Buying is consumption. But what does consumption mean, and where does the term consumer society come from? This article addresses this question and goes on: Today, ideas of the "shared economy" are used as a kind of counterpoint to the consumer society. The credo here is: "Sharing is caring" - for example, we share cars, living spaces, offices or storerooms at placeB. This also goes along with the idea that we don't waste endless resources and once again keep something instead of throwing it away. And so it happens....
What does consumption mean and since when do we live in a consumer society?
If one looks for the meaning of the concept of consumption, one finds a possible answer in the historical encyclopaedia of Switzerland: "Consumption refers in different times to different actions, ideas and processes in which consumption represents both an expression of belonging to social groups or classes and a means of constituting them". The prerequisite for the emergence of consumption is that "a relevant part of the needs is satisfied by the market and not by self-sufficiency. [...] A consumer society has only been spoken of since the middle of the 20th century, even if its beginnings go back to the early phase of industrialization".
In the 1950s, real wages rose much faster than the cost of living and labour productivity also rose sharply. As labour productivity rose, more could be consumed in the leisure time thus gained. All these processes of change also changed the structure of household spending: Food expenditure had to be relatively lower, while more was consumed in areas such as transport, recreation and education. Characteristic of this early phase of consumer society is also the growing abundance of the product range and the spread of technical household appliances such as refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and washing machines. With all these appliances, the "American way of life" made its way into Swiss society: cars, household appliances, consumer electronics, convenience food (ready meals, preserves & frozen foods) and fast food are regarded as characteristic attributes of this lifestyle.
Not only have the goods on offer changed, but new types of sales practice, marketing and advertising are also emerging. In 1948, Migros and shortly afterwards Coop introduced Switzerland's first self-service shops, creating a new shopping experience.
The meaning of consumption and possession
It is clear that consumption is the consumption or purchase of goods, but with this, immaterial meanings and dimensions are also important. Our consumer behavior also shapes our mission statements and role concepts. In the 1950s, for example, the role model of the "modern woman" was shaped by the diverse use of machines in rationalised households.
Consumption is the satisfaction of individual needs, or material self-realization, which allows our remuneration system in the brain to become active for a short time. So consumption makes us happy, doesn't it? - In 1965, the first representative studies on life satisfaction were carried out in Switzerland. On a scale of 1 to 10, Mrs. and Mr. Schweizer rated their well-being and happiness at an average of 7.76. This corresponds to an excellent value in an international comparison. Real wages in Switzerland have almost doubled since then. From a financial point of view, Swiss people can afford twice as much as their parents. Nevertheless, surveys on life satisfaction today show that the answers today almost correspond to the values of the past. More prosperity and possessions do not automatically seem to bring more life satisfaction.
Studies show, according to the NZZ Folio: The more people agree with the statement that possession is important to them, the worse their emotional mood will be. Consumption and possession as contents of life seem to promise a certain sadness. But why do we still continue to consume happily?
The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa has a thesis on this subject. He sees the mechanism of consumption and possession as a "substitute for eternity". His thesis: The "density of experience per unit of time" is tried to increase, everything becomes faster, we consume more, travel more, because secularized societies do not believe in eternal life.
From "more is less" to "sharing is caring".
Criticism of consumption is an integral part of consumer society. In the 1960s, slogans such as "secret seducers" or "consumer terror" shaped the critics' vocabulary, while in the 1970s the great waste of resources and the disposable mentality were strongly questioned. As a result, recycling was demanded and subsequently promoted in Switzerland.
Today, the so-called sufficiency movement is an alternative to the consumer society. The concept is that people voluntarily limit their consumption, but still do not do without what is necessary. The practical implementation of this can be found on sharing platforms, repair cafés or time exchange exchanges. "Sharing is caring" is often cheaper. So you no longer need an expensive private car to be mobile.
Even the one or other item that you can no longer use at the moment may still be useful for someone else. Online marketplaces are teeming with offers of used but functional items and equipment. At the same time, there are some possessions that may sooner or later be useful to your children, have an emotional value, or be sold at a later date. Anyone who has such items at home, but which require valuable storage space in their own four walls, has the possibility of renting a storage room at placeB. And best of all, you can easily "share" access to your storage space with the people you want using your smartphone.