Consumerism At Warren Wilson College
By Zoe Keefer-Norris
Warren Wilson College
This paper explains how students attitudes towards money and consumerism at Warren Wilson have changed since the sixties and why this change has occurred. It examines how the economic backgrounds as well as patterns and values learned growing up affect students consumerism at Wilson. This paper looks into the difference between being working class and poor, and acting working class and poor, and how this difference affects dress and status at Warren Wilson. In conclusion the paper shows that the amount students consume has gone up very little over the years, but the reasons that people continue to consume very little are very different from the reasons students in the past consumed little.
This research project looks at consumerism at Warren Wilson College today and in the past. I have interviewed nine alumni who graduated between 1960 and 1979 and eleven current students. In these interviews, I questioned students and alumni about how much money they have/had in college and where this money comes/came from. We talked about what this money is used for and how money in general is viewed at Warren Wilson. With the information I gathered in these interviews, I have begun to analyze a number of issues involving money and consumerism at Warren Wilson College. The following paper looks into some of the ideas that emerged from my interviews.
As I talked with students from the past, I began to see the changes that have taken place at Warren Wilson over the past forty years. When I began the alumni interviews, I was stuck with the differences between Warren Wilson in the 60s and Warren Wilson today. But as I interviewed more and more students and alumni my impression began to change. The differences stopped seeming so vast, and similarities and consistencies became more clear. There are still many things that seem to be completely different today than they were in the days of yore, but there are also a large number of things that have hardly changed at all.
The first part of this paper will present a brief history of the consumerism patterns of Warren Wilson students over the last forty years. This section of the paper will talk about how student’s consumerism patterns are influenced early in life and then speak about how these influences changed in college. It will give insight into how much money students have/had at their disposal and how they spend/spent this money. Transportation into town and the effects that the availability of rides has had on students consumerism habits will also be examined. Directly related to the issue of transportation is the issue of how much people needed things off campus. The idea that everything that was needed could be bought or obtained on campus will be looked at in terms of how it affected and is affecting student consumerism. The last thing that will be examined in this first section will be how students believe advertising has affected consumerism at Warren Wilson. By the end of this first part of my paper I hope that my reader will have an idea of how consumerism in general has changed and what has affected this change at Warren Wilson college.
The second part of this paper will discus the change in social ideals that has taken place at this school. I will talk about the move from wanting to fit in with a social group to needing to be an individual. This section will discuss into whether the idea of the individual plays out in reality or only in theory and how consumerism and the things students buy, own, and wear affect these changing ideals.
As a follow up to the discussion on the changing ideals of fitting in, I will broach the subject of what clothing is needed to fit in. This is one area where students’ ideals have changed immensely in keeping with the larger American trends. I will discuss the move from the desire and virtue of looking nice to the esthetic value of looking grungy. Closely related to this change is the change in the amount of money the average Wilson student had/has. The school moved from attracting fairly poor students to attracting a more middle class enrollment. This part of the paper will delve into how the change in family income affected the peoples ideas about money.
The final section of this paper will discus what students and alumni at Warren Wilson think about consumerism today. This discussion is a final testimony to the similarities of students from all different generations at Warren Wilson. It shows without a doubt that the type of students who have attended Warren Wilson in the past held the same ideas on issues of consumerism and money as the students today.
This paper in it’s entirety will prove that students today consume approximately the same amount of stuff as students in the past. The difference in their consumerism is not in the way they consume but in the way they think about consumption. Students of the past consumed very little because they had very little money, had no access to town, and grew up with strong values of saving money. Students today consume very little, because they are aware of the environmental issues involved in consumerism, understand that it is not cool to have a lot of money, and try to emulate the working class look of the old farm school. Although the reasons are different, the consumerism patterns have stayed the same since the 1960s.
How Much Money Students Have and Had
Everyone’s consumerism patterns are affected by the amount of money they have growing up. This is an idea that almost everyone of my interviewees confirmed, as they gave me examples of how their parents income affected their consumerism. If a child is raised with rich parents, they are most likely accustomed to being able to afford anything they want, whether they are allowed to buy it or not. For children raised by poor parents, buying only what is absolutely necessary is the norm. “Mom would shop and get day old bread to save money. To me that was embarrassing. It had an affect on me; we were the people who couldn’t afford everything else. Town I grew up in was very stratified between wealthy and poor (male, 1961).” Children learn their consumerism habits first from their parents. “Mom, whenever she got depressed, would take us shopping and buy us lots of new clothes. I’m an impulse buyer, but I am a lot better than I used to be but still” (female, junior). Children see what their parents buy and, from a young age, desire things of their own.
