Experiential Meanings of Consumption and Sustainability in Turkey

Guliz Ger, Bilkent University
ABSTRACT - This paper explores the meanings of low and high impact consumption practices in a transitional society, Turkey, and the implications of such meanings for fostering environmentally friendly practices. Drawing from a qualitative study, the author discusses if and how low impact practices can be made desirable and attractive. With a strong ethos of consumption and modernization, consumers in transitional societies associate many high impact practices with a single, AWestern@ way of the Agood life.@ The dilemma is the desirability of low impact consumption in the absence of a prevalent alternative ethos and signification of modern or AWestern@ ways.
[ to cite ]:
Guliz Ger (1999) ,"Experiential Meanings of Consumption and Sustainability in Turkey", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 276-280.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 276-280


Guliz Ger, Bilkent University


This paper explores the meanings of low and high impact consumption practices in a transitional society, Turkey, and the implications of such meanings for fostering environmentally friendly practices. Drawing from a qualitative study, the author discusses if and how low impact practices can be made desirable and attractive. With a strong ethos of consumption and modernization, consumers in transitional societies associate many high impact practices with a single, "Western" way of the "good life." The dilemma is the desirability of low impact consumption in the absence of a prevalent alternative ethos and signification of modern or "Western" ways.


Low impact consumption practices constitute a necessary, though not sufficient, part of a strategy for sustainable consumption. What consumers can and cannot do is constrained by he alternatives made available by structural conditions. Within these constraints, the task is to initiate and encourage consumption that is less resource intensive and/or less polluting, that is, has lower environmental impact than current ways of consumption. The issue is whether, to what extent, how, and why consumers actively adapt ways of life to accommodate environmental limits. For example, when do they prefer bikes and public transport to cars, low energy and low chemical washing/cleaning to high versions, organic or unprocessed foods to nonorganic or manufactured foods, and employ reuse and recycling? This paper focuses on the possibilities for sustainable low impact consumption. [The study reported here is part of a cross-cultural study with Hal Wilhite, Inge Ropke, Jeppe Laessoe, Mirjam Godskesen, Bente Halkier. The author thanks Tuba Ustuner Onder for her help in data collection and interpretation.]

Changes in daily life to ways of consumption to accommodate environmental limits have been seen to involve "green" (that is, political, ethical, and socially responsible) consumptionClow impact consumption by choice. There are two perspectives regarding the potential prevalence of such low impact consumption. One argument is that this is a way of life that masses can and will adapt if they are given informationCabout sustainability issues, impacts of their practices on the environment, and collective welfare (Kearney and De Young 1995; Th°gersen, 1994; Uusitalo 1997). The other perspective is that "green" consumption is an alternative lifestyle among a subculture of ethical consumers. Miller (1998) finds a difference between discourse and practice regarding "green" consumption. Consumers acknowledge the importance of green consumption and that they should do more of it, but they don’t do it generally, unless they are afraid that ingesting a substance would do bodily harm. Instead, they engage in a few such practices and think that they are doing their bit. Miller (1998) interprets this to be due to the contradiction between a family morality and broader environment ethics: shoppers prefer being thrifty and buying what the family likes to environment ethics.

If providing knowledge makes only a few alternative consumers more "green," a different strategic approach is needed. Proponents of sustainability must first understand the existing consumption practices, the negotiations involved in daily life, and the possibilities for low impact consumption practices, all in their cultural context. With that kind of understanding and engaging cultural as well as economic dimensions, promoters of environmental causes can potentially shape consumption: they can construct a "romance of [a sustainable] road" (see Eyerman and L÷fgren 1995), that is, rely on attractive and culturally significant symbolism to make low impact practices desirable and viable.

