How many people are actually connected to their true self, these days? I am no spiritual leader or guru, but I am pretty sure that the vast majority barely knows themselves without linking their self to some material concepts, such as:
“I only wear black.”
“I am a leather lover.”
“I collect sport shoes.”
“I have to have all the Vogue magazines.”
“I need new clothes every month.”
“I only buy organic food.”
and so on…
These are concepts about our selves that we build through consumption plus other external influences, such as friends or social media. But how did we get to the point where a purchase equals self-expression? Is this something beneficial or is just transforming us into mindless consumers?
According to Karl Thompson, there are numerous explanations for the growth of consumption as a mean of self-expression:
○ from the intensification of consumption, thanks to better jobs which lead people to desire to improve themselves and their life by engaging in self-care practices and other commodities,
○ to the universal access to higher education and social welfare which led to the erosion of traditional sources of identity which put the individual in a place where he has to find his identity through something else, such as buying. Karl expands on five theories of consumerism and consumption in his article, here.
Living in a consumerist society, enables marketers to use different brands to differentiate a company’ products from competitors and to create superior value to customers. The value is created through associations that make the customers desire a certain status or lifestyle. Therefore, by buying that product the customers express how they think of themselves and how they want to be perceived by others. Or better said by researchers:
Possession sets and consumption practices are manifestations of intangible consumer identities, where consumers selectively express aspects of identity.Hope Jensen Schau, University of California, Irvine, “Consumer Imagination, Identity and Self-Expression”
So, it makes sense that in a society where we have more ways to communicate than ever, to let the objects communicate rather than trying to put into words how we feel. We wouldn’t be able to find the words as easy as a pair of brand shoes anyway. Furthermore, as Baudrillard puts it, consumption is central to the construction of the social world.
The freedom of choosing from so many options, calls of active participation in defining what we are interested in, from ethical brands to luxury goods. The ethical consumer is not so different from the one that is not concerned with this aspect. One is focused on expressing that he cares about the environment and that he has specific values by consuming, while the other one wants to express that he keeps up with the trends or that he has a certain status by using the same process. I don’t want to praise one consumer over the other, not in this article. I want to focus on understanding the consumer self-expression concept.
According to the CONSUMER IMAGINATION, IDENTITY AND SELF-EXPRESSION study:
Consumer self-expression is the manipulation of goods, symbols and services to communicate consumer identities generated within the imagination.
Basically, showing parts of ourselves that words are not able to as stated above. Robert Bocok explains in his book Consumption, that people try to become the being they dream to be by consuming the products that they believe will create and sustain their desired identity.
In this case, maybe we could link the mass consumption to an identity crisis, which proves that we don’t know exactly what we want to be, but we want a bit of everything at least. So, at the same time using consumerism to express ourselves can lead to over consumption or conscious consumption. Someone who knows exactly what they like, the type of person they want to be, who is not easily influenced by fads would most of the time be more selective with their purchases. Therefore, the more we can narrow down and be really specific about our ideas about the self the more conscious we become in all the areas from our life.
I believe that having more conscious consumers will slow down consumption which would help to ease up pressure on the planet’s resources, but I know that this is just a tiny part of the whole problem. We have to be aware that conscious consumerism alone can’t fundamentally change the structure of the current society or save the planet, but even so it’s a personal step that acknowledges the need for change.