The systemic nature of cultural production implies that designed objects are made desirable (or acceptable) by tastemakers who endow objects with forms of social distinction. Social distinction highlights or diffuses status and reveals self-perceptions of consumers’ identities. In this way, design becomes a form of tastemaking, invested in the construction of identity and is therefore a form of cultural production rooted in consumption. The role of the designer in facilitating conspicuous consumption is therefore critical in the context of social distinction, cohesion and identity.
This practice is potentially unethical when cultural production is undermined as a cyclical fashionable commodity in which conspicuous consumption is utilised to indicate who is ‘in the know’. This may lead to a wasteful practice.
While conspicuous consumption may be perceived as unethical and superficial, or at least contributing to environmental and social degradation, the ethical contributions of design in this context cannot be disregarded. The aspirational nature of conspicuous consumption is evident when individuals in developing economies are pressured to indulge on aspects of consumption before their basic needs are met; the implication is that consumers in all classes and incomes have the desire to express or improve their social status (O’Cass & McEwen, 2004:29). It may be argued (following Mangold, 2014) that socially responsive design prioritises the user’s needs over the aesthetics; however the role of aesthetics in tastemaking reinforces social patterns.
Tastemakers are individuals who attained enough cultural capital to empower them to determine which new novel ideas, artefacts, or creative acts are recognised as valid and made available for cultural production at large. Their decision making has the potential to influence cultural ethics on a larger scale.
In this understanding, consumerism is explored as having the potential to be a meaningful and viable means of generating identity. It is here that the ethical responsibility of the tastemaker becomes relevant.
The paper will, through a focus on the links between consumerism and design, attempt to disrupt the perception that conspicuous consumption is a superficial practice to indicate that consumption can be an ethical practice.