Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Conservation as Conspicuous Consumption

Yesterday, I heard a very interesting interview on Marketplace, the public radio program. The interview was with Stephen Dubner, coauthor of Freakonomics and host of Freakonomics Radio. Dubner talked about the idea of conspicuous conservation. 

Now you probably know about conspicuous consumption. The phrase was coined by Thorstein Veblen who stated that one reason we spend money can be to show off our wealth. Basically what we buy can signal our wealth to others and can, presumably, have an effect on our status or how others view us.

I often ask my students why they buy certain brands of clothes, etc. when other cheaper brands would provide the same function. This leads to a discussion of utility and an understanding that many people place a high value on the perceived ability of certain products to impress other people.

This brings us back to the interview. As I said, Dubner was talking about conspicuous conservation - how certain people will buy certain things to show how "green" they are, and he cites some research by a pair of economists that indicates the payoff for making these choices can be quite high in certain communities.  In essence, the purchasers may be willing to pay a higher price in order to secure higher prestige in a given community.  This offers a great opportunity to discuss value and utility. Because certain choices may not necessarily be the best in terms of actual effect, but may have a higher value as "conspicuous conservation/consumption." Let me know what you think of the interview.

No comments: