A New Consumer Responsibility / by David Hu

“Responsibility” is a ubiquitous term in today’s corporate and consumerist policies. Companies claim to abide by it and activists espouse it as a way of life. In whichever form it takes, be it environmental conservatism, minimization of harmful materials, end-of-life waste management, or the many other causes, everyone can now shop Responsibly-with-a-capital-r to his hearts’ content. We consumers tell ourselves that we are being more responsible and aware than ever before; that we exercising our right to choose; and that we are making the necessary changes for a better future. Sounds easy, doesn't it? But there is another type of responsibility that has been forgotten over time and should now be on every consumer’s mind: the Responsibility of Appreciation.

The meaning of the term “appreciation” has a very unique connotation from a consumer's perspective—one that is different from its meaning in other contexts. A large part of that is the result of the broad interpretation and subsequent use of this word, especially by the companies who sell the products we buy. We most often associate it with the idea of “customer appreciation,” i.e. how a business can/should reward us for our loyalty with things like club membership, coupons, bonuses, gifts, add-ons, travel mileage, etc. (Note that this doesn’t include warranties, as they are actual guarantees of the product’s quality, not simply an addendum that is largely unrelated to the product.) In some ways, it's a strange notion that the consumer, who has first willingly accepted the price of the product in exchange for the product, should then expect a gift from the company that makes or sells it. If we are indeed entitled to some sort of post-purchase benefit, what does that say about our original perception of the product's value? Had it not been the extras would we have bought it? If not, why was the decision to buy determined by the promise of something unrelated to the product itself? If we are indeed easily swayed by these extras, perhaps we should question whether the product was worth owning in the first place.

How do we appreciate a product? There is, of course, no perfectly universal criteria for judging a product's value to any particular person, but there is nonetheless an opportunity to determine the relative value of ownership. Let's use the common pair of sneakers as an example; an appreciative consumer would perhaps take a moment to consider a few of the following:

- The fact that someone developed, created, or researched the many materials and chemicals that compose a single sneaker
- The (many) workers who put the sneakers together do so with such consistency that one size 9 is the same as another size 9
- The lengthy trips those sneakers have taken from a factory floor, to a shipping dock, onto a boat/plane, into a warehouse, onto a truck and into a store
- The particular ways in which those sneakers were displayed at store shelf, photographed for a billboard, or marketed on TV, which then compelled said consumer to try them out in the first place
- The fact that even though all those factors combine to make these shoes, they are being sold so cheaply (or expensively?)

Finally—and critically—appreciation should elicit the question: now that I have considered all of the above, do I still appreciate these sneakers enough to warrant my purchase and ownership of them?

The most important aspect of being appreciative is actually stated before each of the questions above: can I consider? The ability to challenge ourselves to pause and think thoroughly is not easy in our busy lives and less so when they make seemingly little difference, but it can make a world of difference in how we conduct ourselves as consumers, out of respect not only to those who make the products we buy but also to ourselves, because we worked hard enough to make ownership a reality. This level of awareness can do the world a lot more good than simply thinking about popular issues like organic, recyclable, environmentally friendly, BPA-free, etc. Without the act of appreciation, we effectively reduce our decision-making process to just yes’s and no’s while STILL allowing for over-consumption. And if the decision to buy things is done on a whim and at the easy mercy of product packaging claims and brand image, then even self-proclaimed responsible consumers never really need to exercise any responsibility.

What the modern consumer culture has done is remove the notion of appreciation from the sum total value of a product. Sure, we may be thankful of the fact that we have products that make our lives more convenient or comfortable, but we rarely consider the effort that went into designing, manufacturing, packaging, shipping, or selling them—all at a price that allows a business to turn a profit and make newer and better things that we will hopefully also like and buy in the future. This is a self-destructive mentality for both the consumer and the company: we value less and less the things that come so easily and are so accessible, and companies become so price-sensitive that they become willing to sacrifice quality and longevity.

Instead of focusing only on the things that come after the purchase, we should also try to be appreciative of the things that come before, for they make possible the products that we want. Many of us have everything that we could ever possibly need to not only survive but to live very comfortably. In fact, many of us are also under no pressure to accept anything less than spectacularly made products—for that alone we should count our blessings. But let's not lose what makes ownership so special and rewarding, because only when we can appreciate what we buy will we become truly responsible consumers.