“Right now, conspicuous consumption is out of fashion. The logo-driven excess of the past decade is being looked upon – at least in the Western world – with distaste. And so luxury is showing us a gentler, more discreet face. Quality has become a watchword again. Authenticity is all the rage. A rehabilitation process has begun.” These words, written by Mark Tungate in his Market Leader article, echo yet another sentiment du jour. Times are a-changing, but are we really changing too?

The Apple of My i

“He who covets is a poor man, because he wants what he cannot get; but he who has nothing and covets nothing is rich, though you may think him no more than a peasant.” – Geoffrey Chaucer

Everyone keeps talking about fundamental shifts in human consciousness and behaviour that have come from being broke. And everyone’s convinced we’ve learned our lessons and will never repeat them ever again. As Joe Staton writes in his Admap article: “From market to market – groceries, clothes and fashion, travel and tourism, home entertainment – households have begun to try ever more accurately to balance what is actually procured to what is actually consumed. It is unimaginable that such feelings could ever weaken to the point where openly wasteful consumerism could ever become fashionable again.”

Isn’t that a little much? Even space travel was unimaginable not too long ago. Perhaps bling is taking a breather and will come roaring back to life as soon as we can afford to fuel its fire. Apple is a great example. So many people were sucked into the iPhone frenzy a few years ago that the thought of waiting a few months for the price to come down didn’t cross their minds. They lined the streets and camped outside for days on end just to get in on the action. It’s been even crazier with the iPad, which has sold over 1 million units after just three weeks. I can’t help but wonder how many of those buyers are still happy with their purchase (assuming they ever were) or if they’re now obsessing over something else.

It seems that given the right resources (or the magic of Steve Jobs) and it’s out with all the good intentions in the world. Perhaps all the promises consumers made to be more disciplined in their spending were as empty as drunken New Year resolutions to use the gym. Fundamentally, we’re still driven by the same basic needs and wants. Western culture is still dominated by the idea of scarcity, competition, and fear. And it’s our insatiable desire to fill our lives with stuff that makes us act in crazy ways. It’s why a Wal-Mart employee was crushed to death by a horde of rabid shoppers at a Christmas sale a few years ago and why a South African pensioner recently died after waiting in a World Cup ticket queue.

When Enough Isn’t Enough

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” – Socrates

Caroline Brethenoux blames luxury: “With the arrival of the recession, luxury has been identified as the immoral and unacceptable side of greed, excess and the conspicuous consumption that created the economic problems.” But there’s nothing wrong with splurging nor should we feel the need to have our designer goods delivered in brown paper bags. We simply need to realise that money and its flashy friends are simply tools to help us live more enjoyable lives. We need to continue the slow shift away from meaningless clutter to meaningful experiences as we embrace simplicity and return to the values we forgot. That’s a lot more powerful than bragging about your bargains and blatant benevolence, which is pretty shallow too.

The best gift I ever received was a handmade birthday card from my best friend. Even though it was just a folded blank white page with quirky drawings on the front, it really meant a lot that someone had taken the time to create something special. That’s when I finally understood that products don’t define us. And yet so many of us continue to buy stuff hoping it will make us happy. I’m guessing that feeling doesn’t last long. How could it? At the end of the day, you can accumulate as much stuff as your closet, garage, or storage unit can accommodate and it probably won’t make a difference. It really doesn’t matter. The colours will fade and the technology will change. All that will remain is you. Now that’s something worth buying into.

(For more, see Need for Speed and The Gift of Gratitude on Varsity Blah.)