flickr: stickerhelsinki document...

The word ‘consume’ is really driving me nuts at the moment. On the one hand, I can see how useful it is to have a word which refers, in one fell swoop, to the purchasing, eating, listening, experiencing, using, and (frequently) discarding of a product, without too much specificity on what that thing may be. This must be why we find ourselves listening (or not listening) to Radio 4's consumer programme and being asked, rather obnoxiously, how we consume music, art and so on.

But it’s the all-pervasive marketing mentality that accompanies the word, casting us all as 24/7 consumers, that really bothers me. We are already encouraged to think of shopping as a past-time and 'being on trend' (i.e. buying new stuff constantly) as a necessity, and I find this profoundly worrying when, as a society and a species (at least the privileged ten percent) we're already living so far beyond our means. Artist Darren Cullen recently highlighted how even children are viewed as potential cash cows; his Finsbury Park installation 'Pocket Money Loans' satirised payday loan companies' attempts to foster brand allegiances early, with rounded-font slogans like ‘We'll help you buy what you can't afford!’ slapped across the brightly-coloured windows of his recreated shop.

I don't want to sound like an old puritan, but we need only look at how shops leapt to promoting Christmas in October, or the constant association of love with present-buying that we see in every jewellery shop all year long, to know that as we move around in public, failure to constantly buy things is associated with some kind of inadequacy – we’re not generous enough, wealthy enough, successful enough, if we’re not spending money. This fosters a mentality where people spend what they don’t always have on things they don’t actually need in order to feel better about themselves or to preserve a particular social status.

And the word ‘consume’ (and its near-neighbour ‘customer’) has spread beyond its original meaning, to encompass use of everything from transport to fashion. In the past, people using public transport were called passengers – the human element of travel was prioritised. It always makes me sad to be addressed as a 'customer' on the tube now, as my happy little idyll of people serving people for the good of everyone vanishes behind the shadow of the corporate juggernauts that run our world. Now, I'm just another consumer, demanding customer service from a designated employee, and I can't even tell if they're looking me in the eye because they actually want to say hello, or because they've been trained to do it. Even going to art galleries, we are described as ‘art consumers’ – whether its an art museum or a gallery selling art pieces, the emphasis is put on the consumption of the art and this, in turn, commodifies something which we should be enjoying and appreciating. 

I don’t have the sociological know-how to address the potential causes of this culture of consumerism which I have identified, but I think the way we use language alters the way we perceive ourselves, and others. As long as we accept the label of ‘consumers’ in very diverse aspects of our life, I think we are accepting a descriptor with connotations of greed and thoughtless consumption. I worry about our ability to engage lovingly with our world and the people in it. The OED gives one interesting usage of the word ‘consume’ in the old adage – ‘consume you!’ This was an exclamation used to express hatred and urge someone to depart. At the rate we are going, we may indeed consume ourselves before too long.

Sponsored links