Material Guilt

There's a fascinating essay in the Los Angeles Times today on the guilt trip over the usual American buying binge during the holidays. Michael J. Silverstein of the Boston Consulting Group assures us that it's okay to buy.

Guilt? Forget about it, he says, or more to the point: "Please. Exactly when was it that Americans cared nothing for material things? William Bradford of Plimoth Plantation fame owned a snappy red waistcoat. Thorstein Veblen coined the term 'conspicuous consumption' in 1899. And it's not just us. People in every society, in every era, have treasured material goods."

Silverstein, author of Trading Up, a book whose findings were the subject of a recent Fast Company story by Linda Tischler, says we need to make a distinction between what he calls "discerning consumption" and "blatant consumerism."

The author thinks paying a premium for a gift of better design and function that also makes you feel good is discerning.

Trampling fellow consumers in line at Wal-Mart is out and out blatant consumerism.

Other examples:

  • "Paying less for a private-label product that is as good as the brand-name one. Discerning.
  • "Maxing out multiple credit cards. Blatant.
  • "Ignoring mediocre goods of all kinds. Discerning.
  • "Paying extra for mediocre brand names. Blatant."

What do you think as we head into the last day of frenetic shopping before Christmas?

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  • Ken Wiseman

    The guilt thing obviously comes from two sources; guilt from inherently knowing that trying to ply loved ones with expensive gifts is avoiding real relational investment, and secondly, those that get caught in that trap, go into debt because of the first. There is nothing wrong with the material stuff (as in Bradford's coat), but I guarantee Bradford's heart wasn't tied up in his coat or his stuff - the reason for the season goes deeper than that.

  • Gilbert Forkerouac

    The term 'conspicuous consumption' comes from Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, a tome portraying people as suckers, blindly wanting whatever goods or lifestyles enjoyed by the rich. Forget guilt; Silverstein asks consumers to try stupidity instead.