Do we understand the consumption of the present and future when we debate whether consumption is a choice between good and evil, between happy self-realization and human and ecological catastrophe? No, says British anthropologist Daniel Miller, who points to a third possibility. Stores, management consultants, architects and researchers are actively testing that possibility. Read the four cases.
By Morten K. Pedersen and Chris Pedersen
In the West, we have an ambivalent relationship to consumption. Is consumption good or evil?
On the one hand, some claim it is good, since it is in consumption the consumer can fulfill what many call most important need of the age: self realization. The consumer is an active and creative individualist who, on the free market, chooses exactly that that matches her identity. This active and creative consumer is who we meet in an endless row of lifestyle programs and magazines, and this consumer is who, with help from personal branding courses, can be.
But others claim consumption is evil because it illustrates that we - western civilization - no longer live in compact with either ourselves or nature. We have created a society where competition is fierce for a good education, a good job, pleasant leisure time and a good family. Because of this, we collapse into empty materialism. Countries such as Indian and China are about ready to join the West's consumer party, whose welcome committee consists of use-and-toss companies such as IKEA, H&M, and Bestseller. If they manage to get into the camp, our world will quickly be consumed entirely. In this Doomsday scenario, the consumer is a passive individual who can only take another round on market forces unforgiving treadmill.
The debate about consumption and its consequences is therefore an either-or debate. Either you, as a consumer, are free to choose exactly what matches your identity, or you are bound and gagged by market forces. The choice between the two positions is ideological. But do we understand very much about what consumption is if we view it an ideological battleground?
“No” is the stark answer from British anthropologist Daniel Miller. Since the end of the 1970s, he has concentrated on consumption as practices: activities and events in which people buy and surround themselves with things. Miller's thesis is that in these consumption practices, which involve people, things and the relationship between them, we constantly identify ourselves with who we are.
Identification happens when we, in the concrete consumer practices, maintain existing relationships and create new ones to, for example, our partner, family, local society, the global environment and, not least, to ourselves. In Miller's eyes, the consumer is not autonomous, but is part of a fabric of complex relationships. Maybe you are not as into organic foods as your partner is, but when you buy groceries you are compelled to take into account your relationship with her and the environment. Nevertheless, the consumer is not fully controlled by market forces either, since he or she can, in consumption choices, create and maintain relationships that are unthinkable for market forces. For example, in 1986, the band Run-DMC - who routinely performed in Adidas tracksuits and trainers—urged fans to flash their Adidas trainers. Adidas thereby became the rallying point for the entire American hip-hop culture, which no one could have foreseen.
But what happens if we, like Miller, understand consumption as practices in which we create and recreate our relationships with the world and ourselves? In the following four cases, we look at how that idea applies to fashion, breakfast products, clothing stores, and architecture, and how buying and surrounding ourselves with these things affects us and our relationships with the world.
Storm in Copenhagen is one of the leading Danish clothing stores. But it is not just clothes that are for sale, but whole lifestyle clothes matched by art, literature, music, the right aesthetic signals and the perfect codes. Storm is, in fact, a life-style business. Owner Rasmus Storm says “Whereas before it was about presenting new designers, now we are very conscious to set fashion in relation to culture. We do that, among other ways, by displaying art, and selling books, music, and interior design together with the clothes. One can say we present a ‘mood board' of the times, and in that way we explain the trends.”
Storm is, in other words, not just a place where you buy props for the stage-managing of your self. It is also a place where you, through fashion, are introduced to new currents in the urban environment. According to Rasmus Storm, this can help break down social boundaries and thereby affect the consumer's own life. He uses fashion shows as an example: “When you are at a fashion show, you rapidly decode the codes with which others have wrapped themselves. In that way, you find out who you want to meet. The clothes are in that way your calling card, and they allow situations where you can meet new people and get new ideas.”
Rasmus Storm believes we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in connection with the spread of lifestyle stores. Prominent stores, such as Corso Como in Milan, and Colette in Paris, have existed for many years, but everything points to the trend continuing. That is because a visit to a lifestyle shop can be just as challenging and entertaining as a visit to a museum or seeing a film. In lifestyle shops, shopping becomes more than just buying. You visit what is almost a lifestyle library that can push you and your life in unexpected directions. The products cannot be borrowed, of course. You still have to buy them.
Consumption is more than just a way to realize ones “self,” believes Mads Hagstrøm. He leads the FLOWinstitute, a consulting firm that shares space with the Danish Design Center in Copenhagen. Like anthropologist Daniel Miller, Hagstrøm sees the products as a by-product of the reality we experience and live in. He believes designers product developers and companies therefore have a responsibility to think through the consequences of a product's actual use.
