Support the news
Like what you read here? Sign up for our twice-weekly newsletter.
A couple of years ago, I noticed that the more fashion-forward guys at the gym sported calf-high black socks with white Nike swooshes. My white ankle socks suddenly seemed unfashionable. I headed to the store to buy trendier version.
But a few months ago, the black socks were replaced with inversions: white socks with black swooshes. Though my black socks still functioned, I found myself at a store readying to purchase another Nike six-pack.
Then I asked myself, what the hell am I doing? Forces of consumerism can be downright soul-crushing. Companies spent more than $140 billion in advertising last year, convincing us that their products will make us happier, wealthier, thinner, smarter, sexier, cleaner and, perhaps most importantly and most dubiously, more fulfilled.
Consumerism isn’t new, of course. But with the economy in relatively good shape, why are those of us in our 20s and 30s so skeptical of corporate America?
What chance do those of us who want to resist consumerism have against those who use beautifully-crafted, focus group-tested, psychologically-manipulative advertising to take from us the little disposable income we have saved? Perhaps not much, as evidenced by soaring levels of personal debt.
Pop-psychologists say our spending points in some way to an inner emptiness: spiritual, emotional or physical. I’m not so sure. I go to church each week, I’m in a happy relationship and I exercise. Still, I have as hard a time as anyone else resisting spending.
Pop-psychologists say our spending points in some way to an inner emptiness: spiritual, emotional or physical. I’m not so sure.
Recently, I visited a trendy retailer promising pants that offer the best possible fit, appealing to my insecurities that my pants never quite work. I left after I ordered a pair, along with a new shirt for an upcoming vacation. But regret set in that I didn’t buy a second shirt, so I logged onto the website to check it out. Twenty percent off plus free shipping! It arrives this week.
Quite simply, there are few voices in our culture that encourage us to live simply.
I’m Catholic and Pope Francis is one such voice. He rightly notes that the environmental crises we face are ultimately attributable to excessive consumerism. But voices like his are consistently drowned out by a chorus of louder, sexier and ultimately more persuasive voices urging me to buy more.
Charles Debner, author of the book, "Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy," told me that while consumerism is an addiction and a threat to our planet, I shouldn’t despair.
Many of his students at Boston College tell him they feel exhausted trying to keep up with the latest trends.
“This idea that to be a worthwhile, reputable person you need to consume a lot creates enormous stress,” he said. “It becomes burdensome.” But he also sees signs of hope, especially when it comes to harnessing the power of consumerism to resist buying stuff we don’t really want.
“At a personal level, people can make meaningful choices, where they essentially take control of their own consumer behavior and use this as a form of political leverage,” he said. He pointed to the boycotts of Trump-branded goods as an example of individuals leveraging their buying power to resist strong cultural forces.
Consumerism sometimes feels like it’s the only thing that unites Americans. To live outside that system often feels impossible and downright unpatriotic. But there’s got to be a way to escape this way of living, for the good of our souls and the health of our planet.
We need leaders who extol simplicity and thrift to speak more boldly about the empty promises of consumerism. But when our society’s entire mode of being is built around spending, it’s unclear who can fill that role. I fear it will take nothing less than a cultural revolution to banish from my mind the laughable notion that white Nike gym socks will somehow add any value to my life.
A revolution, however, can be built from many small acts.
It might mean not getting a new smartphone now, just because it’s available. Or saying no to an extra shirt, no matter how well the fit. Resistance is now a movement. Choosing to tuck away our credit cards more often might be one of the most radical acts of resistance we can make.
Support the news