Branding Our Lives

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Everything from what we wear, to the computers and programs we use, to what we eat and the toys we give our kids is made by a large company these days. Instead of purchasing a custom computer that fits our exact needs and budget, we opt instead for an Apple laptop or a Dell workstation. Instead of learning how to make our own clothing (something that was actually very common not too long ago) we just stop off at the mall and buy the latest jacket from Gap or shirt from Abercrombie and Fitch, the same jackets and shirts being sold and worn from New York to Los Angeles.

The Brand Halo

There are a lot of reasons we live this way, handing over control of our lives to large corporations instead of doing everything ourselves. The most obvious is convenience and cost. The big companies have succeeded in getting us to alter our lifestyles to the point that we must rely on them to provide our basic needs; we simply don't have the time to cook our own food. Their sheer scale lets them produce and sell for cheaper than the local artisan.

Other less obvious reasons include brand consciousness and the perception of higher quality. There is a lot of caché associated with being seen in the latest fashions from the name brand stores. The bigger corporations give us the impression that they have better and more consistent quality than an individual craftsman as well.

But are all these assumptions true? The way I see it, any furniture-maker still in the business must be pretty passionate about his work and would certainly be able to guarantee extremely good quality in his creations.You can call him up or stop by the store whenever you need him to come fix something, instead of slogging through a big corporation's phone hotline. Of course, you'd have to actually get to know your carpenter, and I know some people are uncomfortable about that.

My Way or the Highway

I've harped on this situation before. There are about 300 million people in the United States, and the vast majority of us buy our food from a handful of stores, dress according to the dictates of Walmart's and Target's supply line budgets, and entertain ourselves with the same TV shows playing all over the country. It's a little creepy. I've run into kids wearing the same Target shirts in Minnesota and New York and California. With social media becoming more powerful, corporations like Facebook are having a very real influence on our chosen modes of interaction with others, defining our social circles and potential friends.

I'm not arguing against national pride. There is solidarity in the entire country coming together to watch the World Series. National styles and foods are a good thing. What is creepy is when there is only one interpretation of that national style or food.

I do buy clothes from big name designers, but I only buy clothes when I need to buy clothes, not when the fashion industry decides it is time to sell its newest line. It is so easy to get excited about the latest products, to look at what you already have and feel a twinge of self-pity (oh woe to me who still owns last year's shoes). Nintendo came out with a new black Wii, and I actually felt that my old Wii was inferior, even though the only difference was the case color! How ridiculous.

I find it frustrating that a big company will sell a new product as 'the best ever' only to come out the next year with a minor alteration, and say that the new one is such a huge improvement on last year's version they aren't even going to service the old one anymore. And I still fall for it. Oh! New running shoes, with a stability enhancing fan belt...hmmm, my shoes don't have that. Maybe it would make me run faster. The NY Times wrote an article on a study showing that old, generic brand running shoes are as good or better than the latest models from the running companies. I often have to remind myself that I've been fine year after year. Short of rips, I almost never buy new clothing.

What Are Your Options?

Obviously, we can't get everything from small producers or learn to make it ourselves. But it is good to remember that humans did manage to get by without all the gadgets and specialized items we have now, and are at least capable of making most of the things we need. Ask yourself how much you really need a new product you're considering buying, keeping in mind that most large companies have millions of dollars invested in convincing you that you will be morbidly unhappy if you don't buy from them. If you do need it, weight your options; must you have the latest name brand version, or can you get something used with more character, or can you even make it yourself.

I think the real radicalism in minimalism isn't so much boycotting the big corporations, but rather recognizing that we have options in how we acquire our goods and services. We can take care of ourselves. We don't need to spend all our money, and we certainly don't need profit-driven companies telling us what is good or bad for us.

Do you idolize brand name products, or ascribe unrealistic authority to companies simply because they are big? How much of your life has a brand label on it?

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