One of the major contributions that we all make to the economy
is through buying things. Women's role as care givers has
meant that women play an especially prominent role in buying
things that provide sustenance for home and family. Studies
show that women are responsible for buying 80% of household
goods.1 Although it
is often played down, it is clear that women have a great
deal of influence in the economy as consumers, in other words,
a lot of spending power.
Even the non-monetary part of consumption is part of the economy.
Shopping for the goods that we need to survive takes time and
attention. Buying food and clothes and school supplies and home
furnishings often means watching out for sales and discounts.
Comparison shopping, searching through coupons, and finding
the best deal, is also time-consuming. Shopping is work and
is part of the unpaid labour not counted in the formal economy.
But whether or not it's recognized as work, shopping is an activity
fraught with contradictions and challenges.
As consumers, women live under a good
deal of pressure. Many women must find ways to feed their
families on a limited budget. They search for a balance between
affordability, nutrition, and availability, countered with
the personal preferences of their families. Women who are
working outside of the home face the added problem of time
constraints. Certain purchases may be made to save time and
energy when women are squeezed between work and family responsibilities.
Stopping for fast food seems easier than rushing home to cook
dinner for the family after a long day at work.
are also often responsible for clothing themselves and their
families and are faced with similar demands in this task.
Added to that is the pressure to look good and to be 'in style.'
Some items, such as brand name clothes, serve as status symbols
and communicate to other people what kind of image we want
to present. The pressure to own such items can be so intense
that even if people can't afford to, they may sacrifice their
needs to buy certain things. Think of the teenage son or daughter
who 'has to have' a certain brand of running shoe. Women in
the workforce face the demands of proper workplace attire
Increasingly, women take responsibility
for buying larger items such as houses and cars. And women
are also often responsible for buying gifts on behalf of their
families. When kids go to birthday parties, it is usually
the mother who purchases and wraps the gift. It often works
the same way when a couple attends a wedding or anniversary.
Women are faced with endless choices and decisions in their
lives as consumers.
The world of advertising is perhaps
the place that epitomizes the contradictions of women as consumers.
Women's faces and bodies are used endlessly in advertising
to convince people to buy certain products. The many ads we
see each day create roles for women. The image of the 'housewife'
or woman working in the home is commonly used to sell household
goods. Think of the mother selling laundry powder or Aunt
Jemima selling syrup. Repeatedly using these images gives
the impression that women have a limited role in our society:
all women want is shiny floors and the best cookies. These
images reinforce gender stereotypes and sometimes also racial
ones. The use of the housewife in advertising belittles the
wide variety of unpaid work women do in the home.
Ads also adopt positive and empowering
language and concepts for retail purposes. For example, Nike
has an ad campaign explaining that including girls in sports
improves girls' self esteem. However, this message is only
for the benefit of women Nike is 'targeting' - women who have
enough money to buy Nike shoes. Naomi Klein explains that,
"although girls may indeed rule in North America, they are
still sweating in Asia and Latin America, making T-shirts
with the 'Girls Rule' slogan on them and Nike running shoes
that will finally let girls into the game." Women who sew
the shoes in China receive barely enough money to survive,
thirteen cents an hour, and little opportunity for any leisure
Women are figured in ads to sell a range
of products from cars to vacations. The female image almost
always fits a western beauty myth: women are frequently thin,
young, able-bodied, heterosexual and light-skinned. More recently,
advertisers have begun to use an idealized image of men to
sell products; men pictured are strong, lean and muscular.
The result of seeing these images many times is that young
people, especially young women, think their bodies are inadequate;
by attempting to fit the image, some develop eating disorders.
Young men are now more frequently using steroids to look like
the men in ads. Unrealistic and repeated media images can
be bad for our health. American feminist and ad-critic Jean
Kilbourne says that in advertising, "what we learn is that
a woman's body is just another piece of merchandise. Not only
is she a thing, she's a thing that's for sale. Women's bodies
and products are completely interchangeable in the world of
ads." Kilbourne sums up the underlying message
of many ads as: "You're ugly, you're disgusting, buy something."3
The world of advertising needs constant
refueling to keep itself in business. To keep us buying new
things, advertisers create symbolic obsolescence. This means
that advertisers give us the message that old things are out
of style and we must have new fashions.4
We are 'behind the times' unless we have the latest thing.