Hagstrøm offers an example:
“In 2002, the American breakfast foods company, General Mills, carried out a survey in which they, together with social scientists, tried to uncover the needs of an American family in the morning. As one could expect, they found out that time was a scarcity. So they developed the product GoGurt: yogurt in a tube, that be can eaten on the go, thus reducing the time one used on breakfast.”
In just a year, GoGurt captured 7% of the more than $300 million American yogurt market. GoGurt was, therefore, a stellar financial success, but Hagstrøm does not think GoGurt should set the fashion, quite the opposite:
“If you look at the use of GoGurt, such a product normalizes the stress level in society. If you can eat breakfast in the car, you don't need to spend time with your family. Several studies show, moreover, that it is important for people's well being to have adequate time in the morning, including time to eat a decent breakfast.”
In its race for financial success, General Mills forgot to orient itself to the users well being in society. FLOWInstitute believes that the users well being should have a central place in corporate product development. Stress, along with pollution and depression, is one of the most prominent negative consequences of our current production and consumption patters. Hagstrøm's goal is that Denmark begins to take these negative consequences seriously and over time mark itself as a design-nation that takes responsibility for people and environment. With three “FLOWparameters,” which Danish companies can use in their product development, the FLOWinstitute gives its view on how this can happen:
Within architecture, it is increasingly part of the architect's job to draw on knowledge of the concrete consumer practices the architectural work will be a part of.
Rikke Kirstine Larsen, architect and MAA, and member of the creative collective Femmes Regionales, says,
“You can roughly say that there are two directions within architecture. One where architecture is understood as an artistic work the user must adjust to. That direction has dominated the modern period. But, today we are shifting to the other direction, which one can call sociological architecture. The interplay between the architecture, user and society comes into focus. We see this as user-involvement becomes something more and more architects use”
She cites “Havnen på spil,” a project to revitalize Aarhus harbor, as an example. Here a project group, which included architects among others, worked to develop ways in which the needs, wishes, and dreams of users, decision-makers and the average citizen can all come into play in the development of the harbor's architectural future.
Larsen notes that user-involvement can result in fruitless discussions about a building's color or the placement of some trees when the conditions for communication between the architect and user are poor. If user-involvement is to benefit both the architect's creativity and the user's welfare, it demands that architects and users find new ways to communicatie, she believes.
“It can be hard for users to understand architects' vocabulary and drawings. If user-involvement is to work, architects must find new ways to communicate with users. That could be, for example, through film, which I work with myself. My films are an attempt to communicate architecture in a way users can understand and relate to. At the same time, when I make the films, I gain a better understanding of the users and their actual use of the architecture.”
Here, Larsen echoes one of Daniel Miller's key points: if you would understand the consumption of today, you must take time to follow and describe the often surprising practices in which consumption happens.
The cell phone is always within reach, clothes are hard to do without, and the most of us live in a home filled to bursting with the consumer goods we use every day. People consume and surround themselves with things - and yet, for years, the social sciences have been far more interested in social relations. That is about to change. Marie Riegels Melchior (M.A., European Ethnology, Ph.D, student at the Danish Design Center and the Danish Museum of Art and Design) is one of the Danish researchers who, inspired by Daniel Miller, among others, works with relations between things and people.
“We cannot separate people and things and say ‘The things are irrelevant, they mean nothing in our everyday' because we can see that they do. It is in our being around things that we constitute ourselves as people,” says Melchior. In other words, material objects are not only things we give significance to, independent of the objects. The material things also have an effect on us.
Melchior's Ph.D project is about the Danish fashion phenomenon. In recent years, media has paid Danish fashion a great deal of attention, and Danish commercial policy makers have pointed to fashion as a potential goldmine.
“But what on earth is Danish fashion?” asks Melchior. Based on that question, she researches the history of Danish fashion, how fashion in actual practice comes to be. She has, for example, followed a collection's birth from start to finish, and the material is here involved in the form of earlier collections, color cards, fabric samples, and design magazines.
“It is about being aware of the material. If you are, then it's clear fashion is not something some designer or another sits and creates, and everyone then lines up to wear. Fashion is created through an interplay of relationships between practices within fashion's production, distribution, and consumption, and these practices involve both things and people,” says Melchior.
If Danish fashion is to be a goldmine for Denmark, a step forward might be, as Melchior's research indicates, to understand Danish fashion as a phenomenon that is anchored in a special tradition, and created in a heterogeneous relationship between things and people.
Chris Pedersen is a lifestyle journalist writing for Euroman, among others, and editor of the fashion magazine DANSK.
Morten K. Petersen holds an M.A. in European Ethnology, and is a writer for FO/futureorientation.
Daniel Miller's main work is: Miller, Daniel (1987): Material Culture and Mass Consumption, Blackwell, Oxford. Miller has carried out fieldwork in which he investigates concrete consumption practices. One study, carried out in North London, is described in the book: Miller, Daniel (2001): The Dialectics of Shopping, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.