Economist Juliet Schor is known worldwide for her research on the interrelated issues of work, leisure, and consumption. Her books on these themes include The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer, and Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (retitled True Wealth for its paperback edition). She is also a professor of sociology at Boston College. —Dollars & Sense Editors.
Dollars & Sense: We wouldn’t expect patterns of work, leisure, and consumption to change overnight, but now we’re into more than half a decade of a profound crisis. Obviously it’s had a big impact on employment, incomes, and so forth, but do you see any lasting changes emerging?
Juliet Schor: Some of the trends that were pretty significant before the crash have abated. I’m thinking most particularly about what I’ve called the “fast fashion model” of consumption—cheap imports of manufactured goods that people were acquiring at accelerating rates, the acceleration of the fashion cycle, and the cycle of acquisition and discard. The trend was people buying things, holding them for shorter and shorter periods of time and then discarding them either into some kind of household storage, into a waste stream, or into secondary markets. You had an amazing period of acquisition of consumer goods. I first started looking at this in the realm of apparel, but it was also in consumer electronics, ordinary household appliances, and pretty much across the board in consumer goods.
Of course, a lot of it was financed by debt or longer working hours, but manufactured goods just became so cheap. The idea that you could buy a DVD player for $19—and yes, people were trampling each other in the stores on Black Friday to get them—but that’s just an extraordinary period. So that has changed, because the economics of that have changed. Going forward, I don’t think we’re going to see that level of availability of cheap goods that we saw before. So I think that cycle has slowed down.
The other big thing has been the bifurcation of the consumer market. That’s something that’s been going on for a long time—the falling out of the middle as a result of the decline of the middle class, the growth of a really low-end in the consumer market with dollar stores and a retail sector where even Walmart is considered expensive. The other side was the expansion of the hyper-luxury market.
Trends in income and wealth are reflected in the consumer sphere. There’s more reluctance to take on debt, so debt-fueled consumer buying is lessened. There’s also less availability of consumer credit for households now. The other big thing that I’ve been looking at is the rise of “alternative cultures” of consumption; that is, people moving out of the branded, advertised goods and the mass- produced lifestyles that dominated in the last couple of decades, into both more ecologically aware lifestyles with more artisanal and self-production.
D&S: Stepping back and looking more broadly at the emergence of this mass consumer culture in the United States in the 20th century after the Second World War, what do you see as the key factors that are at the root of consumer capitalism in the United States? It seems a little facile to focus too narrowly on just advertising. Some scholars point to mass media images and what kinds of lifestyles people aspire to. Galbraith pointed to the relentless stream of new products fueling new desires—the so-called “dependence effect.” How do you see those influences, as well as others, sorting out?
JS: I don’t want to completely dismiss factors like the old monopoly capital idea or the advertising and marketing story, which is that shortfalls of demand led to a big effort to get people to buy things, but I don’t buy that story, for the most part. If you think about the post-war period, you had a labor market in which firms were unwilling to use productivity growth to reduce hours of work, and I wrote a book about that, The Overworked American. Part of that was about firms and why they don’t want to do that. So in the post-war period, you have, from the labor market side, a situation where all productivity growth is getting channeled into income—into expansion of output—so it goes to wages and profits.
Now, of course, workers aren’t getting the benefits of productivity growth, but in the post-war era, they did. There were contracts that were explicitly tied—3% productivity, 3% real wage growth. So that creates consumer demand, because that income is getting into people’s pockets. Now you can ask the question: Why don’t they save it? I don’t think it’s advertising, primarily, that determines why people didn’t save more. There, I think, you have to look at social competition, and the fact that you have an unequal society in which how you live, what you buy, and what you have are important determinants of social position. Rising income gives you a constantly rising norm, and people consume to keep up with that norm. I think it would have played out more or less similarly if there weren’t any advertising. The products might have been different but this sort of “consumer escalator,” the fact that you have growing levels of consumption, is really coming much more from the production side. So in that way, I’m much more Marxian than Keynesian, I would say.
D&S: Turning to the contrast between the United States and other high-income capitalist countries, especially in terms of the shape of the labor movement and the role of the state: How did working hours get reduced in other countries? In France or Germany, for example, the average employed person works about 300 hours less per year than in the United States. That strikes me as quite central, in your analysis, in understanding consumption patterns in different countries.
JS: In the United States in the post-war period, the state devoted a lot of energy to the promotion of consumption, whether it was the highway system or suburbanization. That was in part out of a fear of the “Keynesian problem” of inadequate demand after the Second World War. In Europe, I guess I would point to two things. First, after the war, they had a supply-side problem, which was that they had to rebuild productive capacity rather than what we had, which was the demand-side problem. So our state was much more oriented to promoting consumption than European states, which were more oriented towards rebuilding their societies. In Europe, working hours continued to fall and they didn’t in the United States. That’s the way you need to think about it—everybody was on a common trajectory of work-hours decline from about 1870. Of course, the United States was the leader in all of that. We had the shortest working hours and we were the first ones to put in reforms of working hours: The United States was the leader on no Sunday work, no Saturday work, etc. I think the factors are the role of trade unions—both that trade unions were much stronger in Europe and also that in the United States, trade unions turned against the reduction of working hours after the Second World War. That has to do mostly with the Cold War, and with the conservative nature of U.S. trade unions. So in the 1950s, the AFL-CIO became—“hostile” may be too strong a word—became extremely disinterested in the idea of shorter hours of work. That’s something that did not happen in Europe.
