A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Frank Trentmann’s book Empire of Things, a sweeping history of consumerism that looks at the question over centuries rather than decades. One of the most striking things, to me at least, is how many positive stories there are, where consumerism proved emancipatory.
We all know the positives of consumerism because, at least where I am in Britain, we live with them every day. Cheap prices, huge variety, foods from all over the world, comfortable homes, and endless innovation. We also live with the waste, the debt and the pressure to spend, and the knowledge that people and planet are exploited to keep the consumerist mills turning. Here in the excesses of latter-day consumerism, it’s easy to forget the times when it has been a tool for social justice.
There were many examples of that in the book, including better known cases such as Fairtrade, or consumer boycotts. Here are four lesser known incidences of consumerism as a force for good:
Consumerism undermined slavery. In the US and the colonies in the age of slavery, there were very few imported goods. Owning slaves became a status symbol. As more and more goods became available, it slowly shifted the balance away from slavery. “Status came to reside in the ownership of objects not people” writes Trentmann.
Consumption allowed slaves to express their freedom. Following on from the abolition, consumerism was a force for good for freed slaves. They were able to choose their own clothes, buy what they wanted, and dress in a way that showed they were free and proud. “For former slaves and migrants, things were a great emancipator.”
Consumerism erodes class. Britain’s always had fairly strong class divisions, with people’s standing in society dictated by their surname and background. The availability of consumer goods helped to break down those old barriers. We might not consider identity through consumption particularly helpful today, but it certainly beats inheriting one’s place in the world by birth. Look to India, and the caste system is being eroded in similar fashion today. As Trentmann writes, “consumer goods have long been vehicles for lower castes to assert themselves.”
Consumerism brings consumer rights. On the related note, being a customer can give people a voice that they do not necessarily have as citizens. Paying for something gives you a right to a certain level of service, or you can take your money elsewhere. “The power of the purse handed shoppers a personal weapon for social justice” says Trentmann.