In that endeavor, different imagery will be differentially effective in affluent versus less affluent societies, with diverse cultural histories. As transitional societies are becoming marketized, they are turning to higher levels of consumption. Rather than "learning from the mistakes of the First World," the First World is taken as a model of consumption. The image of the #good life’ in less affluent countries is one of being a successful participant in consumption-oriented society (Ger and Belk 1996a; Shultz, Belk and Ger 1994; Sklair 1991). Transitional societies are keen to consume as much as they can, as soon as they can, and make their own mistakes. Currently, First World consumption is seen to be the primary culprit for environmental problems. But, as Wilk (1996) asks, what will the consequences on the environment be, if, with marketization and globalization, the rest of the world consumes at the current levels of the world’s most affluent nations? This study explores daily consumption patterns and what informants consider to be high and low impact consumption they and others practice in a transitional society, Turkey, and discusses the implications for "promoting" sustainability.


A qualitative study was conducted in Ankara, among sixty middle class/upscale and downscale respondents. In Turkey, there is a vast polarity and disparity in incomes and lifestyles linked to the highly unequal income distribution, 75% literacy rate, and 40% of the population being rural despite rapid urbanization. The data include interviews, journals (self-interviews), and observations in homes, work, and other public spaces. I examine how Turkish consumers end up in high and low impact consumption practices as they go about their daily lives, what these practices mean to them, and which practices they consider to be desirable and moral. These practices pertain to cleaning/washing, lighting, waste disposal, transportation, cooking, and other daily activities.


Informants generally do not consider the environmental impacts of their daily practices. Prevalence of high versus low impact practices in daily life depends mostly on income and standard of living. I discuss environmental sensibilities and several high and low impact practices, along with their experiential meanings, in the three sections below.

Environmental Awareness and Tendencies

Most informants, even the less educated, are highly aware of the issues that either the media had publicized, such as CFC, pollution, ozone layer, global warming, soil erosion, and protection of natural flora and fauna and rare species, or that advertisers and product labels made visible and warned against, such as additives. The concept of "environment" is mostly linked to cleanliness and aesthetics. The greatest concern is with "cleaning" the visible (smog, water pollution, garbage on the streets), not as much with resource depletion. Public debate concerns government regulations and involves major projects, such as tourist resorts and power plants, not individual practices. The informants hold that environmental responsibility and agency lie with the government and businesses, not themselves.

Generally the informants take their practices for granted and think that they have problems more immediate and important than the environment. Low impact practices are common only when other practices are not affordable. The view is that if one can afford a high impact practice, then it is his/her right to enjoy what s/he has earned. Comments such as "I have the money, I can afford it, I deserve it, therefore it is my right to buy/use it," or "If I have a car, why should I not use it?" and "If I can ever afford a car, I would never ride the bus anymore" are common. Yet, the discourse of being an environmentalist and using natural or "environmentally friendly" products is fashionable and better quality products are assumed to be environmental.

Illustrative High Impact Consumption Practices and Meanings

High impact practices abound among the better-off. Cars, electronics, fancy vacuum cleaners, numerous kitchen appliances, and imported and processed foods are desirable and to be bought as soon as they are affordable. For example, having a car, any car, means "becoming a gentleman" to the underpriviledged consumers. While taking his girlfriend for a ride and listening to music in his car is the fantasy of the good life for one young man, a Land Rover is for another. In Turkey, where there are 28 cars/1000people (versus 574/1000 in the USA) and where buses are regarded to be an inconvenient, crowded, unpleasant, uncomfortable, and slow means of transport for the poor people who cannot afford cars, the car is a dream of the "good life," of freedom and physical and social mobility.

