Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First

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What we consume has become a central—perhaps the central—feature of modern life. Our economies live or die by spending, we increasingly define ourselves by our possessions, and this ever-richer lifestyle has had an extraordinary impact on our planet. How have we come to live with so much stuff, and how has this changed the course of history?

In Empire of Things, Frank Trentmann unfolds the extraordinary story of our modern material world, from Renaissance Italy and late Ming China to today’s global economy. While consumption is often portrayed as a recent American export, this monumental and richly detailed account shows that it is in fact a truly international phenomenon with a much longer and more diverse history. Trentmann traces the influence of trade and empire on tastes, as formerly exotic goods like coffee, tobacco, Indian cotton and Chinese porcelain conquered the world, and explores the growing demand for home furnishings, fashionable clothes and convenience that transformed private and public life. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought department stores, credit cards and advertising, but also the rise of the ethical shopper, new generational identities and, eventually, the resurgence of the Asian consumer.

With an eye to the present and future, Frank Trentmann provides a long view on the global challenges of our relentless pursuit of more—from waste and debt to stress and inequality. A masterpiece of research and storytelling many years in the making, Empire of Things recounts the epic history of the goods that have seduced, enriched and unsettled our lives over the past six hundred years.

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About the author

Frank Trentmann is a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, and directed the £5 million Cultures of Consumption research program. His last book, Free Trade Nation, won the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize. He was educated at Hamburg University, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Harvard University. He has been the Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, as well as a visiting professor at Bielefeld University, the University of St. Gallen, the British Academy, and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. In 2014 he was awarded the Moore Distinguished Fellowship at the California Institute of Technology.

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Additional Information

Publisher
HarperCollins
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Published on
Mar 29, 2016
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Pages
880
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ISBN
9780062456335
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Features
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Language
English
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Genres
Business & Economics / Consumer Behavior
History / Social History
History / World
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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The increasing division and specialization of labor between the market and the nonmarket sector is a central stylized fact of long-run economic development. Over time, a large share of activities which had formerly been carried out by the private household itself has become replaced by market alternatives, raising at the same time the demand for consumer goods.

The neoclassical economic framework of household production theory relates the increasing demand for household technology to rising wages and opportunity costs of time: the higher the wage rate, the more costly it is to spend time in unpaid housework activities. Consumer products are thus purchased to make household production processes more efficient and to substitute capital goods for the household’s time (time substitution hypothesis). Although this hypothesis sounds plausible at first sight, it cannot capture the essential phenomena underlying the complex process of the mechanization of the home over the past 200 years. Its major weakness lies in the treatment of consumer preferences, whose explanatory potential is explicitly factored out.

Using the washing of clothes as a microcosm of household economics, this book examines long-term changes in cleanliness consumption patterns from the perspective of an evolutionary economic, psychologically informed consumer theory. Woersdorfer shows how the historical evolution of cleanliness consumption over the past 200 years is the result of the interplay of supply and demand side factors, namely, technical change in washing technology on one side and motivational driving forces and consumer learning capabilities on the other. Hence, not changing relative prices but innate consumer needs and consumer learning processes, leading to a growing understanding of how to satisfy those needs, are the essential driving forces behind the rising technological endowment of the home and the corresponding demand for household appliances.

The Evolution of Household Technology and Consumer Behavior, 1800–2000

will be of interest to researchers in the field of evolutionary economics, history of technology, economic history, innovation economics and sociology.
As the effects of the global recession linger, consumers everywhere are changing their purchasing patterns, paying greater attention to what and why they are buying, and from whom. While many feel rampant spending is hard-wired into the modern psyche and that we will be back to our wasteful ways soon enough, there are clear indications of a permanent shift in the way we shop. Even before the economic downturn, consumers' definitions of value had begun to change. People were becoming more mindful about their purchases and more attuned to the social and environmental implications of their choices.

