The way in which people use the products they consume and the context in which they purchase and consume them has profound implications for the future of our communities, according to economics Prof. Bruce Pietrykowski

September 14, 2009

Pietrykowski

DEARBORN / Sept. 14, 2009---Consumption forms a major part of people’s lives, but an economist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn says the way in which people use the products they consume and the context in which they purchase and consume them has profound implications for the future of our communities.

Bruce Pietrykowski, professor of economics and director of the urban and regional studies program at UM-Dearborn, has examined alternative consumption practices, particularly in relation to green automobility; the slow food movement and resistance to corporate agribusiness; and community currency as a form of local economic development and social inclusion.  

He explores these alternative consumption practices in his new book, The Political Economy of Consumer Behavior, published this spring by Routledge, which examines economic activity as part of the social, political, spatial and cultural environment.

“Economists study consumer behavior up until the time that money is exchanged for goods and services,” according to Pietrykowski.  “What consumers actually do with the products they purchase is not part of the economics of consumption.”   

Yet Pietrykowski says consumption extends beyond the marketplace.  For instance, trends like “green” consumption often encourage people to behave differently depending on the products they choose.  

Among his case studies, Pietrykowski examines the Toyota Prius, which has attracted strong consumer interest since its entrance into the U.S. market in 2001, he said, but rising gas prices alone cannot account for the hybrid vehicle’s popularity.

“Consumers still must pay a premium for hybrid automobiles and, depending on the model selected and the price of gas, the savings in gasoline may not always be enough to recoup that premium over the life of the car,” Pietrykowski notes.  “This suggests that, in addition to their utilitarian and instrumental value, consumers may also be selecting the Prius in order to signal their interest in a cleaner environment through reducing the level of greenhouse gases their car produces.”

Those who chose to own a Prius also could be seen as making a statement against crass materialism and an attempt to live more simply by purchasing a car with a smaller environmental footprint, Pietrykowski says, noting it conforms closely to the “downshifting” mode of life in which people choose to scale back material possessions to opt out of the consumerist lifestyle.

“The Prius thereby symbolizes a ‘small is beautiful’ philosophy which not only encompasses environmental sensitivity but extends beyond this to include anti-consumerism,” he says.
Increasingly, owning a Prius has come to represent the antithesis of the vehicle that has dominated the U.S. landscape since the 1980s--the sport utility vehicle (SUV), Pietrykowski says.

“Driving a Prius not only signifies the driver as environmentally conscious and willing to do their part to clean up the planet; it also signals its other, namely the ostentatious, resource-wasting sport utility vehicle,” he says.  “The purchase of the Prius also is a decision not to buy (and buy into) consumption practices engendered by the SUV.”

In related way, the Slow Food movement rose up in opposition to the industrialization and homogenization characterized by fast food and the drive-through culture.

Similarly, alternative currency movements represent responses of local communities to resist the domination of the local retail economy by big box stores.  Local currency is only useful within a small geographic range that favors purchases that re-circulate spending within a local economy.  According to Pietrykowski these consumer practices reflect a new era of ethical consumption that poses some significant challenges for traditional economic theory.  

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