Most of the students at Warren Wilson in the 1960’s came from
families with little money. “At that time it was a mission school everyone from the same back ground, no one had much money” (female, 1969). Many of these families had a strong affiliation with the Presbyterian church and sent their children to Warren Wilson for the religious connection. Other students came from parents who could not afford to send their children to a normal college and chose Wilson because of the financial help the work program offered. “We had very little. I had an older brother in college and younger two years after. Three of us in college together was very hard. I came to Warren Wilson because we could afford it” (female, 1969). No matter what the students reason for coming to Wilson was, most of the families they came from were not wealthy. Two former students had these comments on the financial background of Wilson students:
Many [students] had no [money] and couldn’t afford to buy decent clothes. Wilson
attracted that kind of student. There were some who were church related, and they had a
fair amount of money, and one student from mid east, he was very wealthy and
brought his slave with him. They sent the slave back. Students had less money than
other college students; that was their [Warren Wilson’s] mission (male, 1961).
Everyone was poor here. There were people who came from good homes but no one with
money. I don’t remember anyone with money. Someone I knew went here who had money
but was not comfortable so he transferred (female, 1966).
This man’s response was typical of the people I interviewed from the 1960’s. Most of them explained that they had very little money to spend in college, and any money they had was sent to them by their parent in small amounts once in awhile.
Students from the early seventies had about the same amount of money as students in the sixties. Most students worked during the summer to save up money for the rest of the year. “My parent sent me some money, but I made most [money]in the summer painting; I also worked at summer camps” (female, 1975). During the summer students would do most of their shopping for clothes and other necessities so that shopping during the school year was not necessary. “During the summer I did a wide variety of secretarial jobs; I made maybe five something an hour. Most my clothes were bought during the summer with this money” (female, 1972). Other students worked during the summer so they could afford to buy material for clothing. A female 1961 graduate told me that she made all of her own clothing, because it was cheaper that way. She would buy the material during the summer while she was working and then make the clothing during the school year.
Students today tend to have a lot more money than students of the
past. As one female junior pointed out, “Wilson students today are coming from higher income brackets then ever before”. Many students get sent a monthly check from parents of anywhere from $50 to $350. “My parents give me $320 a month and I have a job off campus on the weekends cooking Scottish food for festivals. I make $6 an hour at the job” (male, senior). Another student gave me similar information on where the money he has at school comes from: “My mom gives me $100 a month, and the rest is from working during breaks. Right now I only have money from Christmas break left and about $300 in the bank left over from mom and vacation money” (male, junior). Other students do odd jobs such as baby sitting or yard work to make extra cash. “I baby-sit three days a week make about $100 a week. Also have a bank account with some money in it” (female, sophmore).
In the past I worked in a law office. Now I work in a Sunday school and make $20 a week. I
work summers and breaks. I work for my mom in the summer plus the $20 I make a week. RA
money I make $150 a term (female, junior).
Students today make more money to spend than students in the past.
On top of making money while at school, many students today come to school with a bank account with money in it. Some students have checking accounts, and almost all students have a savings account. These accounts hold money from working summers or part time jobs in high school. One female freshman explained that she has a “savings account and the money made working and money from parents, dad sends $50 a month and mom puts $1000 in to my account at the beginning of each year”. Because of the work program, most students at Warren Wilson have never had time to hold even part time jobs off campus. Those students who do choose to take off campus jobs end up working late at night and on weekends.
Peers and Parents Influence
Not only are people’s consumerism patterns affected by the amount of money their parents had, they are also influenced by their parents consumerism patterns. Traditionally adults have been the biggest consumers. They are the natural spenders, because they are the ones with the money. Most of them have jobs and incomes, therefore they have money to spend. In the past it has been these people that the consumerism industry has aimed their advertising towards. But in the 1960s consumerism moved on to a younger generation, that of the children in America. According to O’Neil (1996), “93% of girls list shopping as their favorite pastime.” These girls have learned to shop in part from their friends but mostly from following their parents example.
The students and alumni I interviewed claimed to have been profoundly influenced by the way their parents spent money. People expressed having learned the values of saving money and looking for sales early in life from their parents. One female senior explained what she learned about consumerism growing up:
Mom takes you shopping and we looked for sales, clipped coupons, and she told me
not to worry about buying at cheaper places, brands aren’t the best things to judge by,
and don’t skip too much on quality. Most kids in school didn’t have any idea of this.
Very few kids in school were working their way through, there were mostly rich kids
or farm kids.
This narrative tells not only of the influence her parents had on her consumerism patterns but also about the difference she felt from the other students at her high school. When asked later whether she felt that same separation at Wilson, she explained that money was not an issue at Wilson, but she still felt that she consumed less than other Wilson students.
