Sir Michael Perry, chair of Unilever, said in his 1994 Advertising Association lecture: "Our whole skill as branded goods producers is in anticipation of consumer trends. In earlier appreciation of emerging needs or wants. And in developing a quality of advertising which can interpret aspirations, focus them on products and lead consumers forward." This is not the sovereignty of the consumer, but a systematic moulding of his or her consciousness.

Sir Michael's language is perhaps already out of date. Consumers show signs of being more defensive, more unpredictable, more insecure, in short, unmanageable. Despite the best efforts of politicians, and of business alternately to seduce and to control them, and of consumer organisations to discipline and to lead them, modern consumers are becoming more volatile: now reluctant, now resistant, now angry. In the current recession, politicians have in vain urged them to spend, spend, spend, in order to kickstart national economies. One moment German car drivers demand faster cars and unlimited petrol, the next they boycott Shell over Brent Spar, and one of the world's largest companies caves in before them. One moment consumers vote for privatisation, the next they are up in arms about gas chiefs' pay or water companies erecting standpipes. One moment they see cheaper meat as an index of progress, the next they are unhappy at the hidden impact on animal welfare.

At stake is our identity. We have learnt to talk and think of each other and of ourselves less as workers, citizens, parents or teachers, and more as consumers. Our rights and our powers derive from our standing as consumers. Our political choices are votes for those promising us the best deal as consumers. Our enjoyment of life is almost synonymous with the quantity (and to a lesser extent quality) of what we consume. Our success is measured in terms of how well we are doing as consumers. Consumption is not just a means of fulfilling needs but permeates our social relations, perceptions and images. But is defining ourselves as consumers really a substitute for "older" notions of social class? Reports about widening gaps in Britain suggest not. Last month's Mintel report on the 45- to 64-year-olds concluded that "the best guarantee of avoiding problems ... is to be in the AB socio- economic group".

Inequalities among consumers are sharp and getting sharper, leaving substantial numbers window-shopping with only restricted opportunities to make a purchase and many, in the Third World, without even windows to window- shop in. While some consumers may spend inordinate amounts of time deliberating whether to invest in a new swimming-pool, a new yacht or a second home, others have to choose between feeding their children or buying them shoes.

The pursuit of happiness through consumption once seemed a plausible, if morally questionable, social and personal project. Today, it is more problematic. Insecurity is experienced across social classes, and poverty and homelessness have resurfaced on a massive scale. The brashness has been knocked off the consumer society. What price a new car or cooker every two years, if your neighbour's children turn to drugs?

Today, images of consumers, like those caught in surveillance cameras, are ill-defined, their movements and motives unclear. For the West there appears to be no vision of a brighter consumerist tomorrow. A more likely future is that casualisation of work will generate casualisation of consumption. Already it makes sense to talk of consuming classes, where the middle class of India may have more in common with its counterpart in a richer society than either has with its poor compatriots. Thirty years ago, the combined incomes of the richest fifth of the world's people were 30 times that of the poorest fifth. Today, their incomes are more than 60 times greater. As a result, individual consumers lead precarious and uneven existences, one day enjoying unexpected boons and the next sinking, even to bare subsistence.

To retailers and producers this may not be a terminal difficulty. So long as a certain proportion of the population at any one time is in a position to spend, there will be markets. To increasing numbers of consumers, however, a future based on long-term financial commitments will become problematic. People will not stop furnishing their houses, clothing their children or enjoying themselves. But consumption will become increasingly ad hoc, increasingly unpredictable, and increasingly unmanageable.

'The Unmanageable Consumer' by Yiannis Gabriel and Tim Lang will be published by Sage on 14 September.

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