Creating Meaning and Identity through Consumption: Implications for Simple Livers

A more sophisticated critique of voluntary simplicity arises out of theories of consumption which recognize that commodities have come to play a role in our lives that go well beyond their material functionality. These theories hold that commodities also function symbolically as social artefacts through which people express and create their identities and in which people seek not just satisfaction, but also meaning and social acceptance.[1] ‘Stuff is not just stuff,’[2] as Tim Jackson puts it, implying that what we own (especially in modern consumer societies) can be understood as part of the ‘extended self.’[3] This understanding of consumption raises important questions about voluntary simplicity, because if consumption is needed not just for material provision but also for social acceptance, the social expression of one’s identity, and the creation of meaning in life, then what exactly are advocates of voluntary simplicity asking people to give up? What would reducing consumption actually mean if, as Mary Douglas put it, ‘An individual’s main objective in consumption is to help create the social universe and to find in it a creditable place.’[4]

The symbolic function of consumption does seem to present a challenge to the idea of voluntary simplicity, but the challenge is not as forceful as it may first appear. Psychologist Philip Cushman has argued that the ‘extended self’ created through consumption is actually an ‘empty self,’ one that is constantly in need of being ‘filled up’ with consumer artefacts.[5] Although consumption may indeed be a medium through which individuals in modern societies increasingly seek to find meaning, there is great deal of evidence (supplemented by strong intuitions, perhaps) which suggests that seeking meaning in consumption is not fulfilling its promise of a happy and meaningful life.[6]

Furthermore, anti-consumerist movements in their various forms have never advocated renouncing meaning but, on the contrary, they have always sought to create and enhance meaning through opposition to mainstream consumption habits.[7] As Jackson contends, ‘the insight that a certain amount of consumer behaviour is dedicated to an (ultimately flawed) pursuit of meaning opens up the tantalizing possibility of devising some other, more successful, less ecologically damaging strategy for creating and maintaining personal and cultural meaning.’[8] In the Simplicity Movement, it could be argued, that ‘tantalizing possibility’ is becoming a reality.

[1] See Helga Dittmar, The Social Psychology of Material Possessions: To Have is To Be (1992).

[2] Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (2009) 63.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mary Douglas, ‘Relative Poverty, Relative Communication’ [1976], in Jackson (ed), Sustainable Consumption (2005) 243.

[5] Philip Cushman, ‘Why the Self is Empty,’ 45(5) American Psychologist 599.

[6] See Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism (2002); Tim Kasser and Allen Kanner (eds), Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World (2003).

[7] See Hélène Cherrier, ‘Anti-Consumption Discourses and Consumer-Resistant Identities’ (2009) 62(2) Journal of Business Research 181; Rajesh Iyer and James Muncy, ‘Purpose and Object of Anti-Consumption’ (2009) 62(2) Journal of Business Research 160.

[8] Tim Jackson (ed), Sustainable Consumption (2005) 20.

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