In the lead-up to New York Fashion Week, the Wall Street Journal talked to Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour about the economy’s effect on the fashion industry. “When the editor of Vogue rails against consumerism, the economy must be in a tailspin,” the story’s introduction read. As it turned out, the sartorial starmaker didn’t seem to be railing against consumerism at all, but she did acknowledge that the culture of excess was rightly winding down, and that the new emphasis is on “quality and longevity and things that really last.”
We’ve used the word “consumer” so consistently for so long that it’s become standard marketing speak. In effect it’s just a way of saying “people who buy stuff.” And since just about everybody buys stuff, it means “people.” We are all consumers.
Now try applying that notion to people back in the 1960s. Sure they bought stuff, but were they truly consumers? The definition doesn’t feel the same when you apply it to that era. You could say it’s because those consumers bought less than we do, or because they didn’t use brands to construct their personal sense of identity, or because buyers back then weren’t as marketing savvy as those today. All are true, but the difference is in the word “consume.”
The dictionary notes today’s marketing angles of the word consume (“to utilize as a customer”; “to utilize economic goods”), but it also incorporates what the word meant long ago and still means: “to spend wastefully”; “to eat or drink, especially in great quantity”; “to waste or burn away.” Think: resource depletion, landfills, globesity, bling, economic crisis.
The question now, as consumers cut back on consumption, is whether the economic crisis will put a definitive end to the uber-consumer mind-set. There is disgust with indulgence, bling, things that glitter—except with images and messages of romance and enduring values. The notion of what it takes to be part of a community is becoming a lot more modest—not lavish. Everybody from MAC to Wal-Mart to Pepsi to McDonald’s can benefit from that. All seem to care about the community, to give back and are not ostentatious. Our propensity to keep trading up our homes, cars, computers is probably going to be wiped out.
When the dust settles, will tomorrow’s buyers still be consumers, or will we have to coin something completely new?