The greatest trick capitalism ever pulled was conflating want and need.
It’s been many years since companies realised they could sell us the dream life we thought we wanted through 30-second skits of happy families around a dinner table.
It seems capitalism’s next act is to ratchet the “need” narrative up a notch and turn our wants and needs into a dependency system in which we don’t even consider the consequences of what we buy, lest – for a millisecond – we question whether we really need it at all.
Today, we have been convinced we need the highest suction vacuum cleaner to be truly happy, or our kids need someone in a factory in Coventry to have chopped up an apple for their lunchbox rather than them biting into it.
Example A – bottled water.
There are good reasons why companies produce bottled water. People impacted by natural disasters, conflicts or areas where infrastructure breaks down need access to this vital commodity. It’s a question of life or death, not just for drinking but for hygiene purposes too.
To my knowledge, the people of rural Hertfordshire have never found themselves in that situation, despite the occasional hosepipe ban, yet my local supermarket has an entire aisle dedicated to bottled water.
According to Statista, revenue in the bottled water segment is set to reach $3.69bn in 2023; the market grows annually by 7.75%. Most revenue comes from the US, where the average spend per person is estimated to hit $53.68 this year.
Example B – Meal deals
In most outlets, you pay around £4 for a meal deal. It’s a massive saving, right? Well, not really. It’s a hugely inflated way of buying a couple of slices of bread, a slop of filling, a bag of crisps or sliced-up fruit (referenced above) and a bottle of pop (or water) which costs pennies to produce.
But we feel like we’re getting one over on the supermarket/shop. There was even a story on the BBC about it a week or two ago. A woman admitted she took a drink she didn’t like every day, as it was the most expensive one on offer.
We all do it. Every day, the City’s supermarkets are full of workers getting this deal. It saves them around 4 minutes to prepare a sandwich before bedtime or in the morning, and it’s a good deal, right?
It’s marketing genius, actually.
I need to make one thing clear: I am not anti-capitalist. I (outside of this column) co-own a company that relies on making money to pay our team and keep the lights on in the office.
But I do see an issue for investors and fund managers – and it’s not just the huge amounts of plastic and packaging; both of these examples are churning into landfill, depleting resources and adding vast quantities of pollution and CO2 into the atmosphere.
When the cost of living truly bites, and people realise there’s no cavalry coming to save them in the form of energy subsidies and one-off payments, we will start to re-evaluate what we really need.
I hazard a guess this need won’t be the bottle of pop that woman buys every day and throws in the bin to get one over on Tesco.
We know money is not a finite resource for our industry – we spent a decade printing it – but for many of us mere mortals, it is, and despite fewer headlines now we’ve turned off the central heating, it’s getting tighter by the minute.
Investors in companies that have peddled the dependency dream are already finding it has an elastic limit, and retail does not provide the therapy for various crises the developed world seems to have found itself in.
Doesn’t investment in real things that matter – education, agriculture, energy – rather than trying to trick people into depending on what they don’t need and may soon not be able to afford seem a better long-term and more sustainable option? It does to me.
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