Quit Calling Us Consumers!

Consumer movement of 1960s improved American lives, but it's
time to recognize that most of us do much more than consume

by James M. Flammang

Updated: February 23, 2010

Has "consumer" outlived its usefulness as a
term to identify people with complete lives?

Not long after Ralph Nader gained national notoriety with the publication of his critical book Unsafe At Any Speed, in the mid-1960s, the consumer movement was hatched. Consumerism achieved many significant victories over the next couple of decades - typically after prolonged struggle. Without those efforts, a considerable amount of legislation that benefits all of us might never have come to pass. Automobile safety, fraudulent products and services, clearly-stated pricing policies, and much more may be credited to the foresighted luminaries and ardent activists of the consumer movement.

Yet now, in the computer/Internet age, we've reached beyond the point of providing helpful information to shoppers. People in search of helpful facts already have (or can quickly find) just about all the data and opinions they need, whether they're buying a car or home, attempting to secure a loan, or considering a lawsuit against a company that hasn't followed the rules of proper consumerist behavior.

Rather than pursue additional consumer issues, which inevitably gets reduced to the acquisition of more products, we need to get back to the notion of a full and balanced, broad-based life. That means a life with fewer goods, not more - and a lot less coveting of the latest commodities and luxuries.

Can't we finally get rid of the notion that "you are what you own?" In the end, consumerism has been something of a swindle: a guaranteed way to keep corporate profits up, by training generations of Americans to believe their major function is to shop, buy, and consume.

Those of us who've worked for consumer-focused organizations assumed that we were doing some ultimate good. Initially, that may have been true. Over the years, for example, I've contributed extensively to at least three publications with "Consumer" in their magazine titles. Providing helpful information to shoppers seemed like a worthy occupation. Only upon further, prolonged reflection has it become evident that ultimately, we helped intensify the consumer culture, not control and manage it.

Words matter, too. As long as we keep calling ourselves "consumers," we're likely to keep on ... well, consuming. Our major role in life has been named. Therefore, how can we say "no" to filling our homes with even more products, doing our prescribed duty as consumers?

For a fresh start in the 21st century, we need a new name to designate our function, and our purpose.

So, then, if we're to be more than mere consumers, what are we? It's not an easy question to answer. We're each many things, but finding a single word that covers our major function in society is a challenge.

Plenty of alternative words might come quickly to mind. Customers. Participants. Users. Shoppers. Buyers. Citizens. Providers. No, none of these is an improvement.

Obviously, this will require considerably more thought. Names matter - a lot. So, a replacement term would have to be short, memorable, meaningful, and express our position in life two ways: As a person who gives to society, and also as one who takes from society. That's the trouble with consumer: It sends a message that all we do is consume, but that's only a portion of our daily existence. A suitable term has to suggest that those in charge - the companies, the government, the decison-makers - need us as much as we need them.

Note: The complete story, Quit Calling Us Consumers, will be posted soon. The text above is intended as a sample.

© All contents copyright 2009 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang