I recently read a review in the Guardian about Frank Trentmann’s 1.5 kg book “How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First”, that is spot on a subject we are working hard on right now. I’ve bought an e-book version already, but – like an old-fashioned consumer – I feel a need to get a paper version just to feel the weight.
Trentmann writes that “In the early seventeenth century, for example, men and women in Bondorf and Gebersheim, two villages in Württemberg, Germany, owned 3 and 12 articles of clothing respectively. A century later, the number had shot up to 16 and 27 pieces. By 1800, it had doubled again.” This development has continued through the centuries, and we continue to own more and more things. But is there an end?
We are in the midst of a major transformation of all areas of society and there is a lot of talk about transforming industries and the emergence of the industrial internet and so on. But in fact, what we’ve always seen throughout history is that when industries change, they do so in conjunction with the customer side. And customer demands for change can be motivated by either lifestyle or work-life factors. In other words, industrial and societal changes are two sides of the same coin.
he accumulation of these changes becomes clearly visible when you line up how we have consumed throughout history, from the early days of hunting and gathering to the industrialized society, where the modern consumer was born and which is now a stage of major transformation.
To zoom back in to a personal level, I’ve been thinking about how my own patterns have changed these past years. My money is now completely digital – with few exceptions, I have not used Swedish cash for years. My mobile transactions are also starting to pick up – a lot of thing that I used to buy as physical products are now online services (such as music and software). And a lot of the things I need, I order online (while on the other hand, I am also very involved in, for example, buying locally and organically produced food). And these are just a handful of personal changes.
To illustrate the big shift, we have created an infographic about the changing consumer across history. This is a companion to our new report series on shape-shifting consumers and the new forms of commerce and consumption in the Networked Society. In these, we track both production and consumption evolving constantly throughout history and accelerating in the Networked Society.
Returning to Trentmann example above, it’s not so much that we are seeing an end to the growth in consumption, but rather a rapid expansion in the forms of both consumption and production and, with that, a far more complex and fluid understanding of what it now means to be a consumer.