To better understand this important evolution and its ramifications for business, Andrew Benett and Anne O'Reilly launched a groundbreaking study on the New Consumer and the escalating dissatisfaction over hyperconsumerism. Here, for the first time, is an in-depth look at the new face of the global consumer, showing that:

• A significant majority in the seven markets surveyed are deeply worried about the direction in which our consumption-obsessed society is moving. They believe people have become both physically and mentally lazy, and that, as a society, we have lost sight of what truly matters.

• Two-thirds believe they would be better off if they lived more simply, and a quarter say they would be happier if they owned fewer things.

• Half of Americans surveyed are deriving a sense of satisfaction from reducing their purchases during the downturn, and three-quarters are feeling good about cutting back on the amount of waste they create.

• A majority of Americans have no intention of going back to their old shopping patterns, even when the economy rebounds.

Now, as the consumer voice signals its changed priorities, forward-thinking companies are responding by rejecting excess and artificiality in favor of products and communications that offer authenticity, substance, and interconnectedness—all values today's more mindful consumer craves. In this book, the brand experts look at corporations as diverse as Glenmorangie and Wal-Mart to see what lessons they can offer to businesses attempting to grow in the postconsumerism era. They also spoke with corporate leaders in a variety of industries to learn how they are recasting their businesses and brands in order to prepare for the changes ahead. Through cutting-edge research and a sharp look at new industry models, Consumed provides real direction for marketers and managers.

Stuffocation is a movement manifesto for “experiential” living, a call to arms to stop accumulating stuff and start accumulating experiences, and a road map for a new way forward with the potential to transform our lives.

Reject materialism. Embrace experientialism. Live more with less.
 
Stuffocation is one of the most pressing problems of the twenty-first century. We have more stuff than we could ever need, and it isn’t making us happier. It’s bad for the planet. It’s cluttering up our homes. It’s making us stressed—and it might even be killing us.
 
A rising number of us are already turning our backs on all-you-can-get consumption. We are choosing access over ownership, and taking our business to companies like Zipcar, Spotify, and Netflix. Fed up with materialism, we are ready for a new way forward.
 
Trend forecaster James Wallman traces our obsession with stuff back to the original Mad Men, who first created desire through advertising. He interviews anthropologists studying the clutter crisis, economists searching for new ways of measuring progress, and psychologists who link stuffocation to declining well-being. And he introduces us to the innovators who are already living more consciously and with more meaning by choosing experience over stuff.
 
Experientialism does not mean giving up all of our possessions. It is a solution that is less extreme but equally fundamental. It’s about transforming what we value. Stuffocation is a paradigm-shifting look at our habits and an inspiring call for living more with less. It’s the one important book you won’t be able to live without.
 
Praise for Stuffocation
 
“The revelations come fast and furious as he asserts that acquiring ‘stuff’ is often just an easy way to ignore the tougher questions of life, dodging ‘why am I here?’ and ‘how should I live?’ for ‘will that go with the top I bought last week?’ Tart and often funny . . . [Stuffocation] will be an eye-opener for those long ago persuaded that more is better. A scintillating read that will provoke conversation (or at least closet cleaning).”—Booklist

“James Wallman deftly hits upon a major insight for our times: that acquiring ‘stuff’ and ‘things’ is not nearly as meaningful as collecting experiences. Some of the happiest days of my life were when I had nothing and lived on a houseboat. Without stuff to tie me down, I felt completely free.”—Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS and author of the New York Times bestseller Start Something That Matters
 
“A must-read . . . We think that more stuff will make us happier, but as the book nicely shows, we’re just plain wrong. A great mix of stories and science, Stuffocation reveals the downside of more, and what we can do about it.”—Jonah Berger, author of the New York Times bestseller Contagious
 
“Wallman offers a deeply important message by weaving contemporary social science into very engaging stories. Reading the book is such a pleasure that you hardly recognize you’re being told that you should change how you live your life.”—Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice
 
“With a sociologist’s eye and a storyteller’s ear, Wallman takes us on a tour of today’s experience economy from the perspective not of businesses, nor even of consumers per se, but of everyday people.”—B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, authors of The Experience Economy
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