According to David Riesman, a social theorist who wrote in the 1940’s, today’s society is what he describes as other directed. This theory describes how our society has moved away from a family-orientation to a peer group orientation with the move from early to present capitalism. Along with the switch from family to the peer groups came a change in how status was gained. Riesman states that, when the family was important in the inner directed societies etiquette, was the main way a person could gain status. Today, in our other directed societies where the peer group acts as the most important socializer, material objects and consumerism have taken the place of etiquette ( Riesman, pp.257-268).
When one person buys a new item of clothing, a friend must approve of it in order
for the wearer to be cool. Because of this, peers are the biggest advertisements around. If a person were never exposed to TV, magazines, or department stores, they would still know what was cool and what was not, simply by having friends (Riesman, pp.157-167). For the college student, the family is no longer an active part of daily life, but the peer group is more active than ever. As I went into my research I expected to find Riesman’s arguments about the importance of the peer group to be true. I initially thought that in the sixties and seventies students would have been more affected by their parents than students today. But the results of my interviews did not prove this to be true. The more I talked to students about what affected their consumerism patterns at school, the more I heard the same answer: their families. “Most of my favorite clothes are ones that my mom has bought me and sent me at school, or ones that I bought while I was shopping with her” (female, junior). Most students, alumni and current, admitted to following the same consumerism patterns in school that they had learned from their families. When asked how their friends affect their consumerism most people replied like this: “They don’t affect me. Only when they say, let’s go eat. Or they tell me about sales” (female sophomore). Alumni and current students gave this same story.
Although Riesman’s theory on the influence of the peer group in an other directed society did not seem to be accurate at Warren Wilson, he did hit right on with his idea of a change from a focus on etiquette to a focus on material wealth. The biggest value for students at Warren Wilson in the sixties and early seventies was looking nice. Over and over again in interviews, alumni recalled to me that the most important thing in what they bought at the time they were in college was “looking nice”.
I was raised at home where you didn’t go out unless your were neat and tidy. If I was going to
work on a campus crew I wore jeans and old shoes and when I was going to diner I looked neat
and tidy (female, 1968).
Looking nice was a value I picked up growing up. Meant a lot socially in the fifties how
you dressed. Most kids then were being conformist. Then value was that people who
dressed well were respected and self esteem was better if I could look nice and afford
nice clothing. Jeans with holes were a thing associated with bad money standards (male,
Both of these narratives show the importance that looking “neat and tidy” had in the 1960’s. The first one shows how the values learned from her parents at home continued to affect the way the woman dressed at school. The second expresses something beyond the simple etiquette of looking nice, it shows how people who did not dress nice were viewed. When the speaker talks about “jeans with holes”, he associates the people who wear them with being poor. Today jeans with holes are part of the virtue of looking grungy.
Pierre Bourdieu (1984) writes about what it means to have cultural capital. He talks about how people are affected by what they chose to wear and own because of how those things portray the owner to the rest of society. Bourdieu writes
Taste classifies and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications,
distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the
distinguished and the vulgar, in which their positions in an objective classifications is
expressed or betrayed (Bourdieu, pp.6).
In America in the sixties looking nice and wearing nice clothes signified that someone deserved respect and came from a respectable family. No matter how much money someone had, if they looked nice, they were displaying a certain amount of cultural capital; showing that they knew what the public dress code was. For students at Wilson, looking nice was an extension of this cultural capital that Bourdieu explains.
Today, students at Wilson no longer follow the dress code of the main stream culture. The subculture of Wilson has created it’s own style and way of dressing that gives students a signifier for classifying other students. Thornton(1995) refers to the knowledge people in a subculture hold about the special sense of style within a subculture as subcultural capital. In her article, she discusses how people are classified within a subculture by the amount of knowledge about the subculture they display through dress and behavior. Thornton writes that “Subcultural capital confers status on its owner in the eyes of the relevant beholder”(Thornton, pp. 202). At Wilson, students show the amount of subcultural capital they have by dressing grungy and hard core.
Students at Warren Wilson today no longer care about looking nice. They do not feel that they are respected more or have a higher self confidence if they look nice. Looking nice is no longer a way to show gain subcultural capital. Instead, quite the opposite is true; students feel more comfortable when they look grungy. One sophomore girl told me, “I think I can wear the same thing five days in a row and it really does not matter. There’s this weird aesthetic value that grungy dirty is attractive and sexy and comfortable”. From my observations of students at Warren Wilson, this sophomore is not the only one who holds this opinion. “I like jeans with holes; I think they’re sexy” (female, freshman). Many students on all different crews can be seen wearing jeans with holes, unwashed sweatshirts, and dreaded hair. These are considered cool today just as looking nice was a virtue in the sixties.
Advertising and Owning the Right Brands
As well as not caring how nice they look, today’s student values brands and owning stuff much more today than in the past. This is the second part of Riesman’s idea of the other directed-society, that status is gained through owning the right things rather than etiquette. Many alumni have told me that “Commercial branding wasn’t prevalent. Only the way it looked was important” (male, 1971) when they were in school. Today people are very concerned with owning lots of stuff and the right brands.
