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Steven Chen, CSUF Mihaylo College of Bus/Econ  

Click here for Steven Chen's Bio

Tuesday, April 28, 2009
The O.C. design corridor
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Designing products for customers
Can consumers escape the market?
Anti-consumption and consumer movements have long fascinated me. Along with peers at Cal State Long Beach and the University of Hawaii-Manoa, I now have the opportunity to explore this interest through research that examines radical social and anti-consumer movements, such as freeganism, community-supported agriculture (CSA) and the do it yourself (DIY) philosophy. In a nutshell, these movements are composed of people who are trying to escape the capitalistic marketplace, which they view as the source of class inequalities, environmental detriment and greed by minimizing consumption, establishing a system of sharing outside of the mainstream marketplace and incorporating the production function into their daily lives. The goals of our research are: 1) to better understand these movements and their values, and 2) to answer the question of whether people can really escape “the market.”

One example I want to hone in on: freegans. According to freegan.info, freegans are people “who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.” Freegans externalize this mission through waste reclamation, or in other words, looking into dumpsters for re-usable products that are disposed by businesses and individuals because of perceived defects. Other freegan principles include waste minimization, eco-friendly transportation, free housing and voluntary joblessness. In short, freegans are people who are trying to escape the market based on money and spurious consumption.

But can they really? Yes. A lot of people like to think so.

According consumer resistance advocates, anti-consumers are eroding marketers’ control through subversive practices that de-centers and fragments controlled marketing efforts. Freegans are the poster children for anti-consumer behavior, because they reject the whole market system: They don’t shop, they don’t buy, and they don’t work. Some even reject currency.

Anti-consumers also emancipate themselves from controlled marketing efforts by culture jamming – altering and inverting corporate logos and goods to change and subvert the intended meanings, usually pejoratively. For example, culture jammers have transformed the Starbucks logo into “Charbucks” to bring attention to the failings of free trade farming and the low quality-high price ratio of Starbucks’ coffee. One can easily find these logos through a simple Google image search.

Certain subcultures and communities also view themselves as outside the homogeneous, corporate market. For example, Harley Davidson riders, gay communities, punks and clubbers reify their own special brand of communal consumption that they set apart from the “mainstream” – only temporarily.

A related and more realistic perspective is that people cannot fully escape the market, but people can create the illusion of temporary escape. Emancipation might occur, but if so, only locally and temporarily. The feeling of escape resides in the minds of participants much longer than the actual lifecycle of the community. This is the lesson learned from anti-consumption festivals such as Burning Man, where people create a temporary community based on carnival and sharing, only to return to the their homes, their jobs and the market-based world after the festival ends.

Some critics say no, because as much as people want to escape the market, the chances of this happening are bleak. Dominant market forces will absorb and assimilate them. This is the central idea of co-optation theory. Businesses absorb and appropriate countercultures for profit, and make countercultural goods and meanings available to the mainstream masses.

Consider the case of Hot Topic, which has commercialized Gothic and Independent Rock music, apparel and aesthetic for mass consumption in America’s shopping malls. We are also beginning to see this with respect to the green movement. Have you noticed that every car commercial without exception now emphasizes green social responsibility? A recent Honda car commercial communicated the company’s minimized use of material resources on the production side, and the minimization of waste on the consumption end through the use of hybrid engines and biodegradable material.

This perspective lends credence to an argument made by Doug Holt, a famous marketing scholar. He conceptualized consumer movements as a form of market-sanctioned cultural experimentation through which the market rejuvenates itself. The nature of the market is characterized by global corporations and brands that colonize local cultures, counterculture and consumer movements. In other words, there is no escape.

Previous research in anti-consumerism focuses on escaping the market. One key insight from our research so far, is that the question of escaping the market is not even relevant. Anti-consumers are not merely looking to escape the market. They are looking to shatter it completely. The freegans want to supplant the capitalist market with one based on need, barter and sharing. Green people and CSA farmers would like to destroy a market based on monopoly, profit, sales growth and endless consumption, and replace it with a business world where the bottom line is planet and people. DIY artists would like to eliminate the homogeneous marketplace filled with mass-produced, generic products with a heterogeneous one where a production run of 1 is possible.

While these anti-consumers are different in their philosophies and practices, the one common aspect between freegans, CSA farmers, the green movement and DIY artists is the key issue of changing rational consumer behavior. In order to break the system and replace it with a utopia, the solution is to replace it with one that is sustainable and practical. And the only way to change the world is to change basic human behavior – to get people to the point that they believe using gasoline is not the rational choice, that packaging water and food in plastics is not the best and cheapest solution, that we don’t need 100 articles of clothing and four cars per household to complete our identity projects.

To quote Tupac Shakur, in order to shatter the market, “let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live, and let’s change the way we treat each other.”