The question of consumer choice is strongly linked to questions of free will, determinism and the self. To what measure does a consumer truly exercise free will as they make consumer choices? I think this question is ultimately unanswerable but different points of view are given in writings of consumer behavior, psychology, social psychology and behavioral economics. I believe one problem of conceptualization is not only the dichotomy between free agents and corporate led zombies but one of scales.
A human being might make informed decisions and exercise absolute free will doing so, but when you have a million of these agents making these choices an emergent consumer patterns are born which might not seem as acts of free will. This might seem as Cherrier’s and Murray’s massification (Cherrier H. & Murray J. 2004), where the production-consumption continuum mandates a kind of swarm behavior from consumers. Is the manipulation that brands are exercising through marketing the brain washing, or domination, of consumers or is it just another form of information that a rational actor can use when making decisions?
Cherrier etc. (2004) suggest that the form of domination in corporate capitalism may set the default mind set of people to a less burdensome one, freeing them from the extra energy spent on choice formation, the reflection and weighing of options one has to go through to make informed decisions. The goal of this kind of domination is to make the brand choice a heuristic whereby one may act instinctively instead of reflectively. This saves energy and is thus the preferred way of making choices naturally. (Kahneman 1973; Cherrier H. Murray J. 2004)
So the question of consumers being robots or actors of free will remains an open one. I argue that the answer is both. Like Kahneman demonstated through numerous studies, human beings work with two sets of thinking modes: a slow one and a fast one. The fast, heuristics and rules of thumb based, thinking could be said to be robotic, or even not free willed while the more reflective, or slow, thinking method could be said to be free willed (Kahneman & Tversky 1984; Tversky & Kahneman 1981).
Under this light it would be feasible that humans make both kinds of choices: the informed free and rational consumer choices as well as a top down dominated choices. I believe this duality is present in all aspects of human behavior. Cherrier’s and Murray’s (2004) fear of the commodification of human social relationships is in my opinion largely a symptom of the same juxtaposition of reflexive and reflective actions. We do objectify and measure our social aspects in market value, at least subconsciously.
I propose that our gut instincts are molded by evolutionary psychology to make use of economic principals like the theory of comparative advantage and opportunity costs (The Theory of Comparative Advantage 2015; Opportunity Cost 2010. ). This might have been accentuated after cultivated civilization overhauled our social system to include ownership which started to shape our identity and sense of self as owners and consumers. We build self-esteem and character by consumer choices and these choices might also be rejections and avoiding certain choices.
And what is the dating seen but a series of these choices as well as calculated rejections? (Cherrier & Murray 2004; Ryan & Jetha 2010; Hogg, Banister & Stephenson 2009) Taking out the trash The problem of waste is one that is discussed widely in papers, magazines, articles and documentaries. Recycling is one clear response households have taken to combat this. But the issue is much more complex than the presumed problem of landfills and the feel good solution of separating your plastics from metals. It is clear that garbage is considered a problem.
But pinpointing where the actual, factual and calculable problem lies is often very murky. Millennials seem to be confused or ambiguous to the problem of throw away consumption and we all hear we’re running out of planets every year in the summer. (Hume 2010; King etc. 2006) What is the actual problem? King (2006) points out three problems, that are in my opinion, very debatable and unprecise: material loss, landfill usage and pollution. Do metals actually disappear when they are thrown to a land fill? I believe not.
The problem is the price of re-extraction, but as King point out in his own paper: we’re not running out of minerals (Tilton 2003). Landfills are filling up? I do not find concrete evidence that land space is a problem. In the US for example there is much re-usage of landfill in the creation of golf courses or even housing (Beijnen & Kessels 2015). Pollution? That is a well-argued point but I do not consider it a challenge that cannot be tackled by legislation and building codes. The challenge of re-using or “mining” the landfill sites may be bettered by law and for instance unionizing its work force. Waste Land 2010; Lindeman 2012; King 2006)
I believe the perceived problem with waste is its visual apparency. We all produce waste and we are reminded of it constantly. We might falsely associate our household waste with the pollution of the planet. I’m not saying they are not linked, I’m saying that the link we perceive might not be the right one. Many environmental problems with waste is unintuitive. Take the problem with produces – vegetables and fruit. There is a movement arising where groceries and consumers try to minimize plastic wrapping of fresh fruit and vegetables.
It seems logical: it reduces waste and less plastics are thrown away. The problem is we do not think about what waste actually is. It is just material not used at the moment. Removing plastic wrapping from produce shortens their shelf life and results in more of the fresh produce to go to waste. When organic matter is thrown away, it rots. Rotting produce create methane, which is a powerful and dangerous greenhouse gas. Plastic on a landfill does not create any greenhouse gas, because it is infamously non degradable. McWilliams 2010)
So we all act differently and try to do our ethical best to create sustainability but a major obstacle is that we are not in consensus what that actually means. We have different opinions and even hugely different definitions for the word (Hume 2010). We buy apparently green products to build our self-esteem and create the kind of self-image we would like to be or we deliberately boycott a product to signal to our in-group of our moral integrity (Hogg, Banister & Stephenson 2009) but the problem seems to be that we do not know what the problem actually is.
The complexity of the situation, of ecosystems, economic systems and global weather systems makes the issue maybe the hardest Gordian Knot we will have to untie as a species. Let’s hope that as in the past major breakthroughs and shifts in the course of humanity are mainly Nassim Taleb’s (2007) unpredictable black swans, and like no-one predicted Google, the global economic crisis or the invention of the telephone, we’ll have a paradigm shift in sustainability in the near future.