Will COVID-19 transform the Canadian consumer nation? Lessons from the past suggest ‘no’

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As the economic crisis of the pandemic deepens, Canadians are reducing their spending. In this piece, Dr. Donica Belisle of the University of Regina considers such reductions. She suggests that although lowered consumer levels might provide certain environmental benefits, we must nevertheless remain attentive to the deep social inequalities that underpin reduced spending.

HAS COVID-19 turned Canada into a country of urban homesteaders? Many commentators seem to think so. From news stories about resilience gardens, to pictures on social media of homemade bread, to widely shared videos about how to make one’s own mask, Canada’s online landscape is currently awash in DIY (do-it-yourself) stories. 

At the same time, reduced human activity during COVID-19 is ushering in breathing space for our over-stressed planet. In early April 2020, “daily global CO2 emissions” were 17% lower than those of April 2019. Plants and animals’ lives the world over are benefiting from reduced human activity, though it is also true, as Greenpeace Canada points out, that “residential emissions are on the rise due to … self-isolation measures.” To ensure that such developments will continue, major environmental organizations are amassing plans to guide a more sustainable world order

I too hope that we will reverse our current path toward planetary destruction. 

That said, it is difficult to predict whether major changes will take place in the consumer realm. Individual consumption is, of course, only one contributor toward environmental devastation. And yet, it is also important to understand why people are motivated to consume. Only in this way can the ‘demand’ side of what Juliet Schor and Craig Thompson call the “business-as-usual (BAU) economy” be fully comprehended.

Why Canadians go shopping

Canada in fact has a long consumer history. As I demonstrate in my book, Purchasing Power: Women and the Rise of Canadian Consumer Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2020), during the first half of the 20th century, consumption was a major force in most white, cisgender, and heterosexual women’s lives. Since most people of these strata were married and unemployed, they spent much of their time procuring the goods and services necessary for their families’ survival. 

Consumption was, however, about more than subsistence. According to many white women, wives’ and mothers’ happiness depended on what they called comforts, including jewelry, magazines, and new dresses. Many advocacy groups called for daughters, wives, and mothers to earn their own money, so that they could purchase their own things. One woman in Prince Edward Island even once related a story whereby she had visited her doctor and he had prescribed a trip into town, so that she could get dressed up, wear earrings, and escape domestic routine for a while. 

If happiness could be bought, so too could free time. The white women’s press of this period was full of praise for labour-saving devices. By buying things like vacuums, automatic washers, and coffee makers, thousands of white women hoped to save themselves from grueling domestic labour. They also hoped to be able to use their newfound time to enjoy their children, visit with friends, and contribute to their communities. 

For many affluent women in particular, consumption was further tied to status. By consuming high-status goods, many white women attempted to portray themselves as sophisticated. So important was consumption to many such women that they frequently made fun of those who made – in their views – poor consumer choices. In their opinion, to be modern was also to be a skilled consumer. In this schema, only those whose consumer tastes reflected proper consumer behaviour could be considered fully-fledged members of the white Canadian polity. 

Consumption and political activism

A final component of past Canadian consumer culture that bears attention today is what can be referred to as political consumerism. Just as many Canadians today express their political views through consumption, so did many Canadians in the past. Calls to buy locally or to purchase only Canadian-made products, for example, were prominent throughout the First World War and Great Depression. Through both buycotts – wherein only certain shops are patronized – and boycotts, many consumers of the past sought to effect reforms. 

Many consumers today are similarly making highly publicized consumer choices. Across Twitter and Facebook, politicized consumers are calling for ethical consumption. Buying locally is especially vaunted. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has recently asked Canadians to “buy Canadian.” Calls for boycotts – particularly of Amazon, which is treating its workers notoriously poorly – are ringing loudly, too.

Consumption in times of crisis

As in the past, Canada is today a nation of consumers. It is indeed difficult to survive without consumer goods. More than this, many Canadians still go shopping to seek happiness, comfort, convenience, and status. Many also continue participating in politics through consumption. By making certain consumer choices – such as buying locally or avoiding pollutants – they express their values.