The obsession in America with owning lots of stuff has been labeled Affluenza. Uebelherr (2000) discusses the negative affects of Affluenza on both adults and children. He explains that Americans have blurred wants and needs, losing the ability to delay gratification and tolerate frustration. People have also lost “the ability to focus on not for sale items such as community, family, and spirituality (Uebelherr, pp.1).” Although many Wilson students may deny that there is any obsession with owning lots of stuff or the right brands at school, it seems evident through my observations that many people are concerned with such things.
There are many brands and items at Warren Wilson that students feel a need to own. These may not be the same items as people at other schools feel pressure to own, but there are definitely certain brands that people here wear. Many people interested in buying hiking boots end up getting Sundowner boots by Vasque. “I needed a new pair of hiking boots last year and I immediately decided to by Sundowners. Lots of people I know have them and love them” (male, senior). Nalgene water bottles are a must have on campus. They are so well known and wide spread at Warren Wilson that people don’t even know them as water bottles but rather by their brand name, “Nalgene”. Most well known of all brand names at Wilson is Carhartt. I will discuss the significance of this brand later in the paper. So why are people today so much more concerned about owning the right stuff then the students before them? Advertising has an influential affect on the important of branding.
Most Alumni could not recall any advertising when they were in college. One woman who graduated in 1966 said “I didn’t have a TV until I was 14, or a phone and there were no adds I remember until then. I don’t remember reading magazines. No, I wouldn’t say there was any advertising.” While at school, students didn’t have access to TV, new papers, or magazines, so any advertising that did filter in came in the form of billboards. During the 1960’s and seventies advertising had just begun to be aimed at youth. Up until then adults were believed to be the ones who controlled the money so they were the ones targeted my advertising companies, after the fifties the advertising companies began to focus their attention on the youth of America. Students at Warren Wilson remained relatively unaffected by advertisements, because they were not exposed to TV, news papers, or magazines.
Today children are the biggest growing group of consumers in America, and the advertising companies direct most of their ads to this group. Children do not have their own source of income through work, but they have their parent’s money to spend.
Through advertising, companies represent American values, ideals, and fantasies to get people to buy their product. Advertising companies do not sell simply products, they sell ideas. Car companies sell sport utility vehicles that will boost your social status, makeup companies sell foundations that will let the real you shine, and clothing companies sell clothes that will make you more hard core. People seldom buy things for what they are but rather for what they mean. “In the way we live now, it is simply impossible to consume objects without consuming meaning” (Twitchell 2000, pp.2).
The meanings that advertisements hold changed drastically in he late 1960’s. According to Frank (1998), advertising agencies used the cultural revolution that was taking place at this time to sell products. They used the idea of rebellion, individualism, and anti-consumerism to sell products.
Then, in 1967 and 1968, advertising and menswear executives seized upon the counterculture
as the preeminent symbol of the revolution in which they were engaged, embellishing both
their trade literature and their products with images of rebellious, individualistic youth (Frank,
Although these ideas were coming out of the youth counterculture of the time, products were not marketed for youth. The ideas of the youth were used to sell the idea of youth and staying young to adults with money. It was not until the late 1970’s, when younger people began to be active in the consumerism picture, that advertising agencies actually began to target the younger age group.
Warren Wilson students were not, and are still not, affected by advertising as much as mainstream American youth, because they live in a separated community. Because of the lack of transportation and restrictive rules, many students in the sixties only left campus once in awhile. “We couldn’t leave campus except Saturdays; we weren’t allowed to. There was a bus that went into town, but I only remember going once” (female 1966). “We had to walk down to 70 to get the bus to Asheville. One time we even walked into town” (male, 1966). “We hitchhiked to Swannanoa to order a
hamburger. Couldn’t have cars on campus” (male, 1971). There was no easy access to town like the shuttle and private cars provide today.
Not only did not having transportation affect student’s access to advertising, it also affected how much people could shop. One female 1969 graduate recalled that they “weren’t allowed to have cars so there was little opportunity to get stuff.” Students today are allowed to have cars and with the shuttle they have more access to town and shopping. “When cars were allowed here that changed peoples access to store and consuming and buying stuff. The shuttle further helps people get to town and buy. You may say ‘oh I’m just going into town to hangout’ but you end up buying a coffee” (male, senior). But even with this transportation many students still shop very little and are seldom exposed to advertisements. “Occasionally I see advertisement and I’ll be like ooh that’s something I might like but most the time I don’t see any so they don’t affect me” (female, freshman). Although students are more exposed to advertising then their predecessors, many claim to be very aware of advertising and try to avoid being affected by it.
