It’s a sunny morning in Oregon, and I am riding my borrowed bicycle through the streets of Southeast Portland, enjoying the experience of commuting by bike, as many of the locals do this time of year. It is early July, and I have chosen Portland as the first of several sites around the country for my fieldwork. The day is unseasonably warm: unlike its usually moderate summers, Portland has been having unusually dry and warm weather, and the temperature is already close to 90 degrees. I am on my way to visit Caleb, a teenager who has been nominated as “wise” by a community leader in my evolving local network, to see what I can learn from him about what it means to be a wise consumer.
To some, the very notion of a “wise consumer” – especially a wise, teenage consumer – might seem like an oxymoron. But wisdom is less about age than it is about mindset and choices, and the everyday choices that we make as consumers have an enormous collective impact on the planet—and our own wellbeing.
One thing is clear: our current level of global consumption is not sustainable, and certainly not scalable. Climate change (and a range of other global challenges) has been linked directly to industrial development and economic growth, which are largely fueled by consumer demand for goods and services. This consumer demand is expected to rise dramatically in the next few years, as billions around the world rise into the global middle class, which is expected to swell from 2 billion today to 4.9 billion by 2030. Even if climate change were not an issue, current patterns of household consumption in “developed economies” simply can’t scale to this degree (according to experts, that would require over 4 earths!).
But unlike other social issues such as smoking and obesity, consumption is not universally bad. Everyone is a consumer of sorts, and some level of consumption is necessary and even beneficial. Beyond the obvious necessities of food, clothing, and shelter, many of the activities and experiences that we associate with an enhanced life – from exercise to going to the theater – depend on the consumption of goods and services, and hence, the consumption of resources. So the goal cannot be the absence of consumption; instead, we need an alternative form of consumption that is both sustainable and scalable. And, critically, it must be viewed by the mainstream as an attractive alternative so that it will be widely adopted. In a sense, we need to explore the Buddhist ideal of the “middle way” between asceticism—which few would adopt—and hedonism, which underlies many of the problems of modern society.
This is where wisdom comes in. Described by Aristotle as the “meta-virtue” that organizes and balances all other virtues, wisdom can help the consumer balance their individual needs (utilitarian, experiential, financial, social, and spiritual), with those of society and the environment - while simultaneously considering both current and future consequences. In a nutshell, consumer wisdom is the art of getting a lot more from a lot less.
To really learn about consumer wisdom, we need to think about what it might look like in practice: how it fits within the context of the individual’s life and lifestyle, and how it enhances lives in ways that make it a compelling alternative. Over the past six months, I have been conducting fieldwork across the country, hearing the stories of people from the progressive urban neighborhoods of the Pacific Northwest, to small farms in upstate New York, to suburban homes on the edge of the Great Plains in Kansas.
In Portland, my meeting with Caleb highlighted the wisdom of a holistic, open-minded and reflective approach to consumption. One example that most people could relate to is clothes shopping. Except for incidentals, like socks, Caleb buys the majority of his clothes from used-clothing stores. For context, Caleb explained that in his neighborhood, it’s common for clothes to be handed down between families, especially amongst younger children. When he was young, Caleb identified those handed-down clothes with the older—and hence “cooler”—kids in his neighborhood. A shirt wasn’t just a shirt; it was the shirt previously owned and worn by a respected older peer. Years later, even though Caleb has no idea who owned the used clothing that he periodically buys, that “coolness” factor is somehow still there. Each shirt, in Caleb’s words, has “kind of had a past,” chosen by someone else with a unique personality and set of stories. He also enjoys the process of “…rummaging through …and finding something really cool as opposed to just having this big stack where everything’s exactly the same.”
Caleb’s story reminds us that this isn’t just about getting a shirt, or even simply about identity. It’s about a sense of interconnectedness and community. Instead of a consumer “throw-away” culture that we cannot afford, or an ascetic culture that most would not want, Caleb helps us see an unexpected benefit of a middle way. Fostering this sense of interdependence is a key element of consumer wisdom, one that can improve our lives through a choice as simple as buying a used shirt.
Read a Q&A with Michael Luchs about his research here.