At the same time, it is also true that state, business, and individual responses to COVID-19 are together reducing consumer spending. According to the CBC, Canadian “household spending fell 2.3% in the 1st quarter of 2020—the steepest quarterly drop ever reported.” Work-from-home orders have contributed to this drop. The shuttering of many businesses that cater to the public, including restaurants, movie theatres, and fitness centres, has also been influential. 

Mass layoffs and small business closures, however, are even more significant. Due to circumstances outside their control, many Canadians are now decreasing their spending – not out of choice, but out of necessity. This is not something to be celebrated. It is rather evidence of the deep and increasing material inequality that exists in this country.

A question of class

Given such hardships, the question becomes: how will the pandemic affect future consumer choices?

Upheavals in the consumer sector, particularly in the retail and service industries, suggest that some changes are coming to the way Canadians procure goods. In the grocery sector especially, online shopping is transforming the ways that Canadians shop.

It is more difficult to pinpoint how the pandemic will affect Canadians’ spending in the long term. Indeed, to understand changes in that regard, it is first important to address how the pandemic is affecting the class structure. 

Given, as we have seen, that the pandemic is increasing income inequality, it is in fact probable that while some Canadians will become increasingly economically insecure, the more privileged will continue to spend.

To help envision this future, it is useful to revisit what happened during the Great Depression. During this crisis, “one in five Canadians became dependent upon government relief for survival.” At the same time, retail sales across Canada actually went up. As I demonstrate in my book, Retail Nation, “retail sales, excluding department store sales, increased by 28.5 percent between 1930 and 1941, jumping 49.8 percent between 1933 and 1939 alone.” (During that same period, department store sales increased by 7 percent). 

It is difficult to say precisely what drove consumer spending during the 1930s. Certainly, some of this spending may have been directed toward automobiles; these comprised the fastest growing consumer sector after the First World War. Yet there is also evidence that the affluent saw the crisis as an opportunity. John David Eaton, grandson of department store magnate Timothy Eaton, remembers the Great Depression thus: “Nobody thought about money in those days because they never saw any. You could take your girl to a supper dance at the hotel for $10, and that included the bottle and a room for you and your friends to drink it in. I’m glad I grew up then.  It was a good time for everybody.” 

Hence even while the vast majority of Canadians suffered through the Depression, the affluent seized upon the opportunities it afforded.

Certainly, the 2020s are different from the 1930s. Yet there is evidence that even as some consumers are closing their wallets, others are continuing to spend. Currently the business press is making much of the increased profits that “some industries, such as those focusing on home entertainment, or dealing in essentials such as groceries,” are making. But even though some are flourishing in this new market, others are struggling and that’s where they resolve to getting business loans for some financial support.

When the pandemic ultimately ends, moreover, it is probable that the affluent will further increase their spending. Pent-up demand for automobiles, vacations, and homes may usher in a new consumer boom.

Affluence and impoverishment together in store

What is currently emerging in Canada, then, is both a widening disparity between the economically secure and the economically marginalized, and an ongoing commitment among the former to continue shopping. 

In the long term, the downward mobility experienced by those who have lost their livelihoods may well reduce overall Canadian consumer spending. 

This reduction, though, will not be something to be celebrated, even if it might provide a temporary breather for the environment. It will instead be further evidence of the deep inequalities structuring Canadian life.

(Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay)

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Dr. Donica Belisle is a social and cultural historian of northern North America. Currently she writing a book about Canadian sugar. Other publications include a book about consumer culture (Purchasing Power, UTP 2020) and an award-winning book about mass retail (Retail Nation, UBC 2011). She has also written several articles, including most recently a piece in Global Food History about fears of racial contamination within white Canadians' clean eating discourse. ​ Dr. Belisle is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Regina, which is situated on Treaty 4 lands with a presence in Treaty 6. These are the territories of the nêhiyawak, Anihšināpēk, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda, and the homeland of the Métis/Michif Nation.

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