Wednesday, February 06, 2008

"The Greening of the U.S. Consumer"

As I mentioned (um, presciently, it turns out) the other day in Food Miles, consumers are starting to wise up to the fact that it's not necessarily desirable to truck or fly your food vast distances just to get fresh peaches in February. Business Week is with me all the way - there is an article in the new issue discussing how Americans in general are belt-tightening, from taking shorter or fewer trips to putting off buying a new car to - surprise! - eating closer to home.

This flies in the face the way the upper strata of Americans behave, at least according to a book I just finished, "Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich," by Robert Frank, the wealth reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Frank documents the day to day reality of being dripping with filthy money, from the 200-foot yachts to the prep courses on teaching your obnoxious offspring how not to put their entire inheritance up their nose to the difficulties of managing multiple staffs at multiple properties. These people, frankly, could give a shit how far their strawberries were trucked from, because these people have their yachts shipped across the Atlantic to time the Mediterranean boating season. They do make a nice study in contrast for thinking about how ordinary people, beset by a tightening credit supply, lower home equity and rising fuel costs, are just barely beginning to learn to make do with what they have, after decades of gluttonous excess.

If it means that some things get more expensive, or you can't get a third iPod until you have your "liquidity event," as the newly wealthy put it, well, then fine. I subscribe to the Cheap Stingy Bastard feed too, but this week I am not going to buy the freestanding Foreman grill, the special golf GPS unit, or a copy of "The Godfather" on DVD for $4.99. It's on A&E every night, you don't need to buy it. I am especially not getting the "GE 6.5 ft. Just Cut Grand Fir w/ 600 Clear Lights $25 + shipping", although given that Americans cut down 38 million trees a year just to make their houses smell nice and pine-y in December, maybe buying a few of these to give away is not such a bad idea.

We all have too much crap, and that really gets to the meat of the article. We just have too much stuff in our houses, too many things we don't use, and we're completely buried! What did years of easy credit, tapping home equity, and a laissez fare attitude toward consumer spending get us? Basements and garages full of ab-blasters, bullet blenders, leased cars*, Swiffer sweepers, and milk crates full of old Nintendo games and CDs we stopped listening to when Napster and cheap high-speed converged. Every eBay'd Beanie Baby, every plastic water bottle, every rayon blouse that will take a thousand years or more to return to its component parts implicates all of us. When are we going to draw a line in the sand and just shout, enough! Enough! The only, and I mean, only thing worth buying is premium cellular and iPod accessories, now available with many popular sports and entertainment licenses. Please shop early and often.

Disclosure: The not inconsiderable irony of having organic produce delivered weekly to the house while my kid's college fund and my mortgage depend on people continuing to buy consumer products is not lost on me. We're moving our product lines I work on toward real sustainability, but anyone who has tried that knows it is a slow process. We're working on it.

So no one's clean here, but it's encouraging to think people are trying. My parents are traveling overseas right now, and they keep asking what they can bring us. They are intent on bringing home some souvenirs, and I keep saying a t-shirt or a picture is about all we can use. I'm not buying carbon offsets for my jet travel yet, but I agree with the Business Week article that '..."People are saying they don't need more shoes, more clothes, or more bags; it's all about using less, consuming less," says Patricia Pao, founder of retail consultant The Pao Principle.' I'm trying to, I'm not afraid of saying other people should be trying to, and by the time Business Week is talking about it, it is a full-blown trend. Let's hope this points to a real, positive change in our culture that has us going back to owning fewer, better things.


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