We often mention the pervasiveness of the consumer nation and the aspects of its addictive consumerism. Frequently we talk about these in terms of environmentalism, finances and psychological stress. All of those are facets of how consumerism has infiltrated our daily lives, but they’re perhaps not the most dangerous and insidious one. They are, in many ways, the “easier” ones to identify and talk about, mostly because they are more external and observable. But perhaps the most dangerous infiltration of consumerism into society is one that isn’t quite as easy to face up to, talk about or even recognize. It’s the impact on an individual’s sense of identity and, in some ways, the very crafting of that identity. We’re slightly terrified even writing and re-reading that sentence. But it’s certainly a facet of our current consumer society and it deserves the same attention and discussion as the other elements.

The Identity of Stuff Pretends You Are What You Own

We suspect that as soon as you read the first paragraph of this article you already began to understand how “stuff” and material objects are working to define your identity. The ways are numerous, but we thought we’d itemize some of the more prominent and effective ones.

Aspirational Brands: This is a way in which consumer brands make you feel like you’re “worth more” if you own a certain brand. The brands can be anything, but typically they’re luxury goods such as cars, jewelry, clothing, makeup and perfume or cologne. These brands tell you that your identity isn’t “good enough” unless you have these premium brands. We call them “aspirational” because they’re based on the marketing ploy that you aspire to be a person of value, which now means having things of value.

Brands that Define a Culture: This is similar to aspirational brands, but with a twist. These brands aren’t based on the idea of “worth” being associated with them. They’re based on the idea that wearing, owning or using them makes you part of a specific group. For example, there are brands associated with the skate boarding community, the hip hop community and the ultra-feminine community, just to name a few.  It’s not only the brands that are responsible for creating a “stuff” to “identity” equation in this case. The communities themselves define this association. We understand the desire to visibly be part of a community or group, but we encourage you to see the difference between that action and buying into a consumer concept of identity.

Brands, In General: To be honest, all brands take advantage of leveraging the concept of identity and “stuff.” That’s why (based on humor and irony) we call Postconsumers a brand! You are the brands that you own or use in a consumer-driven nation. You’re either a Bud Light brand person or a small craft beer person. You’re a Lazy Boy person or an Ethan Allen person. If you’re shopping by brand name, then to a certain degree you are buying into the identity and stuff paradigm. There’s not necessarily anything that can be done about that, but you should hopefully be aware if you’re doing it.

More Makes You Better: This is perhaps the most dangerous of the ways that consumer culture has infiltrated our sense of identity: The concept that our place in society is defined by how much we own and how big it is. We could be sappy and talk about how the quality of your personhood, your beliefs and how you participate in the community around you all are better ways to define this. But we know that’s idealistic! At a minimum though, the idea that somehow our possessions and our ability to add to our collection of possessions is what can define us is terrifying. It begins to strip away the very core of who we are as people and project that onto unfeeling, inanimate objects. If that doesn’t strike some fear in your heart, then we think you’re ready for the singularity! Ok, perhaps we are over-exaggerating, but we hope that you can see the risk associated with redefining identity away from roles in a society and toward a collection of “stuff.”

Trends and Styles: Ultimately, trends and styles are some of the more harmless ways that consumerism infiltrates our sense of identity, but they are present. If you’re defining yourself by whether you’re “on-trend,” then you’re taking time and energy away from a deeper exploration of what your identity is. Of course, this is a personal decision on your postconsumer journey, but awareness is half the game.

Finding Your Identity Outside of “Stuff”

Particularly in a world where identity and “stuff” have been so closely merged together, working on finding your identity outside of that materialistic structure can be easier said than done. In fact, we’d rank it among the most challenging parts of living in a mass consumer society. We, of course, like to echo the refrain “Be your own brand” as a part of the solution to this challenge. But we also have an exercise we do and recommend to help get you started on this.

In the first step, make a list of words that you use to describe “who you are.” Then edit out any words that are related to stuff, brands, purchases or shopping. As an example, one of our team members ended up with a list that looked like this (not necessarily ranked in order of importance to her):

Mother, runner, gardener, writer, friend.

In the second step, think about things you do within each of these personas that are related to consumer elements of them. Here’s what our team member came up with.

Mother: Belongs to deal sites for kids clothing, buys toys and clothes for daughter’s social status.

Runner: Wears only specific brands to run in.

Gardener:  None.

Writer: None.

Friend: Buys into the “stuff” scenario for birthdays, holidays, etc.

Once she had done the exercise, our marketer saw the ways that her identity was defined by brands and “stuff” (the items that she eliminated from her first list) and the ways that “stuff” and consumerism were still wrapped up in many of the other parts of her identity. Then she was able to begin to consciously work to separate the two. And we were proud of her!

Whatever path you take to finding the satisfaction of enough, we’re sure that at least understanding the intersection of identity and consumerism will be a part of it. We hope that the resources we’re providing will help.

Did we miss a way to help you escape the trap of feeling that you are what you own? Tell us about it on the social media channels below.

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Photo Credit: lauren rushing via Flickr