I can’t get no satisfaction: Consumption, identity and alienation

A survey by the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development (reported here) suggests a decline in green consumption by New Zealanders in 2008, and, compared to last year, fewer people have ‘green intentions’ for the coming year. Commenting on the survey, the splendidly named Rick Starr, a marketing academic, said people were intrigued by the idea of buying green “but when it comes down to actual purchase it’s hard to find products that fit. Green options for people are limited. … Although people have good intentions and would like to be greener, sometimes it’s hard to do that. Walk into a supermarket and look at how little organic produce there is.”

Is it hard to be a green consumer simply because the purchasing options are limited, as Starr suggests? Is the answer simply to get more green product onto supermarket shelves? Or is something more complex going on here?

The realities of green urban living have been examined in a fascinating and revealing study by Irish researchers John Connolly and Andrea Prothero, who looked into the lives of seven environmentalists from Dublin. The aim of this research was to get a handle on these individuals’ sense of themselves, and to understand how this self-image is manifest through their ‘lifestyle choices’.

The findings of this study show that green people certainly feel they have the power to address global, national and local environmental issues through individual action. However, they also feel uncertain about exactly how to act. In particular, despite their commitment to ‘green shopping’ and ‘green consumption,’ they are entirely uncertain about what they should and shouldn’t buy.

To understand how greens have got themselves into this rather awkward corner, it is worth looking at the way greens generally think about consumption.

The good green consumer

In the green worldview, thinking about consumption links into the ‘traditional’ green critique of production through its impact on the natural world – production that is extractive and destructive of the natural world takes place so that we might consume, and this process is completed by consumption, disposal, waste and yet more destruction of the natural world. Consumption is thus (quite correctly) seen as a significant aspect of our exploitative relationship with nature.

It follows from this recognition of the consumption process as ‘part of the problem’ that the right consumption choices – and the individual consumers who make them – are ‘part of the solution.’ This ideal of the ‘green consumer’ making ‘good’ and ‘right’ choices is also often given a wholly disproportionate meaning by being tagged with Gandhi’s advice to “Be the change you want to see in the world”. Nevertheless, the good green consumer seems to be a recurring key theme in any green strategy for saving the planet from ecological disaster.

Unfortunately green consumption is not just about individuals making a series of objectively correct purchasing decisions. As we have seen, even well-informed, engaged and active greens aren’t confident about what these decisions ought to be – and if they don’t know, what chance does the rest of the population have? Connolly and Prothero suggest that these feelings of uncertainty arise from the sense of being individually responsible for addressing the ecological crisis. They conclude that “the idea that green consumption … can form part of a strategy for environmental reform … does not adequately address the fundamental dilemmas that people face in attempting to make the ‘right’ choice” (p.141).

The green analysis of consumption thus seems to be inadequate and it follows that, as a basis for individual political action, it will be quite ineffectual. The reasons for this failure may well be related to the rather limited character of the green understanding of consumption which I outlined above. There is a crucial factor that has been omitted from the picture, and I want to look further into what this is.

Consumption and identity

In the era of industrial capitalism and mass working class movements, identity was founded primarily on the work we did: “I was a miner, I was a docker, I was a railwayman”, to quote Billy Bragg. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes in Work, consumerism and the new poor (2005), in those times men expected a “steady, durable and continuous, logically coherent and tightly structured working career” (p. 27) and we should add that women expected a role as wife and mother. In this, our life’s work, we formed our lasting identity.

In terms of a socio-political analysis, the problems of industrial society did not arise from individual acts of labour down a pit or in a kitchen. The exploitative features of the system of production were the problem, whether they were viewed from a perspective on class and social injustice, or a perspective on patriarchy and gendered oppression. Thus the sociological or political response was directed against this system (as, for example, in marxism and feminism).

No matter how attached we are to these long-familiar political analyses, we must recognise that the world today no longer operates along the lines of an industrial capitalist society. Jobs are fixed term, temporary, casual, flexible. Consequently, “the prospect of constructing a lifelong identity on the foundation of work is, for the great majority of people, … dead and buried” (Bauman, 2005, p. 28). Today, people’s identities are far less likely to be constructed around generic roles allocated by class, gender, marriage, and family than they were, say, 50 years ago – now we must each build an identity on an individual basis.

Bauman argues that most of us in wealthy western societies now build our identity around what we consume.

Examples: reading the latest books, magazines, websites; taking holidays at island resorts; listening to downloaded music on our iPods; having our hair styled; tasting wine; watching sport; texting on mobile phones; sitting in cars; choosing which shoes to wear; buying beach houses; eating at restaurants; watching art-house movies; supporting charities; funding activist organisations … all these are goods or services we consume (rather than make or produce) in order to be fashionable, but also to construct an identity for ourselves as much as for anyone else to admire. This is the role of consumption in our lives and is the crucial factor that is missing from the existing green understanding of consumption.

Consumerism and alienation

In constructing an effective socio-political analysis of this present-day situation (and taking a cue from the above analysis of industrial society), we must recognise that the act of consumption itself is not the central problem. The problem is consumerism. In another of his books, Consuming life (2007), Bauman says that consumerism arrives “when consumption takes over the linchpin role which was played by work in the society of producers” (p.28). It is “a type of social arrangement that results from … human wants, desires and longings [acting as] the principal propelling and operating force of society” (p.28).

Bauman suggests that it is the illusory and momentary nature of consumption that is the source of its strength in this role: as fashions are adopted, embraced, then grow obsolete (and thus become ludicrous) more and more quickly, we come to recognise that it is “better to keep each current identity temporary, to embrace it lightly, to make sure that it will fall away” once we are ready to “embrace its new, brighter or just untested replacement” (2005, p.28). Thus even the very term ‘identity’ has lost its meaning: identities themselves are consumed. Don’t worry about engagement, commitment, or fulfilment – the stores are online 24/7 and we can purchase some more gratification or a new identity whenever we need it. This is what Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity’. Nothing is fixed here; there are no certainties.

Looking back at the era when work provided identity, Bauman notes the social nature of productive work as “a collective endeavour” which presumes a division of tasks, co-operation and co-ordination. That is to say, identity forged through work represented one aspect of the ideal of a broader community built of reciprocal responsibilities. Consumption, however, for Bauman, is the antithesis of this: “Consumption is a thoroughly individual, solitary and, in the end, lonely activity” (2005, p.30). As such, it is the ultimate source of our alienation.

The challenge that greens must face up to is in finding an understanding of consumerism which recognises the social realities outlined here: the enormous psychological impact of consumption on identity formation and its role in generating deep feelings of alienation. From that understanding can grow a deeper analysis that goes way beyond the trite ‘good consumer’/’bad consumer’ morality play. Only then will something approaching sustainable consumption be possible.


Zygmunt Bauman (2005) Work, consumerism and the new poor (second edition). Maidenhead, UK: Open UP.

Zygmunt Bauman (2007) Consuming life. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

John Connolly and Andrea Prothero (2008) Green consumption: Life politics, risk and contradictions. Journal of Consumer Culture, 8(1), 117-145.

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