Swiffers represent all that is disordered about US American consumerism.
For many thousands of years, people have made and used brooms to clean our homes and living spaces. In all parts of the world, throughout generations of human history – not only have brooms kept us clean but they have been constructed of local goods that are completely biodegradable. Well-constructed brooms might last for decades or longer.
And then, in 1999, Proctor and Gamble introduced the “Swiffer.” This product went way beyond the model of “planned obsolescence” in which the lifetime of a product was intentionally limited so consumers would need to replace it. With Swiffers, consumers basically brought a broomstick that required them to purchase replacement parts on a regular basis. These products proved to be a goldmine.
So why do these products bother me so much? They bother me because they represent the ability of corporations and marketing campaigns to manufacture need.
No one really needs a Swiffer. Brooms are far cheaper. Brooms are aesthetically more pleasing. Brooms clean the dust and dirt from our homes. Brooms are ecologically more responsible.
And yet, they were an instant success. Millions of people have cast aside their trusted brooms and embraced the Swiffer.
For those of you who love your Swiffer, my point is not simply to bash this particular product. My point is to reflect on what products like Swiffer represent in our culture.
I will highlight just three problems that I see represented by Swiffers in our burgeoning consumer culture today.
First is the remarkable power that corporations and marketing campaigns hold in our culture today. Yes, I get that we live in a free market and that marketing is a form of free speech. And yet, from a moral perspective, I think we ought to pause and consider the amount of power we have ceded to corporations in our world to shape our understanding of who we are and what we want. Of course, people still retain our freedom of choice and we are able to exercise that freedom through our consumer dollars. But there is ample social-scientific research that documents the psychological power of marketing to influence behavior. Particularly among children and young people.
Second, Swiffers represent an obsession in our culture with convenience over quality. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a working mother and convenience is an important factor in my life! Modern technology has an enormous impact on my life and my ability to be a working mother.
But there is also a qualitative difference between the convenience of running water and washing machines compared to the convenience of a product like a Swiffer over a traditional broom. Our cultural attraction to bigger, better, faster, cheaper represents not only a potential loss of quality products and craftsmanship, it also represents a move to a disposable culture.
This leads me to my third concern – our move away from sustainable habits and practices to an unsustainable lifestyle. Sweeping, cooking, washing dishes and clothes – these are all habits and practices that sustain daily life. These are habits and practices that are shared across cultures, across historical time periods, and across geographic barriers. These are the reproductive practices of our life, the practices that cultivate, shape, and sustain our lives. Some people enjoy various aspects of these practices, others hate all of them in every way, shape, or form. Nevertheless, these practices are essential to life. For too many of us, we have moved away from sustainable reproductive practices to unsustainable practices that are having a detrimental impact on our planet as a whole.
As Patheos readers consider consumption this month, I encourage you to think about these problems I have identified as well as your own relationship with consumerism and consumption.
We are all consumers. There is nothing inherently wrong with consuming. How could there be? We must eat. We need clothes. We own things that give us pleasure. Having possessions is not the problem.
So what, then, is the problem?
Well, truly, the problems are legion, like the demons that plagued the Gerasene demoniac in the gospel of Luke. If only we could figure out how to cast the demonic aspects of consumerism into a herd of swine and drown them so that we, too, might be free from the vice represented by the dis-ordering of our normal and healthy needs.
What do I mean by this?
Well, if consumption is necessary to survive that means we ought to be able to recognize the very real value of many consumer goods in our society.
The problem arises when our healthy desires are dis-ordered by greed, marketing ploys, jealousy, the longing to “keep up with the Jones’.” As we consider the idea of “consumerism gone wild,” we would do well to reflect on the difference between need and want, necessity and desire.
To be sure, there is also nothing inherently wicked about wanting or desiring something. The problem, here again, is one of scale, motivation, and consequences.
As you consider your own habits of consumption, I invite you to distinguish your healthy desires from the unhealthy ones and figure out ways of casting aside those demons.
Swine are optional.