With the consumption patterns in rich countries being more unsustainable than ever and the consumption of the ‘emerging middle classes’ increasing rapidly, it is about time ‘consumption and development’ becomes a field of study. Such a field would necessarily be interdisciplinary and combine analyses of everyday life and the structures of capitalist development. A useful starting point could be found at the intersection of theories of practice and systems of provision.
Consuming the world
Humans consume too much of the earth’s resources, there is little doubt about that. We eat too much of the ‘wrong’ kind of food, drive too many polluting cars, fly too many polluting flights, buy and discard too many clothes, shoes, fridges, TVs, mobile phones…the list goes on. Exactly what drives consumption, however, as well as who is to blame for our overconsumption, has been subject to much debate.
Often, a rather simple picture of the state of the world has been drawn in critical accounts: Rich consumers are using too much while the poor are consuming too little, and with globalisation the consumers in the North have been increasingly ‘subsidised’ by the exploitation of cheap labour in the South. And while the poor in the South are struggling to survive, the rich consumers in the North are preoccupied with displaying their social status or expressing their identity through unsustainable consumption of all sorts of unnecessary stuff. There is of course quite some truth to this story, but it ignores the rapidly changing composition of the ‘global consumer class’ and fails to take into account the complexity of consumption.
The new consumers
The ‘rise of the South’ is well-known by now: A range of countries labelled as ‘developing’ have achieved very rapid growth rates and instead become ‘emerging’ (Hansen & Wethal, 2015). Alongside these macroeconomic developments, the size and purchasing power of middle classes outside the mature capitalist world have grown very rapidly. Indeed, the vast majority of the global middle class is expected to reside in the ‘South’ by 2030 (Kharas and Gertz, 2010; UNDP, 2013). This shift should challenge our categorisations of the world. At least it’s clear that the main division between consuming too much and consuming too little does not go between countries but between classes across country borders (Otero et al. 2013).
It is unhelpful to paint a picture of these new consumers as mindless, ecologically blind dupes (Lange, 2016), and it is obvious that it is more urgent than ever to better understand the drivers of consumption and what can change consumption patterns in a more sustainable direction. In a world that is already consuming the planet to excess, and where the mature capitalist countries have not managed to reduce their ecological footprints, the rapid rise in levels of consumption in other parts of the world puts further strain on the environment (see McNeill and Wilhite, 2015). I believe it is about time ‘consumption and development’ becomes a field of study. But what would such a field look like?
Consumption and development
In consumption research outside mainstream economics, consumption usually includes the acquisition, use and disposal of things. This by now large body of research has the last decade seen a significant ‘practice turn’. In short, practice theory and practice approaches represent a rejection of individual choice as an appropriate starting point for understanding consumption, but also a break with previous tendencies to focus on the spectacular and on status-seeking behaviour within consumption research. Practice approaches instead focus on the mundane, on everyday life and its social and material components (for overviews, see Warde, 2005, 2014). This is a welcome shift, but one that unfortunately has not focused much on the role of economic structures in shaping consumption patterns. Understanding the conditions for consumption is crucial for understanding how consumption changes, and even more so in contexts of rapid economic development.
Of course, to some extent, development depends on consumption. The poorest need to consume more to live decent lives, and consumption is good, indeed necessary, for economic development (although it is of course possible to achieve economic growth through foreign consumption). In other words, development, particularly in its capitalist shape, in different ways depends on increased consumption. In development economics this is how consumption usually enters the picture, as demand or as an indicator of poverty.
But consumption is deeply embedded in everyday lives in every society (although how and why consumption of particular goods take place, as well as how resource intensive it is, varies greatly). Research on consumption thus boils down to fundamental questions related to why humans behave as they do. The fact that there seems to be no end-point of escalating ‘desires’ for consumer goods has intrigued social scientists. Even the old modernisation theorists did not expect this development, with Walt Rostow (1991 ) for example assuming that at some point people would become so wealthy that increasing income would lose its charm and the pursuit of material goods would no longer dominate people’s lives (Rostow’s lesser-known sixth stage of development). Cultural readings of consumer society have often explained the tendency to consume more and more through rather mystical psychological-cultural concepts such as ‘consumerism’. Economists, on the other hand, expect people to spend most of their money and save some of it, and increasing income in turn results in increasing aggregate demand. However, both economists discussing demand and cultural accounts of ‘consumerism’ have little to tell us about where the propensity to consume particular commodities really emanates from. As Appadurai (1986) has noted, demand is frequently treated as an outcome of some infinite and transcultural desire and fixed needs. However, he points out, demand ‘emerges as a function of a variety of social practices and classifications, rather than a mysterious emanation of human needs, a mechanical response to social manipulation […], or the narrowing down of a universal and voracious desire for objects to whatever happens to be available’ (Appadurai, 1986: 29). The point that I want to make here is that these social practices are in turn grounded in material structures and conditions, and can indeed change in response to changes in these.
Provision and practices
One of the most prominent approaches to analysing political-economic structures while maintaining the overall focus on consumption is found in Ben Fine’s (2002, 2013) ‘systems of provision’ (first developed in Fine and Leopold, 1993). Fine (2002: 79) has defined systems of provision (SOP) as ‘the inclusive chain of activity that attaches consumption to the production that makes it possible’. Following Fine’s approach, we also need to incorporate the whole process before acquisition in order to understand consumption, in other words a consumer object’s backward linkages. The approach has however been criticised for focusing too much on economic structures. In the words of Goodman and Dupuis (2002: 7), in SOP the consumer ‘emerges only to disappear again into a production centred framework’. And this raises a theoretical conundrum; if we acknowledge that production processes and systems of provision must be included in a holistic account of consumption, how do they affect everyday practices?
My suggestion boils down to a theoretical framework where consumption is approached through social practices, which in turn are analysed through their bodily, social and material pillars (as in Sahakian and Wilhite, 2014). This builds on the re-emergence of practice theories, but suggests that these pillars should be analysed through macro-scale systems of provision and political-economic frames and conditions for practices. This is ambitious, yet necessary in order to capture the complexity of changing consumption in contexts of rapid economic development. A development approach, with its focus on state strategies and policies related to processes of systemic change, as well as on the economic geographies and regional and global contexts of these, has much to contribute to understanding the conditions for consumption. But without an empirical grounding in the actual ‘doings’ of the people consuming, in the everyday practices consumption takes place in, macro-level approaches provide a shallow reading, stripped of the ability to understand the multifaceted meanings and drivers of consumption.
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Kharas, H., & Gertz, G. (2010). The New Global Middle Class: A Cross-Over from West to East. In C. Li (Ed.), China’s Emerging Middle Class: Beyond Economic Transformation. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Lange, H. (2016). Same, same – but different: On increasing meat consumption in the Global South, in: Sahakian, M., Saloma, C., Erkman, S. (Eds.), Food consumption in the city: Practices and patterns in urban Asia and the Pacific. Routledge, London.
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Sahakian, M., & Wilhite, H. (2014). Making practice theory more practicable: Towards more sustainable forms of consumption. Journal of Consumer Culture, 14(1), 25-44.
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Warde, A. (2005). Consumption and Theories of Practice. Journal of Consumer Culture, 5(2), 131-153.
Warde, A. (2014). After taste: Culture, consumption and theories of practice. Journal of Consumer Culture, 14(3), 279-303.
*Parts of this piece draw heavily on the author’s PhD Thesis: Hansen, Arve (2016): ‘Capitalist Transition on Wheels: Development, Consumption and Motorised Mobility in Hanoi’.
Arve Hansen is Postdoctoral Fellow at Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo.
Photo by Oleg.