What is Luxury ?
This is the first in a series of posts about luxury goods. Today, I’ll look at the problems with outdated concepts of opulence, and explore how luxury can be reimagined for a brighter and more compassionate future.
What is luxury?
Webster’s dictionary defines luxury as:
a condition or situation of great comfort, ease, and wealth
something that is expensive and not necessary
something that is helpful or welcome and that is not usually or always available
I like this definition. Most of us can agree a little opulence adds pleasure to our lives. Luxuries are not essential to survival, but they definitely enrich our experience and bring us joy.
For example, I definitely consider my Apple Watch a luxury. Cell phones are almost a necessity these days, but the Watch is an aesthetically pleasing, useful device that makes my life easier and reduces my stress levels (I have young kids and being able to take calls on my wrist, or check messages without searching for my phone is a lifesaver). My Watch reduces my pain, gives me pleasure and improves my life overall.
What’s wrong with luxury?
Nothing! But unfortunately, when we look closely, we may find that the things we’ve been taught to see as “luxuries” are something else entirely.
It goes back to Veblen
As a whole, our society is a bit obsessed with what are known (to nerds) as Veblen goods. Veblen goods are commodities we desire simply because they’re expensive and rare. Unfortunately, these highly valued objects and experiences are frequently costly because they recall – either consciously or unconsciously, and usually in a romantic way – the wasteful and unnecessary subjugation of people, animals and the environment.
So why do we place extra value on the products of exploitation? Well, once upon a time, we probably coveted silk, cashmere, ivory, persian rugs, foie gras, and a myriad of other goods because they were pretty/cool/tasty and hard to find in a world where life was nasty, brutish and short.
But soon enough, the people trading in these goods and services discovered people were willing to pay a lot for them. Being good business people, they decided to try to make even more money.
What ensued was a spiral of cheap labour and exploitive conditions that has continued pretty much unabated to the present day. And for some reason, consumers have never really questioned this paradigm. We not only accept that the goods we desire are the product of exploitation: deep down, we actually desire them more because of it.
Times have changed. There are wonderful, superior products available to us today that don’t require nearly the outlay of resources that their predecessors did. But as consumers we find that pretty unsexy.
If something is cheap, it’s definitely not a Veblen good. It’s lack of scarcity and cost make it undesirable. A rug constructed of synthetic materials and woven by machine is less expensive, but lacks the romance of a hand-woven product. We justify our purchase by noting that our rug could be passed down for generations. We try to put out of our minds the heart-rending image of sad children in Pakistan weaving our rugs for pennies a day, but in reality it is their labour that makes these rugs expensive to purchase. And if we were honest, we’d have to admit that it is their hours of underpaid work that makes them valuable and even desirable to us (even buyers of “fair trade” goods appreciate that the time and effort required to produce them is a large part of their cachet).
Luxury must evolve
Can we reduce the harm caused by our patterns of consumption? I believe the answer is yes. But doing so demands that we critically evaluate the goods in our lives. When viewed through a more objective lens, I would argue that many traditional luxury items have been rendered both deviant and undesirable. These former “luxuries” can be dispensed with and replaced with better things. Luxury can and must evolve.
Please join me next Sunday as continue this five-part series on luxury foods and beverages derived from animals. In part 1, I will look at luxury beverages derived from animals, namely, civet coffee and mead. Part 2 will examine caviar, part 3 – foie gras, part 4 – sushi and other valuable seafood and its impact on our oceans and the series will close with a discussion of food fraud, and popular targets like manuka honey from New Zealand.