Thought Leadership: Consumerism as a form of identity-making
We all buy things based on who we are, who we want to be, or who we think we are. It’s no coincidence that an increase in awareness of climate change has led to a rise in conscious consumerism and green-washing marketing trends or that diet culture has been met with a rise in weight-loss plans and low-calorie food items. An individual who wants to feel like they are ‘doing good’ for themselves and the planet may buy organic produce whereas an individual who values their thinness and outward appearance may subscribe to diet cultures or weight-loss plans to feel worthy.. Like any trend, people's purchasing habits are ever changing; people buy different things at different points in their lives based on changing needs and wants. But, what is always true is that people’s buying behaviors are a direct reflection of their self-concept, or how they think about their personality, physical traits, abilities, values, and goals, and their ideal self, which is how an individual wants to be perceived by themselves and others.
People’s buying behaviors are largely motivated by human psychology and the way that an individual ranks their wants and needs; however there is also a large body of research that attributes individual consumer trends to larger processes of neoliberalism and social mobility. Neoliberalism is a political & economic ideology that is associated with free market capitalism. Neoliberalism is often seen as a threat to self-determination and democracy because of the way that it prioritizes capital gain and private entrepreneurship over culture and community. In short, neoliberalism produces economic inequality and insecurity by creating a struggle for ‘the next best thing’. In the context of neoliberalism, self identification is no different than social competition, where individuals work against each other as consumers in a market-based society. When I think about neoliberalism and self-identification, I think about things like Tik Tok fashion trends, fast fashion brands such as: Zara, and Amazon Fashion. I think about all the designer dupes being made by underpaid minors for upper-middle class teens who are just trying to get their hands on what's hot. I think about the environment and the disenfranchised populations who suffer at the expense of us, consumers.
In a consumer society, individuals identity themselves according to their in-groups and psychological needs, but it’s how these both fit into consumerism that drives buying behaviors. Individuals construct their identities around what they buy because of the freedom of choice that occurs during the purchasing process, as well as the ownership we take for the things we buy. For example, if an individual needed to buy a new face cleanser at Rite Aid, they’d be presented with an array of choices, but they’d presumably choose only one. And how do they make this choice? Well the individual would survey the choices and make value judgements based on their self-identity, including their motivations and the way the individual wants to be perceived. Is the cleanser eco-friendly? Will it make my skin clear? Is it fair-trade? Is it popular in the media right now? They would choose the cleaner that best aligns with their values, their objective idea of ‘good vs bad’, and their needs. The process is self reinforcing as it works inversely with an individual’s self-identity and concept that drives their buying behavior. I am not one to argue that the relationship between self-identity and consumerism is completely attributed to human psychology or neoliberalism. I think it’s both. I think that's how individuals identify themselves and it also has a lot to do with self expression and individualism which can be expressed by the clothes you wear and the way you decorate your space, but also through your values and character. There is also a huge part of identity that is hard to attribute to anything-- the things that may you, you. Things like your mannerisms, your taste, your sense of humor, and body language, which have nothing to do with consumerism, have everything to do with one’s self-identity. We are more than just one thing; we are our shopping habits, our opinions, and so much more. Consumerism may make up some of our identity, but it's just a part of a whole.