Many people are familiar with conspicuous consumption, Thorstein Veblen’s brilliant term from Theory of the Leisure Class for describing how upper classes consume as a way of displaying wealth.
But it seems like now we are seeing a new form of consumption where people are consuming for convenience instead of conspicuousness. Of course, people have always paid for convenience – that’s why last minute plane flights are so much more expensive than advance fares – but the convenience consumption I’m seeing has certain differentiators:
- there is a cost to society
- the gain in convenience is marginal
- the consuming seems driven by appearances as much as convenience.
Bottled water started me on the path to this theory, like a spring feeding a Fiji bottling plant. The growth in bottled water consumption in the U.S. has been dramatic, growing to 9.4 billion gallons and $12.6 billion in 2008 from 4.7 billion gallons and $6.1 billion in 2000. On a per capita basis, this represents growth to 29 gallons per year from 13. That’s a lot of water. Everywhere you go, people are swigging from plastic bottles of water: in the car, on the bus, walking down the street.
The cost of all those plastic bottles, however, transcends the $1.50 that the consumer paid. Only two out of ten water bottles consumed in the U.S. are recycled, with the rest going to the dump. That adds up to 38 billion bottles tossed into landfill every year. In addition, it takes 17 million barrels of oil to produce the water bottles consumed in the US every year. Finally, it takes thrice the clean water put in every bottle just to produce that bottle. Combine the garbage generation with the natural resource consumption, and drinking bottled water clearly has a cost to society.
Carrying your drinking water in a bottle is convenient, but not significantly more convenient than getting water at your destination. This is America, where virtually all tap water is safe to drink, and virtually all houses and offices have sinks with taps. It is challenging to imagine a circumstance where an urban or suburban American is more than 30 minutes from a source of clean drinking water.
So why the billions of bottles of water? Proper hydration has clear health benefits but I question that as the root cause. It feels more like people want to show – to themselves and to others – how busy they are. Realistically, nobody is so thirsty on their bus ride to work that they have to drink water from a bottle. We can all wait until we arrive at our office and fill our water glass then. But drinking from a bottle demonstrates to our busmates how busy we are, and how hip to hydration.
If nobody is so thirsty that they have to drink on the bus, much like nobody has such an important phone call that they can’t delay it while waiting in line at Starbucks, why are we doing both? By paying for unnecessary convenience, we can demonstrate to the world how much we NEED that convenience, how important we are. The parallel to Veblen is clear. But in a green world, conspicuous is out, convenience is in. In the modern world, you prove your worth not by owning a mansion in Newport, RI, but by being so busy that you need to drink, talk and eat on the run.
If I’m right about convenience consumption, what are the implications for the future? I predict that food will continue to be conveniencized. There is already Go-Gurt and Lunchables for kids, but I think that package food for adults on the go will continue to expand. Because lord knows, when people are hungry they have to eat…NOW! And if it’s gourmet, that’s all the better, since after all, we live in Veblenland.
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What you’re really talking about is not pure “convenience consumption” but rather “conspicuous convenience consumption”. Like you, I think that this could indeed be a factor influencing people’s behavior. It’s the first time I see someone explicitly talk about it!
Also, the three c’s give a certain air to the term. 😉
Yet, just like conspicuous material consumption does not explain all material consumption, I don’t think all convenience consumption is conspicuous. Humans are really creatures of comfort. Also, they may feel really good by pampering themselves. “Hey, I *deserved* this.” This feeling is reinforced by advertising.
C3: I like it!
I agree completely on your premise up until it became everyone all the time. I believe that at some point after the trend took hold people just became habitual and lazy as humans are wont to do. The bottled water industry took hold and now the green movement has got to undo what is an enormous ‘carbon foot print’ through, horrors, reeducation. Another issue is plastic bags and more on this later.