The Platform, Part III: Transforming Consumption, Section A

Consumption and Production: A Model

Life in the Connected Age can be as simple or as complex as we want it to be. Fulfilling our Needs and Wants in today’s super-connected world almost ensures complexity and the emergence of unforeseen consequences. This complexity guarantees we “discover” sources of “stuff” we don’t really need or want, but for some reason keep buying…that’s a potential challenge for America that we want to examine in our Platform.

The odds are good that we actually contribute to making our lives more complex and even confusing in our quest to satisfy desires for more stuff. Even though our brains probably use the same thinking mechanisms to satisfy Needs or Wants, neuroscience indicates that using one thinking process to deal with the two distinct issues of both Needs and Wants leads us to acquire a lot of “stuff” we don’t actually require to live happily.

We may subconsciously get confused about what’s really a “Need” and what’s really just a “Want” or even extraneous. This causes additional challenges for the economy, the environment and access to opportunity. Our intuition about acquiring stuff influences us in ways we don’t always realize and stuff kind of sneaks into our lives before we know it, whether the stuff has real value to us or not.

This passion for more stuff, whether a Need or a Want, affects a lot more than our overstuffed closets and garages that no can longer hold cars. Consumption of goods and services directly affects Production, Marketing and even Investment in companies that serve our Consumption zeal. All four processes are deeply interconnected and as we claimed at the closing of the last post, also affect our economy, our government systems and by extension, access to opportunity.

At a very high-level, we’ll look at the interactive, interdependent nature of Consumption, Production, Marketing and Investment in this post and start to see how this affects our individual and collective ability to Fulfill the American Promise in the Connected Age. This high-level examination begins with a very simple model:

High-level model suggesting relationships of key components related to "Acquiring Stuff" within the American capitalist-based economy.

High-level model suggesting relationships of key components related to “Acquiring Stuff” within the American capitalist-based economy.

The simple “Stuff Acquisition” model above suggests these four processes and their relationship. Note the unidirectional nature of the arrows and the ultimate target for Investment, Production and Marketing: Consumption (better known as the “Consumer”). Production and Marketing share both a direct and indirect relationship and often influence each other.

Note also what the objectives of these three processes are in targeting Consumption: Acquiring Stuff! The two broad categories of Wants that we acquire are planned and impulse, where impulse acquisition is most aggravated by the Connected Age technologies we mention below. This is also the one area that we could favorably impact on behalf of our nation if we can only harness these same connecting technologies to become more enlightened Consumers. We’ll discuss that below and in Section B.

It really doesn’t matter to the Producers and Marketers (and all too often, the Investors) whether the stuff is a Need or a Want, as long as we Consumers acquire it. After all, that’s how capitalism works and that’s fine as long as we realize our role as Consumers in this model and how the choices we make affect America. We need to understand that we (all Americans) are the central focus of this Consumption process and be smarter about the role we play.

Thoughts about Consumption Today

There’s a lot of research about why we acquire stuff in our lives, but we’ll only talk about a couple of simple explanations in this post. In their 2012 book, The Stuff Cure, Betty and Mike Sproule propose several ways to simplify life and live happily in less clutter. The book examines ways to make our lives less of a burden to ourselves and to others. It suggests how we put sustainable economic growth at risk. The Sproule book reveals how far we’ve drifted from simple, elegant and productive lifestyles that are as much about our families, communities and our nation as they are about our individual selves.

The Sproules suggest that we likely “attribute meaning to obsolete objects,” and we acquire so much stuff because these things reflect “the story of our lives. Material objects conjure up feelings that, together, constitute our humanity. When looked at, or thought about, the items that we keep enable us to clarify what our experiences of living add up to.” Bottom line: our stuff tends to tell our story and that’s something hard to give up.

For the past seven years or so, Annie Leonard, creator of The Story of Stuff, has been a chief proponent of satisfying the competing interests of our need to have stuff and our need to protect our environment. As we mentioned previously, her online movies help us visualize both problems and solutions related to acquisition of the things we feel compelled to acquire and consume. Her stories tell us a great deal about the relationships of Consumption and Production.

In large part, we have become a nation of Producers, Marketers and Consumers because that’s what great nations do: they make stuff, they sell it and they use it. As we mentioned above, and subtly demonstrated in the graphic of our model, Investment also plays a role because success in capitalism tends to attract more investment.

This model, while essentially valid in any economy, has enjoyed almost no meaningful refinement in the Connected Age, except to enhance Production and Consumption. Search engines help us find stuff more quickly, including “serendipitous discovery” which leads to acquitting more stuff! Companies like Amazon know how to exploit this to the max!

But here’s the key for FAPITCA: how we think about and ask questions concerning new ways to build, consume and market the things we need and want are critical to the way our nation’s future will unfold. Will we be a smart global leader that uses resources, including technologies like search engines and online markets, wisely and efficiently or will we consume everything in sight as we practically have since the blending of the Industrial Age and the Connected Age in America?

We’ve built for ourselves an almost never-ending loop where producers deliver goods and services in anticipation of being able to sell practically anything to someone as long as it can be marketed effectively enough to gain some attention somewhere. Niche products abound and are more easily discoverable through Connected Age technologies. Technologies like “3-D Printing” will make it even simpler to satisfy wants in the near future (and produce more stuff!).

Producers drive markets as much as Consumers do, building stuff consumers never knew they “needed” before they saw it in a store, online or on TV. It doesn’t matter how useful the stuff is as long as Marketers can create a craving or demand so that someone will buy the stuff. This Production-Marketing-Consumption “loop” is a magnet for Investors who are looking for someplace to make more money.

In Section B of this post on Transforming Consumption, we’ll look more closely at how we define and create value in the Production-Consumption model as well as the real-life contributions we can make as smarter consumers to Fulfilling the American Promise in the Connected Age. Until next time…

Originally posted by Carl and Chuck Hunt, 6/6/2014.


4 thoughts on “The Platform, Part III: Transforming Consumption, Section A

  1. An old anthropological concept might be useful here. Our most basic needs (primary needs) are for food, shelter, mates and social belonging. People have always created secondary needs to accomplish these. An example I use in class is that young males, to acquire mates in our society, may feel the need to acquire symbols of success in their subcultures (“bling” in an inner city, a pick-up truck with over-sized tires in my rural community). Their desire for these secondary needs can short-circuit the satisfaction of the primary need. A guy might work so many hours to make money for the truck and work so much on the truck, that he never gets around to asking any girls out! Your argument appears to be that our secondary needs have become so far removed from more basic needs that we have subverted the satisfaction of our own utility. A corollary is that the further removed economic activity is from primary needs, the less sustainable it is.

    • That’s a meaningful insight, Larry. We attempt to measure all economic activity with metrics that might not adequately address what you call the “primary needs” – we look forward to exploring how to better measure these factors in a more cohesive fashion that bridges these differences…thanks, Larry!

  2. Consumption is a very complex topic, both on a personal level and on a global scale. Our economy has inertia based on current levels of spending by consumers. Positive change can best be implemented by individuals being responsible about their own consumption and increasing their engagement with the growing sharing economy. Creating the future we are trying to create starts with each of us in how we responsibly manage our stuff.

    • Many thanks, Betty. We appreciate your expert support for our discussions on transforming Consumption, Production and Marketing in America. You are right on target about individual responsibility – we hope to hear other perspectives on responsibility soon.

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