I mentioned some of the important brands to Warren Wilson students and the most important one turned out to be Carhartt. Carhartt is a brand of work clothing made for people doing manual labor. They are tough, durable, and expensive. The company makes pants, overalls, jackets, hats, shirts; you name it they sell it. More then half of the students at Warren Wilson own one or more Carhartt item; I own a pair of pants. This brand tells a lot about the relationship between students thoughts on money and social class, and their actions toward money and social class at Warren Wilson. The Carhartt brand is known as the brand you wear if you are working a manual labor job on campus. “I love Carhartts. They make me feel tough, hard core”, explained one female sophomore on the landscaping crew. If you are on the Landscaping crew, Natural Resources, Farm, Carpentry or any number of other get dirty crews, carhartts are a must have.
Although most students today come from middle class, not working class families, they see a certain desirable ideal in the working class person that they try to emulate. I have seen many boys come in with long hair or dreads, wearing flowy pants and hippie shirts who cut their hair and don carhartts in their first year here to take on a working class look. The same thing can be observed happening to many girls on campus. “I bought a pair of carhartts my freshman year. I wore a lot of skirts in high school, I looked kind of hippie but when I came to college I kind of changed my style” (female, senior). Carhartts are an extension and exaggeration of this desired working class look. One man exclaimed to me the irony of the attempt to look working class; “It’s so funny how Bob is so ‘farm boy’ now. When he first came he had dreads. He isn’t from the a farm at all he is from Raleigh.” So why do students have a desire to be working class? I believe many students connect Warren Wilson with the farm school it used to be. The boys of the farm school had to work to go to school and came from rural farm families. Today many students in a back to the land, back to the farm sort of spirit want to keep the ideals of the old farm school alive. In order to do this not only do they dress the part they also reject the dominant idea that a person must have a lot of money to be happy.
Although advertisements are aimed at young people in America, students at Warren Wilson are influenced little by these adds. Because students are exposed to these adds minimally they seldom feel the pressure that advertisements can cause. “I used to get beauty magazines like YM, but not anymore. I hardly have time to get my work done, reading newspapers and watching TV are out of the question” (female, sophomore). Advertising is not none existent for students at Wilson but when it does make it’s way to campus it is typically viewed with skepticism. Students are aware of the affects advertising has on things like branding and consumerism and try to avoid being affected by them. “I know I am being affected by the capitalist system so I try to avoid ads and stuff like that so I won’t get sucked in” (male, freshman). They are still very affected by brands but the brands that are most influential tend to revolve around being working class and hard core.
As I conducted interviews with alumni and students I noticed a difference in the way they talked about money. Alumni openly admitted to growing up in poor families and never having much money. They talked of having friends in school who had more money then they did. One man said “My best friend was the son of the Tobacco owner. They had a mansion he had a huge toy train and that was hard. I knew I would never be able to have stuff like that” (male, 1961). The current students used a different language when talking about money. Coming for the most part from higher income families yet playing into the working class ideal, they felt a need to justify any shopping trip with the fact that they only bought stuff on sale, or only shopped at thrift shops. If I asked them about something they were wearing that looked expensive they would justify it by saying it was a gift, was bought on sale, or was found somewhere. Not very many students would simply admit to buying expensive things.
I have mentioned that Carhartts are at the heart of this working class ideal. I have also mentioned that carhartts are not cheap. As one student pointed out, “Carhartts are expensive. They cost $40 a pair and overalls cost $80 and lined ones are even more. But so many people on campus have them”(male, senior). This shows that the ideal of having no money is not always put into practice. People may say they buy things only on sale or at thrift stores but when it comes to buying things that will help them look more working class there is a different story.
I am not saying that students at Wilson really are buying expensive things all the time and lying about how they got them. Rather I am making the point that there is a need to justify spending money and owning expensive stuff. A student from 1965 might have owned a $40 wool skirt and when asked where they got it they would give a straight up answer saying they bought it from Sears with the money they saved from the summer. A student today owning that same skirt would answer the same question by saying that they got it on sale during the summer and it was the only thing they bought new that month. This is the answer one student gave me that fits into this discourse of justifying money spent on clothes, “This skirt I’m wearing I bought at the mall. I just happened to be at the mall. It was a 70% off sale at the express so I bought it. It was ten bucks” (female, junior). This person felt a need to justify buying something new as well as shopping at the mall. She did not simply say “I went to the mall”, she explained that she “just happened to be at the mall”. By going to the mall one is participating in the main stream American idea of shopping, an idea that is looked down upon.
Not having money is the expected thing for Wilson students. One alumni noticed this phenomenon and mentioned it in her interview, “Today people have money but pretend not to” (female, 1966). In an interview with a female freshman I asked a question about her money situation. This is the answer she gave me:
At Wilson it’s not cool to have money at all. Sometimes I get embarrassed to wear
nice clothes; it’s not cool here. I guess it’s getting better. I wrote a paper on it and I am
coming to terms with it. So I spend money when I need something or it strikes my
This answer perfectly captures the idea that Warren Wilson students value, the ideal of being working class Americans.
