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American Consumerism and “Enough”

Ms. Shamsa Belgrave is currently a sophomore at Swarthmore College with a growing awareness that America’s current form of capitalism is damaging to so many because we’ve collectively allowed it to be overcome by damaging ethics. She’s exploring the potential that America’s form of capitalism can be reformed if not transformed to a more equitable system by revamping its underlying ethics. We're pleased to share our platform for her voice to be heard. America's culture of mass consumerism is one that has ramifications throughout the globe. The high value placed on acquiring as many material possessions as possible inherently molds our economic system and contributes to some of the biggest issues threatening the world around us. Coupled with other abuses what we see begs the question, “How has the culture of consumerism directly influenced capitalism as we know it today?” Today's capitalism is one in which a businesses’ primary focus is to maximize profit, which often comes at the expense of natural resources and people in the supply chain around the globe. For example, the fast fashion industry as a whole has become synonymous with the exploitation of the environment and various human rights abuses in order to increase profitability. Because fast fashion is exploitative and because it operates with a capitalist system, people too frequently come to the hasty generalization that capitalism is inherently and necessarily exploitative. What they miss, however, which leads to the hasty generalization, is that capitalism is a system of freedoms. With its many freedoms, capitalism is an incredible economic system. Freedom, however, comes with responsibility. We owe it to each other, our economic system, and our society to use our freedoms responsibly and for the benefit of as many of us as possible, and not in the service of just a few. Increasingly, many are critical of exploitative practices (brought by the failures of many to use their freedoms responsibly) and are taking proactive efforts to ensure that businesses do not perpetuate injustices and are held accountable for their abusive actions. Exploring mutually beneficial policies and practices, advocating for workers’ rights, and making conscious efforts to combat negative practices are some of the many ways that society is taking a stand against the exploitative possibilities inherent in the freedom of capitalism. In that same regard of holding businesses accountable, it’s important to look at consumer influences on capitalism and it’s worth noting that businesses are feeding into the demands of American consumerism. It may initially seem as though mass consumerism naturally arises in a capitalist framework; however, I strongly believe that modern consumerism is one of the largest reasons that we see such an exploitative economic system today. When you have a culture that essentially equates your worth to the more material possessions, businesses will simply keep producing to fuel this cultural value.

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American consumerism preaches that the increased consumption of products and services fundamentally influences not only your wellbeing but your status. Buying the newest iPhone every year, feeding into fashion trends that come and go – these are all examples of how American consumerism pushes individuals to purchase items that they really don’t need. America’s level of consumerism has fueled abuses of capitalism since the 1950s and will continue to do so if we ignore individual responsibility. This is not to say that businesses should not hold themselves responsible for the choices they make. We’re not the ones asking them to deplete our natural resources or squeeze their work forces. It’s necessary, however, to recognize how our relentless consumer demands – our failures to act responsibly with our freedoms – help fuel abuses within capitalism. Let's envision what our economic system would look like if influenced by a culture that valued quality over quantity and understood when we’ve crossed the threshold of ‘enough’. Yes, ‘enough’ looks different for everyone. What may be enough for an undergraduate student living in Kansas is not likely enough for a family of five living in Los Angeles. What constitutes enough is contextual but permit me to offer my wholly workable definition: Enough means contentment and comfortably living your life without damaging stress. However, American consumerism illustrates even when we’re living comfortably, we’re prodded to keep stressfully striving for more. To quote Millard Fuller, the co-founder of Habitat for Humanity, “One of the big impediments to solving the problem is that too few talented and wealthy people have a developed ‘theology of enough’. They keep striving, struggling, and scrambling for more and more things for themselves and are too short-sighted and immature spiritually to see the futility of that type of grasping lifestyle.” (Fuller, Theology of the Hammer, p. 36). If we were to follow Fuller’s urging and develop an ethic of enough, how might businesses and corporations adapt to support these changes? My initial thoughts are that the fast fashion industry and the abuse of resources to fuel consumer needs would slowly die down. In demanding quality products and ensuring corporate social responsibility, we could create and return to responsibility that used to be practiced but has been unthinkable for the past few decades This isn’t a single shot solution to the abundance of harmful issues when the freedoms inherent in capitalism are abused. It is ultimately my conclusion, however, that we as individuals have more influence over business than we are led to believe or take responsibility for. We can hold business accountable for their abuses. An ethic of enough can be planted and will grow in the soil of accountability. Accountability in the context of American consumerism, begins with us consumers backing off the throttle of our desires and saying ‘enough’ way more often than we do. If we consumers do our part, businesses that want to survive will accept this accountability and begin to work within a mutual ethic of enough.

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