Envy and consumption

Envy and consumption

Envy is what drives consumer society. Envy can be a benign force that leads to economic growth. But it also drives us to consume in unsustainable ways.

Malicious and benign envy
Russell Belk has written extensively about envy and how it relates to consumption. In his 2011 paper Benign Envy he explains that different types of envy have different outcomes. Malicious envy makes us want to deprive others of the qualities or things that they have (and we want). Benign envy, on the other hand, makes us strive to emulate them.

Imagine my neighbour has a new Porsche. If I want to scratch it with my keys, I am experiencing malicious envy. But, if I want to work hard to get promoted, get a raise, and get myself a Porsche, then I am experiencing benign envy!

The envy-consumption circle is never-ending
Belk, and others, have argued that modern consumer culture is founded on benign envy. Our envy is piqued by the quantity and diversity of goods and services available, as well as by the proliferation of attractive images we receive via mass media, in-store, and internet advertising. We are increasingly able to respond to this envy by consuming, thanks to relatively high disposable incomes and access to credit. Thus, the envy remains benign and does not become malicious.

However, levelling up to quell our own envy is not enough. We also seek to inspire envy in others with our own consumption, by getting newer and more fashionable things. And because fashions constantly evolve, there are always new things to desire! So, the envy-consumption circle is never-ending.

Is envy really benign?
It is tempting to think of benign envy as just that: benign; harmless. It may even be seen as a good thing. Benign envy makes people strive to do better so they can get more. It keeps the wheels of consumption turning. More consumption means more economic growth. It’s good for all of us, isn’t it?

Well, that depends. If economic growth is good then benign envy and consumption are also good. But, the idea that economies can grow indefinitely seems more and more naive. Satisfying our own increasing consumption needs, at lower and lower prices, arguably leads to environmental harm as well as to the exploitation of workers (in developing countries and at home). Benign envy could be leading our planet and its people into disaster.

This is, perhaps, a somewhat extreme view. However, there are surely costs associated with attempting to satisfy our benign envy. And if it will never be subdued, we might do well to ask what’s the point?

Ackerman, D., MacInnis, D. & Folkes, F. 2000. Social comparisons of possessions: when it feels good and when it feels bad. Advances in Consumer Research, 27, 173-178.
Belk, R. W. 2011. Benign Envy. AMS Review, 1, 117-134.
De Botton, A. 2004. Status Anxiety. New York: Penguin.

Image: “Cain and Able” by Titian, 1576.

This blog post was originally featured on the Lund Business Review on 29 April 2013.

Sooo much stuff!

Sooo much stuff!