Students in the sixties and seventies did not pretend to be working class people because they were. Many of them tried to get away from their working class back ground by dressing nice and getting an education. That was one of the reasons they were in college. When I asked one man what crew at school he had been on he said “farm crew the first year and boiler crew the second year. I liked boiler crew better because I had to work on a farm from age twelve to make money and it was just hard work” (male, 1966). He went on to explain to me about how growing up working class made him want to get an education and not have to farm for the rest of his life. This idea is the opposite of the current Wilson students desire to be working class. They don’t seem to understand the real life ramifications that go along with being a farmer.
This ideal of being poor is not based solely on a desire to be working class. Part of the ideology behind not spending a lot of money comes from Warren Wilson’s status as an alternative community. “Wilson is a little more alternative so it is less [consumeristic] then other schools. We all go free boxing” (female, sophomore). What is meant by alternative in this statement? As I see it alternative at Warren Wilson means that people do not follow the same trends as the larger society. They are more conscious of the environmental problems involved in consumerism and the injustices involved in big business. Because of this consciousness students are less likely to go to the mall or shop at stores like Wal-mart. This freshman told me of how being conscious of environmental issues effects her consumerism.
I like to support independently owned places. I would like to do that more. I feel guilty when
I go to big stores like Wal-mart. I go there because it’s cheaper. It’s so hard because I want to
support people in same position as me but I can’t afford to.”
Many students refuse to shop at big businesses and try to support local business owners.
In trying to be as environmentally friendly as possible many students buy only environmentally friendly products. The problem is that it is often hard to tell what products are environmentally friendly. Many companies today use green-washing to make their products look better for the environment. Green-washing is the use of environmentally friendly ideas to sell products to people who are environmentally conscience. Some products really are environmentally friendly while others simply use slogans, and pictures to make their products appear more environmentally friendly (Bell 1998 pp.55). The consumer industry has commodified nature in an attempt to sell more of their products (Conca 1999, pp.2). Because Warren Wilson students like to think of themselves as environmentally aware people, they are more likely to buy products that look more natural or say something about being environmentally friendly. Green-washing makes it hard to tell what is and what isn’t environmentally friendly.
Warren Wilson’s status as an environmentally friendly place that is different from other colleges encourages students to consume less. Students are generally more aware of environmental problems involved in consumerism and tend to shop consciously. There are students who enjoy the mall and buying new things but they are few at Warren Wilson, and even they feel pressure to be aware of what they are consuming.
The idea of being an individual that entered advertising in the late 1960’s shows it’s face in full form at Warren Wilson today. Students are very concerned with being individuals and this shows up in the way they dress and the things they buy. “I don’t like to dress the same as everyone else. I like to add pazaz to my look, you know attitude. I like to be an individual” (female, junior). It is not cool anymore to want to fit into a group and blend in, now people are more socially excepted if they “are themselves” and this means being an individual. “When I was in high school everyone dressed the same and that was just not me. I have my own style that makes me, me” (female, senior). For some students creating an individual style is what makes them feel like “them selves”.
Maslow’s theory on the hierarchy of needs states that there are two types of needs, basic needs and higher needs. Basic needs go in this order: lower needs or material needs, physiological needs, safety, belongingness and love, and esteem and self actualization. These basic needs must be fulfilled in the order they appear, a person cannot move on to fulfilling the next need until the one below it has been fulfilled. The higher needs can only be addressed once all the basic needs are met. There are two higher needs, knowledge and understanding, and aesthetic needs (Maslow 1945 pp.38-39).
It is up to individuals to find ways to fulfill these needs. For people with money lower needs are the easiest to fulfill. Most people, aside from the very poor, have no problems fulfilling these material needs. Fulfilling the rest of the basic needs and even the higher needs is a lot harder. College students come to school having their lower needs already met, but in order to gain knowledge and understanding, which is what they have come to school to do, they must search for ways to fulfill the rest of their needs.
Consumption has become the most popular and widespread way to achieve these other needs. The popular belief is that money can buy everything from comfort and safety to happiness and belonging. As Lloyd (2000) puts it;
the implicit assumption that consumption restores emotional equilibrium is now banal, a
matter of common sense. From the lower-middle-class furniture to high political makeover,
the assumption is the same; Hillary Clinton is praised for buying expensive clothes and
hairstyling, her choice being equated with a greater sense of self worth and an ability to ‘find
herself’ (Lloyd, pp.2).
Most people today have bought into the Western idea that consuming more will fulfill not only your physical needs, but also you emotional and psychological ones.