The other thing is that the incentives facing firms in the United States were really different, in terms of U.S. employers having much higher per-worker fixed costs, because of health insurance. There are some European countries where health insurance is provided at the firm level, but mostly not. In the United States that turns out to be a powerful disincentive to reduce working hours, and it becomes a powerful incentive for raising working hours. The growth in inequality, which is more pronounced in the United States, has also raised working hours. I think those are the key factors which led the United States and Europe to diverge quite rapidly on the issue of work-time. That divergence turns out to have all sorts of very important consequences.
One of the things you have seen in the patterns of leisure-time activities in the United States is you’ve got time-stressed households doing really money-intensive things like going to the Caribbean for three days, or spending a lot of money to “de-stress,” or spending money to reward themselves for working so hard. So we definitely have quite a bit of that in the United States because work is so demanding and stressful and that shapes the leisure patterns. You get what economists call goods- or income-intensive leisure.
D&S: If we think of consumption behavior as social—as aiming to enhance a person’s social status—can we think of any important restraints on the amounts or patterns of consumption? If many people disapprove of polluting or wasteful forms of consumption, like the Hummer, can we observe a social constraint on that? Or, in what are very difficult economic times for a lot of people, is there any effect on people reining in unseemly levels of luxury consumption?
JS: Well, I’ll start with the latter. I was reading about and experiencing people’s reluctance to engage in ostentatious displays at the time of the crash, and in its early aftermath. I think, by now, that didn’t last very long. One of the things about the most ostentatious stuff is that we’re increasingly a gated society, so the wealthy are consuming lavishly outside of the view of the ordinary and the poor. There is certainly less celebration of it, and you see it less in the culture now than before the crash, for sure. The Hummers are a very interesting case. I have a friend who did research on the war between Hummer drivers and the Prius drivers, the Prius drivers being referred to as “pious” drivers by the Hummer folks. Now the Hummer vehicle has collapsed as a consumer product. Hummer drivers were subjected to a lot of social disapproval. It also became economically less desirable when the price of gas went up.
There is definitely a rising ecological consciousness that is attempting to moralize consumption in ways that yield social approval or disapproval of low-carbon versus high-carbon lifestyles. It isn’t mainstream yet. It’s much more prevalent in highly educated groups, it tends to be more bi-coastal, it’s a kind of forward trend in the consumer culture. You do see more and more, as you move into the mainstream, people attempting to do more, ecologically. I think there’s widespread sentiment about that. Then, of course, you also have so many people who are just trying to make ends meet that they feel it is not possible for them to think about ecological impact. Of course, the irony is that the people who are just trying to make ends meet are the ones with the low carbon footprints, but the discourse of environmental impact is permeating through consumer culture.
D&S: Going back to something about advertising: It seems to have become more pervasive, both in terms of physical spaces that are filled with advertising and products advertised to users. In the last couple of decades, we’ve seen the advent of direct marketing of prescription pharmaceuticals, for example, directly to the people who will end up using them. There’s a pushback, such as criticism of advertising to children, but it seems largely there’s a kind of tolerance of this pervasiveness of advertising in daily life.
JS: This is a little counterintuitive, but part of why advertising has become so pervasive is that the core of advertising, which is television spots, has become so unimportant. People don’t have to watch them anymore, and that’s huge for advertisers. I think the 30- or 60-second TV spots are much more powerful than the kinds of things that advertisers have moved towards in terms of the spatial expansion of advertising. I think that advertising on the web is much less powerful. So, that’s one of the paradoxes of advertising in the contemporary moment: the moment when advertising is much more pervasive in terms of space and place, is a moment when it’s much less powerful. Advertisers have been able to move in a few directions that have been productive for them, like word of mouth advertising, and so forth, but those forms are also being delegitimized. People know the person sitting next to them in a bar telling them to drink this vodka might be paid by the company.
Prescription drugs are a big exception, because that came about as a regulatory change. Drug companies weren’t allowed to advertise directly to consumers before. If it weren’t for pharmaceuticals and ads directed at kids, the advertising industry would be in big trouble. Now the kid story is, I think, a little bit different than the adult story, in the sense that you have a much more powerful approach to children now than you did in the past. The approach to children, I think, is a lot more effective than the approach to adults, which I think is declining in effectiveness. So, you can see a theme in what I’m saying about advertising. Today, I would say I feel less worried about advertising than I did before I started studying it. I think people tune it out. I don’t want to go too far on this, but to me it’s not where the main action is in terms of what’s driving consumer patterns.
