Consumption in Human Ecology – A Meaningful Sphere of Influence

Jerry O'Brien meeting with student

We play a variety of roles in our lives – boss, employee, friend, acquaintance, parent, child, partner — just to name a few. As we launch into 2017, many are trying to establish personal resolutions to improve ourselves in some or all of the roles we play. But there’s another role that each and every one of us plays that I’d like you to keep in mind as you set your 2017 goals — your role as a “Consumer.”

The School of Human Ecology, like other schools of human ecology in the U.S., has for most of its history had a focus, and major courses of study, in “Consumer Science”. This field explores various aspects of individual, family, and household decision-making and well-being. Our SoHE Centers focus on a broad variety of issues that pertain to individual, family, and community thriving. It’s important to reflect specifically on the way that “consumption” pertains to these issues, and put a spotlight on the work that is being done within our School and Centers in specific areas of Consumer Science.

conblog2Consumer Science connects with and complements the other focus areas and majors housed at SoHE. If we are to study ourselves and the broader human environment, we must also examine our behavior as consumers. On a micro level, it’s the clothes we buy, the food we eat. On a macro level, consumer behavior can remake the physical environment and impact vast economies.

This theme is particularly intriguing at this moment in time because of the increased awareness consumers have about the power of their purchases. Choosing to shop at a particular retailer or restaurant is now part of the larger discussion of our society and the direction it is headed in. At SoHE, and in our Centers of Excellence, our consumption is one of the many themes we investigate and innovate related to our human ecology.

Our Kohl’s Center for Retailing was created to promote retailing as a career and to create meaningful connections between students, industry, faculty, and staff who have a passion for the retail industry. National Retail Leaders collaborate with SoHE’s faculty and students to explore ways to continually innovate the retail experience, largely driven by consumer behavior and preferences.

Christine Whelan’s work and the MORE (Money, Relationships and Equality) Initiative focus on how we can use our purchasing decisions to maximize happiness. This includes researching the impact on personal well-being that comes from buying locally, donating time or money, and saving. Dr. Whelan’s work sheds light on the fact that gratification and a sense of happiness are connected to our consumption, and there are more holistic and mission-based implications to our purchases and expenditures than often assumed. Her work demands that we ask of ourselves: what is our purpose, what brings us satisfaction, and how shall we consume accordingly?

The Center for Financial Security (“CFS”) has been the national leader in conducting research and outreach on household financial security, investigating ways that families achieve financial security, and sharing empirically supported information to community groups and agencies trying to help families meet their goals. CFS investigations explore the effectiveness and impact of a variety of consumer financial products, as well as individuals’ and families’ agency in spending their earnings as needed and in their discretion. This critical CFS work has broad implications for protecting the consumer power of all individuals and families in our society, as well as understanding what motivates individuals and families in their consumption.

conblog3Various collaborators in our Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies explore the way that a consumer society and systems impact daily life of entire communities and countries, and are deeply connected to workers’ experiences and human agency. Examining worker-led initiatives within certain industries, cooperative structures, community-based food systems, workers’ rights and grassroots entrepreneurship in “new economy” systems – all of these explorations help illustrate the codependency of the way products are sourced and made, employment experiences, and the impact on society of the end product. This work forces us to consider the entire cycle of consumption and its impact on our environment as well as the way that systematic production drives our consumption as humans. It also provides inspiration on the way that grassroots changes about the way that we consume our food or other products, make choices about our sources for consumable items, or leverage our agency as worker participants in various systems of productions can create significant shifts.

Entrepreneurship, opportunity for historically marginalized groups, and culturally competent services and products are also impacted by consumer habits and in turn, can help to forge better communities for all. This is work of Consumer Science but also resonates across our other focus areas of study.

Being a consumer is one of the most impactful roles we play on a day-to-day basis but is a role that often goes under-examined. Thanks to faculty and students throughout SoHE’s Centers of Excellence, we will continue to gain a greater understanding of our role as consumers and how we can use our power as consumers to improve ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world.

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