Consumerism has become the easiest method in which college students can attempt to fulfill the basic needs that are not fulfilled when they arrive at school. By purchasing concepts that companies insinuate in their advertising they can purchase just about everything, not just their material needs. Friends can supposedly be found if you listen to the right music, happiness can be had if you drive the right car, and self-esteem can be boosted if you wear cool clothes, therefore everything a person needs can be bought.
The things that college student’s today purchase to fulfill their basic needs help them be individuals. The individual is created through the things they wear and own. Because being an individual and knowing yourself is so important in our culture today people who are individuals have an easier time making friends and fitting into a social group. The person who tries to hard too fit in or attempts to look like everyone else may have a harder time making friends at Warren Wilson. One interviewee mentioned that “Individualism that is being pushed today perpetuates buying because you don’t want to own same thing as anyone else or you’re not an individual” (male, junior). This student points out the fact that the idea of individualism perpetuates consumerism.
In the sixties and seventies, individualism was not something sought after by
students. Looking nice and blending in was the way to make friends, gain self esteem, and find love. A 1972 graduate explained to me that “to make friends you wanted to be part of a group. I wanted to try to look like I fit in, I didn’t want to stand out and be classified as weird. Most students tried to fit into groups.” Although some alumni pointed out that they simply dressed practically and nice, they said that being an individual was not important.
I Definitely think it [consumerism] has changed. In the fifties there were only a few stores
around and everyone owned the same stuff. The adolescence problem of acceptance was not a
status thing related to clothes. Clothes were a necessity thing (male, 1961).
Instead of being individualistic there were specific groups that people tried to fit into. One woman told me about the different social groups at Warren Wilson in the seventies:
We had the hippies who wore bell bottoms and tie-dye shirts, long hair and sandals.
Then there were those who were neat and tidy. Then those more affluent students who
looked a little different. I teetered below affluent and everyday. Not into the hippies.
More middle of the road then hippie. Majority [of students]
were down the middle.
Although there were distinct social groups at Wilson, this person explained that most people fit somewhere in the middle. Blending into this general norm was the best way to fulfill one’s basic needs during the sixties and seventies because it helped students make friends and find acceptance. Today being accepted and making friends comes not from fitting in but from being an individual.
Warren Wilson College attracts a certain type of student. As the view book for the school says, “Warren Wilson is not for everyone, but maybe you’re not everyone.” This announces that you must be a “different” type of person to go to Wilson. In the early years this difference had to do with money. Warren Wilson was a school for poor kids who could not afford to go to college anywhere else. A man who graduated in 1961 explained the demographics of the school like this.
Most of us, I mean most of us were poor students. Almost all of us had nothing. A few had a
lot more money but foreign students were 1/3 of the population and blacks were 1/10. Most
others came from Appalachia and that should explain a lot.
Today the demographics have changed a great deal, we don’t have as many foreign students, there are not nearly as many blacks, and most of the kids no longer come from Appalachia. There were a certain type of students that came to Warren Wilson and that type was people from families without much money.
Today students are different in another way. Many of them seek out Warren Wilson because of the environmental awareness at the school. Students share an awareness of things like pollution, trash, and recycling. Most students look down on over consumption and buying without thinking of the consequences. A sophomore that I talked to had these thoughts on how consumerism is affecting the environment:
One Problem is that as people want more material objects they’re also moving away from a
more natural identity which influences how they perceive the environment. More and more
people are growing up like that. It’s more about what they want right now and less about taking
care of the earth (female sophomore).
Environmental problems with consumerism are not noticed only by current Wilson students’, many of the alumni also see a problem with the way consumerism is headed. “All the trash and lack of responsibility. The impulsiveness and ‘I want it now’ attitude. ‘In two weeks I will just throw it away’.” This female 1969 graduate expressed her problems with consumerism today in the same way that many other current students did.
According to the responses that alumni and current students gave to my questions on the problems with consumerism, the school has always attracted environmentally conscious people. All of my interviewees see problems with the direction money and consumerism have taken in this country. In recent years there has been a movement to change the consumerism centered mind set of our society. This movement consists of simplifying peoples lives so that they no longer revolve around money and material wealth. In September of 1997, PBS, as a follow up to the previously aired “Affluenza” program aired a TV program called “Escape from Affluenza”. This follow up program emphasized the need for American people to lose their dependence on money and stop trying to keep up with the Jones family. The show gives examples of ways people have simplified their lives. A group in California share meals and a garden, pooling money and recourses to cut down on the cost of living. A man gives up the security of a job in law to take over an apple orchard in the county with his wife. Each example that “Escape from Affluenza” gave of simplifying your life shows people who have moved into a healthy relationship with money. This is a relationship where people control their money rather than money controlling their lives. Wilson students are strong advocates of this move away from affluence. Without knowing it they have been promoting simplifying ideals for the last forty years.
