Section of the main showroom inside F. W. Nissen jewellery store in Brisbane, Queensland, ca. 1950

The American shopping tradition circa 1950. It’s legacy lives on today in the most extravagant forms.

“Goods fall into two classes: those that we use, such as motor cars or safety razors, and those that we use up, such as toothpaste or soda biscuits. Consumer engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use.”

-Earnest Elmo Calkins, author of Modern Marketing

In June Cleaver’s era, Americans shifted from scraping and saving everything they could during depression and war times to consuming as much as possible. Government saw consumerism as a need to build the economy, and Calkins’ call for convenience and consumption reigned high. Marketers worked to send the message that the way to solve problems in life was to consume. June and other television housewives worked as models in what were effectively half hour long infomercials to display the new role of the woman and all the things she needed to do and have to fulfill that persona. Today, America’s consumer culture continues, building and refining Calkins’ message.

Our world is now full of products that we use up, and sustaining goods are few and far between. We accept that towels and razors are disposable, fashion is fast and cheap, and electronics are fleeting. We forget that pens and water bottles are traditionally refillable. As it becomes more and more apparent that our convenient lifestyle adds to unnecessary waste and harms the environment, our choice in how we spend our money becomes more critical. We can look individually at the industries we interact with every day, such as fashion, personal care, food, or electronics, and see the impact of each on the people who use and produce them. Suffice to say, each is hurting our environment and hurting our own well-being.

“The more that people are focused on materialistic values, the more that they say that money, image, status, and possessions are important to them, the less happy they are, the more depressed they are, the more anxious they are. We know that all of these kinds of psychological problems tend to go up as materialistic values go up.”

-Tim Kasser, PhD, Psychology, Knox College

So now that we know better, how do we do better? It seems that our world is built on materialism and consumerism. The products we have and the stores available are largely built on the use it and lose it mindset. Many of the products we already have were not made to be repaired and many of the products we look to buy are not built to be sustainable. Here we are required to think outside the box, to imagine what could be, and use that ever-powerful voice of the consumer.

Thinking outside the box requires us to question the norms and traditions that make up our lives. We have to rearrange our vision of what we see as a fair price for a good. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely points out that once we have paid an amount for something, we are anchored to that price for that particular thing. If we are accustomed to paying three dollars for a jar of salsa, we will find any salsa costing more than three dollars expensive, and any salsa less than three dollars inexpensive. So say we are used to paying thirty dollars for a dress shirt, but we learn that thirty dollar dress shirts are made in sweat shops in a cruelly designed economic model. We want to buy fair trade dress shirts but we look at the prices and fair trade dress shirts are upwards of sixty dollars. How do we get ourselves to a point where a sixty dollar dress shirt is acceptable or affordable? We must differentiate the two costs of dress shirts into two different breeds of shirts. We say, well, I can get a thirty dollar shirt that will last a little time or a sixty dollar shirt that will last many years. Then the new price is anchored for acceptable shirts.

“(Fashion) is fundamentally about what we wish to communicate about ourselves.”

-Orsola de Castro, fashion designer

Imagining what could be entails imagining a world that mimics that of our ancestors where repair work was a money-making industry and where goods are meant to be used until they are worn out. Can I imagine losing the button on my jeans and going to get it fixed or going to the watch store to have them rewind my watch instead of trashing it and buying a newer model? We need to imagine a world where reusable bags are the standard, where food is used before expiration dates or is jarred or frozen. Shifting our mindset from where we are to where we could be individually is the first step. Envisioning an economy that thrives on this new mindset is the next move forward.

Finally, like my mama said, you always have a voice through your dollar. Vote with your dollar! There is an app called “Buycott” that lets you scan barcodes to see what the company stands for or against and what their business practices are. You can choose to buy or not buy based on what you find out and you can choose to tell the businesses (through messages on the app) why you did or did not buy that product. You can choose fair trade products or locally made products with good reputations. Our new government is rife with corporate interests, but we can still fight that power by not supporting their products, thereby not funding their agenda.  Even without the app, we can make choices to buy things that last longer. Pens that can be refilled, durable hairbrushes, quality appliances, automobiles, and electronics that have places to be repaired are all choices that may be expensive in the short term, but less costly to ourselves and our planet in the long run. Creating more demand for quality over quantity will change what producers provide and how they produce it.

Whether we like it or not, we represent ourselves by what we buy.  Now more than ever we are responsible to make sure that self-depiction is an accurate one. Now more than ever we must use our voices every day to stand for our convictions.