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Moving Beyond Sustainable Consumption: A Q&A With Dr. Michael Luchs

January 12, 2016 • By Michael Luchs Moving Beyond Sustainable Consumption: A Q&A With Dr. Michael Luchs

All of us are consumers in one way or another, whether it’s through the food we eat, our transportation choices, or the clothes we buy. But although consumerism in mainstream society is mostly seen as a negative phenomenon—encouraging materialism and weakening social connections—the concept of “consumer wisdom” could help transform our lives for the better, according to Michael Luchs, an Associate Professor at the College of William & Mary’s Mason School of Business. In his research for the Enhancing Life Project, Luchs will use qualitative interviews with “wise consumers” across the country to illuminate their practices and highlight the underlying values that motivate their behavior. The goal, he says, is to create a middle way that reduces consumers’ market footprint while simultaneously enhancing their quality of life.

Read a blog post by Michael Luchs about the art of wise consumption here.

What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both?

I’ve been doing research on what’s referred to as sustainable consumption for ten years. Sustainable consumption is the purchase of goods and services that are more environmentally or socially benign. But there is a growing recognition that it’s not enough to merely buy products that are less harmful. We can’t solve global challenges like climate change and dwindling resources that way. Meanwhile, we have the added recognition that people in developed economies, despite consuming far more than they did thirty years ago, still aren’t happier.

So my question is: are there wise consumers out there who have managed to fit consumption within a lifestyle that is more sustainable and more satisfying? What I am trying to do is understand what wisdom means within the context of consumption and develop a psychological theory of consumer wisdom. It’s a relatively new concept in psychology, but wisdom ultimately comes down to decisions and behaviors. People who are seen as wise are typically balanced: they can avoid impulse purchases and think about long-term consequences, and balance their needs against the needs of others. Wisdom also involves reflection, the ability to think critically about when and what we acquire. Because often, the choice to not acquire something is just as important.

What are some of the characteristics of a wise consumer?

I’m just now beginning to analyze my interviews, but one common theme is that the stereotypical consumer’s behavior, where people work and make money in order to support consumption, is actually reversed. The people I’m interviewing tend to have rich, full lives and in some ways consumption facilitates that, but it becomes a means to an end as opposed to an end in itself. They are not shopping just to go shopping. They might acquire running shoes because they like to exercise, but they’re not buying a shoe to make a fashion statement. And they’re some of the happiest people I’ve ever met, seemingly free of the neuroses and anxieties of modern life. And really, it’s an experience that’s largely independent of income—some of the people I’ve met have limited material resources and others are quite affluent, but they’ve all accomplished a peace that is really quite enviable. 

What does “enhancing life” mean in the context of your research?

I use the term happiness because non-academics can relate to that, but what I’m referring to is academically called well-being, or perhaps pursuing a life of flourishing. And to me, that’s what enhancing life is all about. People have been interested in the concept of flourishing through the lenses of spirituality and philosophy for a long time, but I think the decisions people make every day about the things they acquire or choose not to acquire, and how they use them, have a huge collective impact on individuals and society. That’s an important complement that needs more attention.

What do you think Enhancing Life studies can offer your discipline, and why?

It’s an absolutely critical opportunity to refocus the objectives of business and our economy. Over the years, we’ve become obsessed with economic growth to the point where it’s rare for people to talk about the quality of the economy - its ability to enable flourishing, and in a more equitable way. I think people intuitively get that. Millennials, for example, in all sorts of surveys are looking for more meaningful jobs. So we have this chance to refocus in really positive ways.

What’s the most surprising or interesting challenge you’ve encountered so far in your Enhancing Life Project research?

Whenever I mention the idea of consumer wisdom, if I don’t get a blank stare, I usually get a bold laugh. People have trouble grasping the concept. And I think that’s partially because we tend to associate consumption with its extremes, problems like rampant materialism. And so we often don’t think of our own behaviors as problematic. In this worldview, consumers are always other people. What we have to realize is that actually, it’s us.

You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?

I’m trying to get in shape for a long-distance bike ride across part of Virginia this summer. It’s something like 200 miles in three days in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so it’ll be hilly!