About Consumption

How the longing for an ideal consumer world prevents us from improving it

Anyone who is keeping his or her eyes and ears open to what is happening in the world in 2022 will probably find it difficult to settle into it with any pleasure. Not only is the view of the future being clouded by global warming, which is coming with a vengeance and destroying livelihoods at an ever-increasing speed; but a fragility of political alliances and the strategic balance that had brought a certain political stability to the ‘West’ (the war in the former Yugoslavia in the ‘90s notwithstanding) over a long period of time, is becoming increasingly apparent. In the increasing struggle for resources and geostrategic positioning, however, war is once again becoming a realistic option everywhere, with consequences that no one wants to imagine. The Russian invasion of Ukraine may be just the beginning.

Still, the very regular daily activities on this planet are quite sufficient enough to destroy the foundations of all thriving life. Not only is there constantly growing demand for mineral resources (used for, among other things, the production of batteries and power cells, which are touted as climate savers, and uranium, with which nuclear power plants have to be fed) and fossil fuels, but also for soy, palm oil, corn, cotton and wood, ensuring that massive areas including still intact ecosystems are systematically destroyed every day. The consequences ultimately affect the entire globe, but can be seen most clearly in climate change, as well as in the extinction of many species.

Industrialized agriculture and fishing, the covering of the soil through road construction, housing and commercial development and a transport system that has taken on ridiculous proportions all contribute to this effect.

The fact that the malaise in this world is now also growing in countries that are considered ‘prosperous’ is revealed among other things, by the fact that it is precisely there that the call for conscious consumption is becoming louder and louder. Strongly supported by the media, consumers take themselves to task and believe that they can save the world, or at the very least, improve it, through their purchasing decisions.

That means that producers, entrepreneurs and corporations are forced to produce more environmentally friendly and preferably less, because it is this abundance of everything that causes a lot of problems, whether it be plastic, pharmaceuticals, aluminium packaging, fertilizers, pesticides, cars, airplanes and whatever else.

In fact, there is hardly a product left that the environmentally conscious consumer could wholeheartedly endorse. Oat milk from the organic food store is in a plastic-capped Tetra Pak. Groundwater reserves are destroyed for organic vegetables grown in Spain. And day laborers on the organic tomato and potato plantations of Morocco are treated with starvation wages. It becomes even more difficult when buying palm oil and soy products, because square kilometers of tropical forests, in turn one of the most important pieces of the puzzle in protecting the climate, are cut down every day for their cultivation. Anyone who pays attention to certified woods when buying furniture would do well not to investigate any further, otherwise they will quickly lose their enjoyment of it, not to mention the research after buying the clothes … incredibly maddening! Even with fair trade coffee you cannot be sure that the increased price the customer is willing to pay actually goes to those who grow, care for and harvest the coffee. The only thing that is absolutely assured is the profit of the business community involved in the trade: the sellers and buyers and their banks that collect the interest on the loans.

What a shame.

But shouldn’t it really be about the well-being of mankind …?

According to myth, the economic system automatically provides this well-being, so to speak, because with capitalism, all is produced in order to cover the needs of humans.

Let’s examine this proposition a little more closely.

Are all these articles really produced to meet needs?

Quite clearly this can be answered with No!

No entrepreneur, no corporation and certainly not the small-and-medium-sized producer can afford to keep an eye on meeting the needs of their buyers. What they must have in view is their purchasing power. Which is why every product has a price tag that says: “For sale!…at least if you are willing to pay so and so much for it.”

And not: “Please, help yourself and enjoy its usefulness!” No, this is not how it is meant with the utilitarian objects, which are now goods.

The practical use and joy that the piece of chocolate, the coffee machine, the home cinema or the exotic plant can provide, are secondary for their producers and really, only have one function: to arouse the purchase interest of woman, man or child and to convert their purchasing power into black figures on the bank account. And this under any circumstances because profit is the prerequisite for making more profit. If this fails, especially when competing against other producers, insolvency or bankruptcy must be declared.

The gears of the market economy crush everyone and everything that does not keep up.

And this law applies to producers of plastic bags and organic cucumbers alike. 

It is therefore hardly surprising that we are all bombarded with advertising from morning to night that is intended to direct the customer’s purchasing power into the coffers of the advertising company.  

Back to our theorem: In capitalism, an infinite amount is produced to meet the needs of man.