This manufactures demand - it creates the need for certain
products where there was no need before the ad told us so.
Another more recent phenomenon is target
advertising. Some companies gather information on consumers'
spending habits. One of the newest ways is through points
cards such as Air Miles or cards from a particular store.
When we fill out applications to these programmes, we give
out information about ourselves: how old we are, where we
live, how much money we earn. Then when we use the cards our
spending habits can be tracked. Advertisers buy this information
and use it to shape their next advertising campaign. The same
thing is done in on-line shopping on the Internet: companies
gather information about their customers and sell it to advertisers.
The result is advertising which is targeted directly at us.
This can make ads difficult to escape. Our visual environment
is becoming polluted with messages to buy more, and it becomes
hard to know the difference between items we really need,
and items we can do without.
Globalization has created still more
contradictions of consumption. Many of the products that are
for sale in Canada are not made under fair conditions. In
the global economy, goods are frequently made in developing
countries because the labour costs are less expensive for
the companies. The majority of workers in manufacturing factories
are women; they are paid less than men and many are fired
after the age of 25 or if they marry. Women workers in export
factories are frequently treated poorly - common experiences
include being restricted from going to the washroom, forced
pregnancy testing, and sexual harassment by male management.5
At the other end of the process, the majority
of people who work in retail stores and malls in Manitoba
are women. Ten percent of women in Manitoba are employed in
general sales and service occupations with an additional 4%
in food and beverage service, 3% as retail salespersons, and
2% as cashiers. These jobs are usually low paying with few
benefits and make it difficult for women to support themselves
and their families. Cashier ranks as one of the ten lowest
paid occupations in Canada.
Besides the costs to individuals,
there are other costs related to production and consumption
including environmental costs. Producing products at the other
end of the world rather than around the corner, means increased
transportation and fossil fuel emissions. There are also concerns
about packaging and the waste generated in the production
process. And closer to home, a lot of purchases are made in
suburban shopping malls and big box stores encouraging people
to drive cars more often. Malls and superstores also require
a lot of energy to heat and keep lit.
Consumption has increased with the
advent of globalization. Between 1970 and 1995, consumption
has more than doubled from 8.3 trillion in 1970 to 16.5 trillion
US dollars in 1995.6
People are buying more and more and more. Consumerism is being
exported to developing countries too. The lifestyles of people
in developed countries are held up by some as indicators of
progress to people in developing countries. When advertising
enters a country where there was hardly any advertising before,
in contrast to more experienced and savvy western consumers,
people tend to take the advertisers at their word.7
The introduction of new products can eliminate traditional
ways of operating in developing countries and destroy local
markets. And the export of consumerism to less-industrialized
countries ignores the fact that consumption patterns in developed
countries are not environmentally sustainable.
Because of all the contradictions
related to consumption, it becomes more and more important
for us to stop and think about our motivations for buying
different things. We need to take our role as consumers seriously.
Are we buying in excess to make ourselves feel better, to
fit in, or because shopping is simply a habit we've gotten
into? Considering the impact of consumption on women around
the world creates yet more work for women who are already
balancing a lot! Still it is important for us to remember
that women have a lot of spending power that we can use to
demand production that benefits all people around the world.
There are many things that we can do to support fair labour
practices and lessen the impact of consumption on the environment.
Visit our Guide for Ethical
Consumption for some ideas and try our
Follow the Money
Women are not just passive recipients
of toothpaste and ready-made dinners. Women are powerful and
have a powerful role to play. Working together as consumers
and producers, we can make the world a more just place for
all peoples and for our earth.
This article was written by UNPAC
member Molly McCracken, while she was pursuing studies in
economics at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague,
The Netherlands in the fall of 2001.
& Paid Work
& Unpaid Work
Women as Consumers
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