A look at campus consumerism: ‘It’s just going to get worse’

| Contributing Writer
A person carries a tall stack of Amazon packages.

(Illustration by Tuesday Hadden/Student Life)

The increasing pressure and uncertainty present in everyday life over the past years has made it increasingly tempting to devote as little brain power as possible to mundane tasks. Any shortcut we can take to make the immediate future easier sounds like a merciful reprieve that, just for a moment, allows us to breathe. These shortcuts manifest in many different behaviors, often affecting our everyday consumption and impulsive decision-making. One of those shortcuts has been quite prevalent in the mail and receiving room for a while now. 

Eric Walker, a mail support specialist at the Hitzeman Mail Center, is more than familiar with the upward trend in online ordering on campus. Package reception on campus has dramatically increased this year from the last, but he said it wasn’t an unexpected change. 

“The amount of online ordering, as every year, has been going up exponentially,” he said. “And this year was without a doubt the most we’ve ever seen.” 

Although he was initially hesitant, Walker said he was acutely aware of how cleanly integrated into our lives online ordering has become.

“It’s funny, when Amazon started I told everybody, ‘Nobody’s going to buy stuff online. That’s just a ridiculous trend! It’s never going to work,’” he said. “And now Jeff Bezos is, what, the richest man in the world?”

Heidi Kolk, former associate director of the American Culture Studies program and an assistant professor in the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, echoed similar observations about the heightened consumerism that has assimilated into our lives, partially due to COVID.

“I think that the circumstances of the pandemic have been such that what we might call anxiety-induced consumption online, some might even call it panic buying… [has] been normalized,” Kolk said. “Some of the habits and outcomes of that system of consumption have been integrated into our daily lives in ways that are comforting to us.”

When people feel threatened or otherwise trapped by their circumstances, Kolk explained, their reliance on convenience and excess will become stronger and more difficult to break.

Whether caused by the pandemic or simply the mundane cycle of work and academics, people feeling like their options are limited “leads to two behaviors: one, people indulge [in] expensive meals out, but they also indulge in delivery. Lots and lots of delivery,” she said. 

Andrew Storch, a senior in Kolk’s course Living in a Material World, shared his thoughts about a consumption log that he and his classmates kept track of this semester. Although he did his best to find poor habits and improve them, Storch was still aware of the seemingly inescapable components of consumerism that surrounded his life.

“I really have lessened my consumption, but also am aware of how the pandemic has fueled a change in consumption that relies more heavily on online purchasing and the ease at which we can order anything so simply,” Storch wrote in an email to Student Life. 

This observation is consistent with what Kolk said she had been seeing long before the pandemic began. 

“There’s this quality of ‘unthinking default’ to these patterns,” she said. “And even when they realize that [the patterns] aren’t healthy, they aren’t good for the community, they aren’t the best idea in terms of cost, there are too many factors they feel they don’t quite control that create the circumstances of dependency on a system of convenience, proximity and instant results.”

Despite his acknowledgement of deeply ingrained habits of consumption, Storch is confident that individuals are capable of meaningful change. For Storch, the key is simply being aware of careless impulses when they are triggered.

“I think for me, as well as other people I know who were already conscious of their consumption, the pandemic enforced minimizing excess consumption and truly understanding how so much of our consumption is unnecessary,” he said.

Walker, however, isn’t optimistic about a decrease in student consumerism in the form of online ordering. While he expressed confidence in the capabilities of the mail room staff, he had a clear prediction about how the mail room’s workload will change going forward: “I think it’s just going to get worse, really,” he said. 

Related content:

Crosswords and cardboard: A day in the life of a Hitzeman student worker

Sustainability Guide 2021

You matter: Mental health and stress culture

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.