The allure of consumerism (& how to deal with the aesthetic power of beautiful things)

japanese cup and tea towel

Pictured: Duetto cup from Kyoto, Japan. Linen tea towel hand printed by me (a squillion years ago)

It’s all around us, everywhere. The design of beautiful things, by clever and skillful people with exquisite materials. The last 12 years of social media have introduced me to a ton of wonderful ways that people are bringing new, to-die-for objects into the world. Things that many of us WANT. The pull of the visual, especially through Instagram over the past 5 years or so has been incredibly powerful.

We’ve all felt it. We scroll through post after post of styled and beautifully lit images, and the pull gets stronger. We convince ourselves we NEED that hand-woven, naturally dyed rug. That skillfully crafted and utterly gorgeous piece of pottery. That pair of funky, fair trade, eco-dyed, Mexican leather shoes.

And so it goes on.

As humans, we are a mass of contradictions. I follow amazing people on Instagram. Makers of all kinds. Some who don’t even make physical stuff, but creators of experiences or images. Their world (and income) is tied up in creating a desire to want within those of us doing the looking. They need us to buy. And let’s be clear, it IS beauty they’re creating. These are not of the mass-produced $5 t-shirt ilk. These are pretty things. Designed. Based on fair trade principles. Ethically sourced materials. Sustainable. Aesthetically pleasing ON SO MANY LEVELS. They are utterly compelling. And yet, hammering in the contradiction, most often the designers want people to make considered choices about consumption too.

The allure of consumerism is powerful. And it’s become harder as the things being created are so beautiful. It’s enough to leave one feeling helpless. Just a weak, mere mortal, poised with smart phone in hand. Sitting quietly despondent wondering just how it has come to this. Or perhaps that’s just me.

It used to be a bit easier to shun excessive consumption, I would argue. With the deluge of designed objects that have flooded much of the developed world in recent years, it’s become a lot harder though.

Given the dire consequences of continuing to consume at the current pace that many do in the West, how do we withstand the allure of designed and aesthetically compelling object after object?

Willpower is one path. Saying enough is enough, and just not dishing out the $ anywhere like you did previously. Use a spending tracker app and become more mindful about where the cash is going. This is my favourite one. I’ve used it for 12 months now and it works a treat, graphs and all.

Another way is to set yourself a goal. Only five new pieces of clothing for the year. One more pottery addition (my weakness), no more homewares unless something breaks and needs replacing. One new pair of shoes. No new books if you can borrow from a library or a friend. You get the idea.

Alternatively you can choose the thrift shop path and buy second-hand goods only. You might need to set a limit on this too or your life will continue to be filled with stuff, just not the brand new kind.

You might like to consider minimalism. These two explain what that might look like and have a whole suite of resources to help you get there.

Support local makers with well-considered purchases when you need them. Buy beautiful, alluring objects, but fewer, and not mindlessly.

Lighten the load of the planet while you’re at it because things are at a crisis point. Not absolutely convinced? Then read this, or this.

Without a doubt it takes quite a bit if self control to resist the allure of gorgeous things. Photography styling is becoming so clever, and the product so well crafted, that it means taking a deep breath and continually asking ‘do I really need this?’. This is equally difficult for those of us who want to support artists, designers, and crafters. But in the end, it’s about seeing the bigger picture and thinking about the planet’s resources, how much stuff you need in your life, and ultimately where you spend your money.

If you’re still not convinced, try moving house. If packing up everything you own and hauling it to another location, and then unpacking it doesn’t make you question your physical load in the world, nothing much else will. If you aren’t likely to move soon, try handling every single possession you own and asking yourself if you need to keep it. This exercise, like moving house, will help bring some perspective next time you’re tempted.

Support the aesthetically pleasing, well crafted, consciously sourced and created object, but within reason. Pause, and keep the planet’s resources in mind before buying the next thing. No matter how compelling.