Monday, April 21, 2008

AVID Consumption

One of the key insights in the nascent study of consumption is that social and environmental damage is enabled by people not having complete, accurate, and meaningful feedback about the social and environmental impact of products that they purchase. There are several reasons for this (detailed in the book Confronting Consumption), perhaps most important among them that such information is not generally collected and disseminated among suppliers and intermediaries in the process of creating and distributing most products. This state of affairs is exacerbated by the propensity of our dominant economics to increase the number of suppliers and intermediaries (called “distancing”) and to reward ambiguity in the information that is passed along (called “shading”).

There is an insidious fact of life that makes this almost inevitable: after an immense amount of data processing, humans simply cannot be consciously aware of more than three to seven pieces of information at a time. This forces us to simplify everything that we communicate to each other; and as errors inevitably creep into our communication, the information any of us receives is unlikely to be more than a distorted caricature of what the original sender intended. It’s therefore no wonder that the information used our buying decisions has no more than three dimensions: supply, demand, and value (with the first two generally folded into one, price, allowing cognitive room for us to expand the value dimension on a product-specific basis). Any information about how resources are extracted and the various impacts on the people involved in extraction, processing, and distribution tends to be included in “value” – the satisfaction purchasers have related to a product’s intended use – IF the purchasers actually care enough about these things to significantly influence demand.

If a goal as a society is to limit the damage we do in addition to meeting our personal wants and needs, then one possible solution would be for each of us to include the following dimensions in our purchasing decisions:

V = value of the product to the individual
L = labor = (number of people involved in production and distribution) * (health of laborers)
D = demand = number of people wanting the product
R = resources = (supply of resources) * (renewability of the resources)
A = ambiguity of the other measures

This number of dimensions may be too high to be practical. Multiplying resources and labor to get a variable called “input” could reduce the number, with the result summarized by the acronym AVID (ambiguity * value * input * demand). Here, input effective replaces supply in the traditional set of variables, but with deeper significance.

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