And indeed, there is a lot; too much, many now are saying. Unfortunately, this abundance does not at all mean that there is no more poverty in this world. On the contrary: it exists everywhere, even in ‘wealthy’ Germany, and it is quickly increasing. Even the homeless woman and the welfare recipient have to dig into their pockets like everyone else if they want to buy something.  These people are confronted with a fabulous selection of goods, from which, however, they are practically excluded for lack of purchasing power.

Nevertheless, even this little purchasing power is an important factor for the continued existence of the economy, and so even the consumer of cheap clothes and cheap shampoo is still fiercely courted.   

Our economic system depends on consumption, and a growing consumption at that. The point is to make more money out of money, or worse: to have to make more money, otherwise nothing will work. Any stagnation in this process causes the system to wobble, sometimes so threateningly that the state will intervene, if necessary, for example, with the help of tax breaks for companies or with laws that allow masses of jobs with little security (currently, one in four people in Germany is in such a job). Both can save on the balance sheet, keep companies in the country that would otherwise relocate to low-wage countries, and produce more cheaply so that the products have a better standing on the market. The margin between company costs and sales revenue must be as wide as possible, with the labour cost factor being the decisive one. Broken down to the lowest denominator, this means that the wages of those who create the products must be as low as possible, and the customer must buy, buy, buy …

So, it’s really not about people and their well-being; not the employee or that of the consumer. And yet, why should it not be possible to influence producers by means of our purchasing behaviour so that they produce more ecologically and bring better goods to the market?

Of course, it is possible to produce in nature- and people-friendly ways.

However, under the dictates of economic growth and flourishing capitalist production, this is out of the question.

In an economy that depends on growth, it’s not reason and benevolence that prevail, but only the compulsion to multiply money (as already explained). Whatever is produced, traded, and squandered must submit to this reality. As well, recycling is only carried out, if money can be earned with it. Development aid is only carried out, if markets can be opened with it. These are but just two significant examples.

So there lies the first misconception of the consumer: Things are not produced for him or her, but only for profit. The commodity, with which a need is covered, is not the purpose of production, but the means to transform that need into money.

The second misconception lies in the thing itself. Thus, the consumer thinks that he can contribute to the welfare of small producers with his purchase decision. In fact, however, he is moving in a hopeless circle. An example: I boycott Lindt chocolate and buy the ‘Fair Trade’ chocolate in the One World Shop, trusting that the seal will keep its promise and that the farmers, pickers and day laborers on the cocoa plantations in Africa and South America will actually be able to live on their income. But research quickly reveals that this is not the case. Of the total 5.5 million cocoa farmers in Africa, the absolute majority of which live in poverty or even extreme poverty, those who are organized under Fairtrade stand out only slightly. Studies show, as Johannes Schorling of Südlink’s editorial team writes, “that the premiums paid and fixed minimum prices have so far had only a minor impact on the income situation of cocoa farmers and that they generally do not escape poverty” (25.10.2017/ Südlink 181: Who earns from chocolate?).

So where does the extra money paid end up? Well, with the usual suspects in the value chain. Chocolate manufacturers and retailers in the global North, who already hold about 70% of the value added in the chocolate trade, are the real winners in Fairtrade. Even the plantation owners are generally up the creek, since they are completely dependent on world market prices that go up and down like the waves of a fever.

The same applies to coffee. “Fairtrade is a market niche in this, nothing more,” says the president of the Coffee Exchange, Daniel Mbithi (Weltspiegel, Jan. 19, 2014).

What we see is that the business of hoping for some morality in business is flourishing. And it shows us even more forcefully the hard-nosed rules of the game that we have to deal with in this economic system. 

The example of Fairtrade also shows what is so readily hidden: if we avoid one product and buy another instead, the latter company is rewarded for its strategy. Meanwhile, nothing is changed in the principle of value creation; the world market continues to function happily at the expense of the majority of the people on the planet, and no consumer behaviour in the world will change any of that.

But what about a boycott of a product that is considered harmful, let’s say glyphosate? Apart from the fact that no such boycott is in sight; here, too, things would not be much different, and products of other weedkiller manufacturers would then come to the fore. This is because the weeds would not become less with the boycott. On the contrary, logically, they would grow even more. And what about the idea that instead of using cheap weedkillers, one could hire a bunch of people to pull out the weeds by hand? Hardly anyone could afford that, and certainly not the farmer.

So the consumer is basically going from the frying pan into the fire; where his supposed consumer power does not change the basic evil of the capitalist mode of production, that is completely detrimental to the well-being of nature and mankind.