From conspicuous consumption to zero-waste? And what does Social Media and the Pandemic have to do with it?

The creation of conspicuous consumption, i.e. purchasing expensive goods to wastefully display wealth rather than fulfil any actual needs, has been a significant criticism of marketing – and indeed neo-liberalism.  There is much evidence of this happening worldwide: Virtually everywhere, as incomes rose, consumption of non-essential items rose – and people were wearing, using, driving, and otherwise displaying these in public (think #richkidsofInstagram ).

Often, Social Media has been condemned for encouraging exactly these “wasteful displays of wealth”. The example of the #richkidsofInstagram and many related hashtags have shown just how much wealth can be displayed. However, when digging deeper, social media may be less of a culprit than it is sometimes made out to be. What is more helpful is seeing social media an amplifier and connector – a tool that connects you to people around the world that somehow have something with you in common – or at least do what you are looking for.

So while it’s true that, especially during the current pandemic, envy-invoking posts of poolside drinks, luxury shopping where possible, and other conspicuous consumption have increased, so have other posts. And therefore it is hard to say that social media only encourages the display of conspicuous consumption. It also enables people interested in connecting to the exact opposite lifestyles: from learning to live more sustainably, developing a zero/low-waste strategy, and re-engaging in creating things around them. And this trend, too, was amplified during the current pandemic.

As part of a bigger project related to social media usage during the pandemic, we found a lot of people started to rethink their consumption behaviour – and to do this, they turned to social media. Social media has, in fact been the tool of choice for many people rethinking their life – and envisaging a life after the pandemic and the related lockdowns. Being in a lockdown situation, with fewer consumption opportunities and more time at home, also increased the ability of many to experiment with different alternative ways and creating more mindful experiences.

The result are many different experiments, jointly carried out by people around the world. In the Portuguese speaking world, the hashtag #paodemia for example gained prominence. The term is a hybrid of bread (pao) and pandemic, and connected users who are rediscovering the art of baking bread. There are many examples also of established eco-conscious hashtags becoming more popular: from #instazerowaste to #selfsufficiency, from #ecofashion to #slwowtravel.

What was surprising was that many of the people we interviewed had pretty little to do with these concepts before the pandemic. What transpired was that being in lockdown made, at least a not insignificant part of the people we interviewed, stop and rethink their consumption.

And the most helpful tool to act upon a desire to consume more mindfully and sustainably was social media. So next time on social media, why not check out the many influencers and communities that can create a different consumption experience for you?

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