The Rise of the Brazilian Consumer Class

A few weeks ago, Worldwatch Institute launched the Brazilian edition of State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures—From Consumerism to Sustainability, with the help of Worldwatch Institute-Brazil and the Akatu Institute for Conscious Consumption.

I joined the press conference via video Skype, and subsequent news reports indicate that the Brazilian media paid attention—although the message they ran was a bit simple: the world consumes too much and this is unsustainable. That’s certainly true, but the deeper message—that the cultural norms that celebrate consumerism drive this consumption, and that these norms are spreading to Brazil—did not seem to get through at all. Judging from some recent news reports from Brazil, I am now starting to understand why.Let’s start with an article from the June 14 edition of Advertising Age. As Claudia Penteado explains:

“Much of Brazil’s explosive growth is being fueled by an emerging lower middle class that has grown to 95.4 million people. As they snap up cars, cell phones and new homes, this group is quickly becoming a prime target for marketers. The group, called the Clase C, earns between $600 and $2,600 a month and, through upward mobility in a growing economy, has become Brazil’s largest consumer group in a population of 192 million people.”

All this, for the average reader, is a good thing. People are earning more, spending more, buying cell phones, homes, and cars, and fueling overall economic growth, which we all know is an unquestionable positive. For Advertising Age’s audience, it’s even better news, because marketing expenditures are surely on an upward curve too. But Clase C’s spending habits show that even living with an income level of “just” $7,200 a year, the Earth cannot sustain our consumer lifestyles—a point discussed in “The Rise and Fall of Consumer Culture.”

Indeed, if all 7 billion of the world’s inhabitants lived at this income level, we couldn’t even sustain our current population, let alone the additional 2 billion people slated to arrive by 2050. And this article offers a glimpse at why. Penteado notes that car sales to Clase C grew 50 percent, that 50 percent of Samsung’s cell phone purchases are made by Clase C, and that Clase C is the large purchaser of LCD TVs (on installment of course) and “high-status” cell phones.

Considering how wonderful all this growth is, it’s not surprising that the Brazilian media isn’t tracing back the ecological devastation that this orgy of new consumer growth will have, or how it will irreparably shift cultural norms so that increasingly more time is spent in front of televisions, stuck in traffic, microwaving pre-processed frozen meals, and engaging in other socially and ecologically destructive behaviors. But perhaps looking at a starker example of the intentional spread of consumerism in Brazil will help.

NestlŽe's Mobile Nestlemarket

Nestlé—the company that is famous for its Crunch bars and its marketing of formula in developing countries leading to countless sick babies—is now bringing its hundreds of unhealthy foods directly to the heart of the Amazon forest via a riverboat supermarket.

As some, like Michele Simon, have commented, this is designed to hook a new demographic on Nestlé’s products, most of which are not healthy. And worse, Nestlé is selling the venture as an almost humanitarian action—“a service to the population of the Amazon,” as the CEO of Nestlé Brazil explains—giving these poor, isolated people access to yummy treats like ice cream and instant coffee (Really, instant coffee? In a tropical forest that can grow its own coffee beans?!?).

On the other hand, Marc Gunther, in a recent blog, defended or at least pardoned Nestlé’s actions, saying:

“And yet…to argue that Nestlé should stay out of the Amazon or sell only healthy products there is to say that we know better than the Brazilians what’s good for them. (Presumably, they are already getting plenty of fresh, locally grown vegetables.)”

Just what growing boys need…

Honestly, we do know what’s best for Brazilians—the same thing that’s best for all people: not eating packaged high-sugar, high-fat junk food. (And the corollary: Nestlé is driven only by what’s best for Nestlé: more profit.) We’ve already lost the ability to prevent this trend in the U.S., as junk food has become so central to our diet that many children no longer even know what a cauliflower is, let alone what to do with it. But this cultural shift can still be prevented or at least slowed in remote places.

Sure, Nestlé will profit if it hooks Amazonian children on Baby Ruths, and new jobs will be created—just as new jobs are created when more people become addicted to cocaine or heroin—but all this will come at the cost of ill health and significant increases in the ecological costs of producing food, all in a place that could produce most of its food locally. So while I agree with Gunter that it’s futile to discourage Nestlé from entering these new untapped markets, just as it is futile to ask marketers not to advertise to Clase C, we need—as quickly as possible—to find policy levers to prevent the consumerization of Brazil (not to mention reverse the consumerization of America), for the benefit of the Brazilian people and the planet as a whole. But I guess the good news is that what goes up must come down. And if the consumer class rises in Brazil, it’ll eventually come tumbling down—though surely not without a lot of pain and suffering in the process. Let’s hope policymakers can curb this growth before the consumer bubble floats any higher.

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