D&S: We see some examples of people, in their purchasing decisions, transcending a kind of narrow consumer mentality. They’re thinking about environmental impacts, say, in buying a hybrid or electric car. In terms of other products they may be thinking about labor conditions, such as buying fair trade goods or no sweatshop apparel or footwear. On the other hand, one might look at this as reinforcing a core aspect of consumerism: That whatever it is that you may want, it’s for sale and you can buy it.
JS: There’s a debate in sociology and the social sciences more generally—because there are other disciplines that have weighed in on this question—about the critique of ethical consumption, political consumption, green consumption. Some argue that it’s actually detrimental because it leads people to think that this purchasing behavior can solve problems, and it leads them to be less likely to join in collective solutions to environmental problems, labor problems, poverty, and development in the global South.
I did a study of that, and I used two different data sets: One was a random sample survey of all Americans. The other was an intentional survey of people who are political or ethical consumers, or what we called “conscious consumers,” with about 2,000 participants. What we found is that there are actually very high levels of correlation between people engaging in this kind of purchasing and being socially and politically involved in trying to solve these problems in collective ways. And we also looked at the time sequencing and found a group of people who are politically involved already and then you add on this “walk the talk” aspect—if you’re going to be fighting sweatshops, then don’t buy sweatshop clothing, and if you’re concerned about environmental impacts then you don’t want to be buying things that are at odds with your values. So you have people who were political first, then extended to their purchasing behavior, you have people who got into both at around the same time, and you have people who moved in the other direction—who first did the conscious consuming and then became politically active. Certainly the idea that becoming a “green consumer” undermines your likelihood of engaging in collective action around this is not at all supported by the data in the United States, and there have also been some studies in Europe that show the same thing.
I think the fact of the matter is that changing marketplace behavior in the kind of society we have today is an important component in a broad-based campaign, whether it’s on the environment or labor conditions or whatever. We see a lot of the NGOs involved in campaigns that have a market-based dimension—and those have been some of the most successful campaigns in recent years—because it’s so hard to get the state to act to do these things, because it is captured by business. People have turned to the market in part because it’s an arena where it looks like you can have some results, at least in the short term.
Ultimately, can you stop climate change through consumer behavior and through just market behavior? Of course not. Can you ensure good working conditions merely by market-oriented activity? Of course not. To think that it’s sufficient is the real mistake, but I don’t think that most people who work in this field, who try to work on transforming consumer behavior, have such a naïve view.
D&S: We’ve already talked about ways in which consumption is connected to people’s lives at work, and the availability of leisure time, as well as some changes in patterns of consumption related to broader social objectives. What kinds of changes in consumption—and in the forces shaping consumption—do you envision?
JS: Well, I have a hard time thinking about the future without orienting all of my thinking about climate, because I just don’t see much of a positive future unless we can address climate change very significantly. And that means, for wealthy countries, pretty radical emissions cuts in a pretty short period of time. It actually means that for most countries. So, as I think about the future, I think about what we could do that both addresses climate change through radical emissions reductions and also increase social justice, reduces inequality, and starts solving the enormous problems that we have in this country. My most recent book, True Wealth, is about how to do that. Obviously we need to get onto a renewable energy system, there’s no question about that. We need a carbon tax or carbon regulation, and that’s stuff that is very well known. What is not understood, I don’t think, is that we can’t successfully address climate change with a model in which we continue to try to expand the size of the economy.
We’re going to have to deal with working hours, because that’s the only way to stop expanding the size of the economy in any sensible way. So the core of what we need to do is to get back on the trajectory of using productivity growth to reduce hours of work. And that then opens up incredible possibilities in terms of rebalancing the labor market, integrating the unemployed, and having a fairer distribution of hours. We’re talking about the distribution of income, but not about the distribution of hours, which is one of the things that drives the distribution of income. So, fair access to the work that exists, giving people more time off from work, and doing much more as a society—and probably a lot on the local and community level—to ensure basic needs for people. With declining work hours, people’s incomes are pretty much stabilized, so you need to bring the incomes of the bottom up, and you need to bring the incomes of the top down. Part of that has to be a redistribution of work opportunity and creating community provisioning of basic needs, like publicly-owned utilities which provide power and heat for people at reasonable prices, enhanced public transportation, more public provisioning of food. There are really interesting things going on in global South countries bringing farmers and consumers together in local food economies that are not just about high-priced organic food, which is what we have here, but low-priced food that ensures food security for people. So, shorter hours, basic needs being met—including housing, education, healthcare—that’s the direction I would like to see us go, and I think that really it all flows out from a kind of commitment to climate protection. It could all flow out from a commitment to basic needs, too. They really integrate.
Time use is central, and I think you get a totally different culture of consumption if people’s incomes are on a basically stabilized trajectory and what they’re getting is more and more free time. So, you have a new culture of consumption that is not about the acquisition of the new, it’s not the “work and spend” pattern as I’ve called it, it’s not “throw away” or media driven, it’s more “true materialist,” where you really pay attention to the things you have, and it’s a kind of earthier consumption.