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Women's Economic Contributions

Teenage girls shopping

Women as Consumers

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.

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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.

Contradictions of Consumption
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.

Teenage girls shoppingWomen 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 as well.

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.

Get sexy and sporty...Advertising
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 at all.2

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.

Wal-MartWomen as Producers, Women as Sellers
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.

Costs of consumption
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.

Thoughtful Consumption
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 activity.

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.

1 "Six Types of Women Who Use the Net." Nua Internet Surveys. 2001. Downloaded Nov. 13, 2001.
2 Naomi Klein. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2000.
3 Jean Kilbourne. Still Killing me Softly. Video recording. 1987.
4 Charkiewicz, Eva, et al. Transitions to Sustainable Production and Consumption: Concepts, Policies and Actions. The Netherlands: Shaker Publishing, 2001.
5 Xavier, Irene. 'Clean' but Not Safe: Working Conditions of Electronics Workers in Malaysia. 1994. And Behind the Chip: Chee Heng Leng Ed. Safety and Health in Electronics Conference. Malaysia. December 1992.
6 UNDP Human Development Report 1998. Figures are in 1995 dollars.
7 Charkiewicz, Eva, et al. Transitions to Sustainable Production and Consumption: Concepts, Policies and Actions. The Netherlands: Shaker Publishing, 2001.

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