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Article Title Page
Book Review
Consumer Society: Critical Issues and Environmental Consequences Author Details
Author 1 Name: Dr Richard J Varey
Department: Department of Marketing
University/Institution: The Waikato Management School, University of Waikato Town/City: Hamilton
Country: New Zealand
Corresponding author: Dr Richard J Varey
Corresponding Author’s Email: [email protected]
Keywords: consumer society, consumption, consumer culture, consumerism, green marketing, sustainability Article Classification: Book Review
For internal production use only
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Consumer Society: Critical Issues and Environmental Consequences Barry Smart
Sage Publications
256 pages

The author is well known for his sociological work on political economy, consumer society, and post-industrialism. This book is a sociological analysis of economy, culture and society which, in pursuit of better understanding the modern phenomenon of consumer culture, finds and explains the “social logic of consumerism” and indicates the problems this raises and some alternative thinking.

In nine chapters Smart covers four perspectives on consumer society: consuming, consumers, and consumerism; the production of consumption; consequences; and, pathways to the future. He supports his analysis with a range of fascinating examples, often revealing historical moments and specific assessments that enrich the reader’s appreciation of things otherwise taken for granted in our ‘consumer society’ experiences.

Two particularly striking explanations are raised about the almost universal belief that a ‘good life’ comes from the pursuit of a ‘goods life’ in a so-called ‘free market’ economy. A crisis of distribution since the late 19th century – in the separation of production and consumption – is a social disconnection that remains necessary to maintain the enchantment of consumers-whodon’t-produce with buying and to obscure the realities of what is produced for sale, how and in what conditions, and at what costs to workers and others, as well as the real costs compared with the ‘market’ price of goods. I see implications for the burgeoning field of Relationship Marketing in this, since coming closer together might reveal some aspects of the way business is conducted that those enticed into consumerism and customership might find disturbing and disappointing, even unpalatable.

Alternatively, in this intimate engagement, sellers might have to clean up their act to maintain their ‘license to operate’. Secondly, the history and extent is revealed of the intentional and extensive efforts to influence demand by cultivating desire, to nurture and direct for corporate benefit. Much so-called marketing is to produce as well as attract consumers, thus ensuring the market. An early example discussed is the advent of the shop window display to create and foster desire for purchasable goods. We are now living at the tail end of a century of concern over the effects of “consumptionism”, where ‘things’ became ever more important in life. Early in marketing’s emergence, Strauss

(1924) could see even then that citizens became for more important as consumers and commodity abundance came to be seen as a virtue of a progressive society. Karl Polanyi (1944) discerned the transformation to a consumer society in that the way of capitalist industrialisation mass production – required mass consumption. Smart helpfully points out the (mostly unspoken) limitations of the consumerist vision of the world. Markets are not free, despite experts’ continued assertion to business students and the non-expert public, and because there are various active contributors to the consumerism way of life, consumers can be understood as active, but we are not autonomous. Market choice is not free, but influenced, consumption is strenuously promoted, and many dollars are invested in fabricating customers. Again, back in 1920s North America, historian and social critic Thorstein Veblen spoke of “publicity engineering” (we might now call it marketing) as the newly emerging profession that now spends more on promoting things for consumption than in making them.

Smart illustrates the power of this consumer cultivation with examples of cigarettes, fast food, alcohol, and deodorants, all pointing to the invention of wants far beyond any authentic and natural needs. In a time when a staggering US$600bn is invested (diverted?) into advertising/branding, it is sobering to re-take Galbraith’s point that such marketing shifts consumption control from consumers to the firms; so much for free choice. Starkly, as the advertising industry has flourished, the provision of an ever-growing range of goods and services is accompanied by a decline in the number of people declaring happiness or contentment with the consumption-driven way of life. In Baudrillard’s consumer society of the 1960s, he observed “enforced happiness” in the effects of the promotion of consumption and buying. Merely a diminished market or contrived simulation of happiness was the result.

Whereas the promise was, and still is, beneficial exchange, choice, and thus competition, for many the outcome is inequity, adversity, discontent, waste, and atomistic breakdown of community and family. Such are the undesirable outcomes of consumer lifestyles. Smart’s analysis provides an international perspective on conditions and effects of consumer capitalist forms of life, revealing that worldwide the wealthiest 20% of the total population are responsible, but largely not accountable, for 76% of private consumption. Smart raises important serious questions over the quality of life of a consumer society. What seems to be undermined and diminished is the desirable equity, trust, sufficiency, sharing, conservation, and collectivism of a community founded on interaction, commitment, and co-operation. The rich-poor divide get wider as the economy is grown.

The global-scale way of life is locked in to unrestrained and uncritical (blind) consumption growth by forces outside the control of individuals (quoting Tim Jackson). Responsibility for correction cannot be left with consumers exercising market choice. There is a primary role for government in protecting the social good, to ensure better lives for all, within eco-system habitat limits. In nine chapters, Smart draws heavily on several well-known critical sources: Dawson, Klein, Bauman, Leach, Ewen, Leiss, Campbell, Stearns, and Schwartz, and others. The book opens with a historical and conceptual analysis of consuming, and a critique of the notion of consumer choice that lies at the heart of consumerism. Advertising, marketing, and branding is revealed as a cultivation industry that promotes demand and ensures demand by making sure things don’t last like they used to! Consumerism is a form of emerging culture that is increasingly globalized,

and this has far-reaching consequences. Smart closes with a careful look at business as usual, and ‘green’ and sustainable alternatives.
Some important lessons can be taken. A significant portion of advertising, supposed to help consumers make good choices, is devoted to subtracting value from goods use in promoting their replacement, for example in managed obsolescence of cellphones, fashion clothing, and recorded music media. It is also realised that attention only to consumption omits consequences on environment, and the effects of developments in economic production.

Smart sees lost opportunity for appropriately critical analysis. For example, Ritzer (2005) wants to identify the revolutionisation of consumption means, with a business as usual prospect of more consumption. Further growth in consumption will also escalate the damage, and, for some of us, consuming more will make living worse, but it is generally always assumed to be true that the more the better. Put simply, in Smart’s analysis, the consumerist pattern of consumption is ecologically disastrous, and this makes for deterioration in life quality. Not all ‘added value’ is positive. Waste and degradation in various forms is an inherent phase of a mass production-mass consumption system.

I see Smarts’ contribution in this book as concisely setting out the socio-cultural context of the marketing project through a careful and highly readable synthesis of literatures, much of which would not be read by marketing experts. This is a lively critique of consumerism, branding, and designed obsolescence. This game of the affluent certainly produces obvious benefits, but in a way in which many true costs is hidden or ignored. In affluence, more isn’t endlessly better – limits apply, and non-market valuations are usually excluded from ‘consumer choice’. The publisher’s product description claims that in examining its origins and consequences within a global context, Smart has enlarged our understanding of consumer culture. I agree, and for this reason I strongly recommend that marketing scholars, educators, students, and researchers read and reflect on these critical issues and environmental consequences of the consumer culture in which they are both influential and subject. This book is a good place to start on broadening and refining our perspective. The analysis is timely is highlighting community sustainability solutions to live better by consuming less. Who can calmly ignore such insight?

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