OPINION: Consumers now reconnecting with original source of products

We live, as we are continually reminded, in a consumer culture. This means we derive meanings, the answers to the questions that life poses us, from the products and services we consume.

As a result we value the act of consumption above all else. The conspicuous consumption of everything from expensive dinners to a brand of sunglasses is celebrated in the press, in conversation, and in our daily lives.

Of course it was not always this way. Just because this consumer culture has existed throughout our lifetimes does not mean that it has existed throughout history.

If we had been born less than two centuries ago, we would probably have lived in a production culture. This was a culture that celebrated the efforts that went into the product rather than its consumption. People drew meaning from their jobs and the products they produced - I am a blacksmith - rather than what they consumed - I use Black & Decker tools.

Indeed, in a production culture, consumption was associated with waste and indulgence. So negative was its cultural connotation that they even named a disease after it.

In contrast, the consumer culture we live in de-emphasises the production and origin of products and focuses on their availability and how it feels to consume them. Most consumers of Calvin Klein clothing, for example, have no idea who made their clothing - it certainly wasn't Calvin himself - or where the manufacturing took place. Similarly, a McDonald's meal emphasises the deliciousness of its taste, while avoiding mention of where the various ingredients came from or who was responsible for its manufacture.

Instead our meal appears, as if by magic, ready for consumption.

But evidence is emerging that the end of the 20th century also marked the zenith of consumer culture and that the traditional segregation of production and consumption is beginning to break down.

Perhaps the most telling cultural evidence of the restoration of a link between production and consumption can be found in the sudden emergence of farmers markets all over the UK. In less than five years, more than 300 farmers markets have sprung up. The basic formula is that farmers sell their own produce direct to consumers.

The advantages to the British consumer are both economic and symbolic.

Economically, buying direct from the farmer makes sense, because reducing the distribution chain down to producer and consumer takes supermarkets and their inflated prices out of the equation.

Consumers are keen to identify the origins of their consumer goods. Who made this? In what way? Where? There is no better way to buy sausages than to be handed them in a brown paper bag by the farmer who bred, fed and slaughtered the pigs they consist of.

The lesson for the big grocery retailers in the UK is that they need to watch out for a previously unknown competitor. The farmers who were squeezed to the point of extinction during the consumer culture of the late 20th century may well be about to make a return in this more balanced age of production and consumption.


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