Environmentalists look at how different products affect the environment and how
we can make things more environmentally friendly. They realize there is only so far that we can go with making things more environmentally friendly, at some point we have to look at the bigger picture. Consumerism itself and the amount the US consumes is a much bigger problem. As long as we continue to consume the same amount we will continue to put out the same amount of waste whether the product is environmentally friendly or not (Juniu 2000, pp.2). Warren Wilson students are very aware of this bigger picture and many of their consumerism habits are in response to this awareness. Many students get used clothes from thrift stores or the grab box so that new resources do not need to be used. They recycle adamantly and try to avoid using disposable items. They try their hardest to consume in an environmentally friendly manner, and for the most part everyone agreed that students at Wilson consume less then those at other schools. “I think Wilson students definitly consume less. When I went to visit my friend at a state school they shopped all the time for fun, we don’t do that here. No one does that” (female, freshman). But as much as Warren Wilson tries to be environmentally conscious and active, they are no more perfect then anyone else, they are simply more aware.
Students at Warren Wilson have never been big consumers. In the sixties and seventies a lack transportation kept students from having access to town and shopping. Because students spent almost all of their time at Warren Wilson they had little to no exposure to TV, billboards, magazines and other forms of advertising. Most of these students were coming from low income, working class families; having money to spend was not frequent. Warren Wilson fulfilled both physical and psychological needs by hosting on campus activities such as free movies and music, and selling all necessities in the book store. In the sixties and seventies students did not feel uncomfortable having no money because everyone around them was also poor. There was never a feeling of not being able to afford what you needed to be cool. As long as you looked nice and didn’t wear clothes with holes you were accepted at Wilson.
Today students are coming from much higher income families but they still do not consume very much. There is a campus wide ideal that having money and spending it is not cool. Whether a student has money or not the norm is to dress down, wearing clothes with holes or used clothes is respected. The purpose of the dressed down look is to give an air of being working class as well as not supporting the capitalist system of wanting to have lots of money. Looking working class is an attempt to emulate the students who attended Warren Wilson in it’s earlier days; a kind of back to the farm revolution. Trying not to support the capitalist idea of money comes out of students awareness of environmental issues, as well as global issues, involved with consumerism.
Although students at Wilson have never consumed much their reasons for doing so have changed drastically as I have explained above. Students in the sixties and seventies really were working class and poor while students today are only acting the part; most of them did not come from working class families. Students who came from working class families in the past were attending college to escape from this type of life. They wanted to get a better education so they could move onto better paying jobs. Students today are attending Warren Wilson to get a higher education while being a part of an alternative, environmentally aware, working class community. Even though the reasons for not consuming very much have changed over the years, students today are consuming only slightly more then students were in the sixties and seventies.
Bell, M. 1998, An Ivitation to Environmental Sociology, Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks.
Bourdieu, P. 1984 A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Harvard University
Conca, K. 1999 Feb. 16-20, American Environmentalism and the Problem of Consumption in a Global Political Economy, Article from: University of Maryland, International Studies Association 40th Annual Convention, Washington D.C.
[online], Available: http://.cc.columbia.edu/sec/dlc/ciao/conf/cok/01.html
Frank, T. 1998, The Conquest of Cool, The University Chicago Press, Chicago.
Lloyd, J. 2000, ‘We Want it, and We Want it Now’, New Statesman [Online], vol. 129,
no. 4468 [Electronic], Available: EBSCOhost Full Display [2000, Sept. 19].
Riesman, D. 1961, ‘The Lonely Crowd’, Social Theory, ed. R. Garner, Broadview Press, Ontario.
Juniu, S. 2000 ‘Downshifting: Regaining the Essence of Leisure’, Journal of Leisure Research [electronic], Vol. 32, no. 1, Available: EBSCOhost Full Display [2000, Nov. 8].
Maslow, A. 1945, ‘The Hierarchy of Needs’, in An Ivitation to Environmental Sociology, ed. M. Bell, Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, pp, 38-40.
O’Neil, J. 2000, The Affluenza Project. [online], Available:
Thornton, S. 1995, ‘The Social Logic of Subcultural Logic’, in The Subcultures Reader,eds. S. Thornton & K. Gelder, Routledge, New York, pp. 200-209.
edited by Gelder, K. and Thornton, S.; Routledge, New York
Twitchell, J. 2000, ‘In Praise of Consumerism’, Reason, [Electronic], vol.
32, no. 4, Available: EBSCOhost Full
Display [2000. Nov. 21].
Uebelherr, J. 2000, ‘The Affluenza Epidemic’, The Journal of Sentinel
Staff, [online], Available: wysiwyg://13http://www.jsonline.com/lifestyle/people/jan00/greed230100a.asp [2000, Dec. 4].