Increasing interest in global (imported) and/or manufactured foods and drinks, which signify modernization and progress, industrially assured hygiene, and covenience, drive the consumption of high impact foodstuffs, limited by affordability. For middle class women, processed foods mean emancipation from chores, convenience, and efficiency. They grew up seeing their mothers making tomato paste, pickles, and jams. Now they see such practices to be old-fashioned as opposed to the modern practice of buying the ready-made paste or jam. For the poor consumers, many high impact foodstuffs, such as meat and frozen foods, are unreachable luxuries. But, some manufactured items in colorful packages are affordable and pleasurable luxuries that compensate for the lack of expensive foodstuffs. One father asserts that "I cannot have my children eat meat, but I do not let them lack any cherry drink or Coke". Cheaper processed foods provide a sense of decency and self-respect that comes from not depriving children from the good life seen on TV and among the richer kids of the neighborhood. Another force that drives buying processed foods is to have something ready at home, if nothing else, chips, snacks, cakes, and drinks (which can be kept without spoiling), in case visitors drop by. Thus, processed foods appeal to hedonism, hygiene, practicality, sociality, hospitality, modernity, wishes for luxury, emancipation, freedom, and efficiency. Media and advertising reinforces these symbolic meanings by portraying these foods as modern and fun things, and as providing convenience for the home-maker so that she can have time for the family and to do interesting things.

A final example, washing/cleaning practices, indicates the depth and intricacy of the cultural categories and significations. Using large amounts of water and cleaning chemicals, many cycles of wash, and very hot water are high impact practices. These practices come to prevail as soon as consumers can afford them, although many poorer homes do not have indoor plumbing or bathrooms and daily running hot water is a luxury even in some of the middle class homes in Turkey. While the older generation and lower middle class families have a tendency "not to waste," with a higher standard of living, the virtue of thrift gives way to enjoying abundanceCplentiful water, a great variety of cleaning products in large quantities.

Resource intensive washing seems to be driven partially by a strong concern with cleanliness and neatness. For example, global detergent producers have found that the preferred degree of whiteness, closely associated with the notion of clean laundry, was found to be "more white" in Turkey than in many other countries. Homes are cleaned frequently, from daily to once a week. The more the water and the greater amount and variety of the new chemical washing products used, the better the cleaning is perceived to be. The home is to be socially comfortable and cozy and presentable at all times. A good housewife keeps her home clean and tidy for her family as well as for her guests, not to be shamed when they have company. Friends, neighbors, and relatives can drop by any time, especially in lower or lower middle class homes, and families entertain at home frequently. There is a close association between cleanliness and aesthetics of the home. While "dirty" symbolizes poverty and backwardness, "clean" symbolizes a distance from poverty, modern civilization, respectability, religious virtue, beautification of the home, as well as hygiene. In the words of a 43 years old male,

Cleanliness mirrors a person. Cleanliness is living well, living beautifully. Cleanliness is being religious. You can tell about a lion by looking at where he sleeps. A clean person is a beautiful, good person, a person who is liked. If one is not clean, one smells, there are odors, people don’t like such odors and keep away.

In personal bathing, freely running and abundant water and water flowing all over the body are common depictions of washing. Middle classes take showers and the poor, who sometimes do not have showers or even separate bathrooms, pour water over their bodies from a large vessel. Some upscale young adults talked about relaxing under the showerfor 45 minutes. Plentiful water usage is seen to be "comfortable, free, pleasurable" ways of the youth or the well-to-do as well as more clean. Some people talked about going to hammams (Turkish bath houses) regularly in their childhood or had images of hammams. Historically, families went to hammams once a week and spent many leisurely hours there. They were spaces for bathing, relaxing, entertainment, and socializing. Water connotes pleasurable relaxation as well as cleanliness.

Hence, hospitality, sociality, aesthetics, cleanliness as a distance from poverty and a requirement of respectability, historical leisurely pleasurable bathing, luxury of plenty, not having to worry about and being able to afford to pay the water and electricity bills and to buy all the newfangled cleaning goods drive high impact washing practices up.

In sum, Turkish consumers are inclined to and strive to engage in such high impact transportation, food, and washing/cleaning practices if, or as soon as, they can afford them. These and many other high impact practices are expressions of modernity (and civilization, Westernization, progress, fashion), respectability/decency/normalcy, social mobility, distance from poverty, hospitality, sociality, pleasure, efficiency, convenience, freedom, and aesthetics.

Illustrative Low Impact Consumption Practices and Meanings

Interestingly, some low impact practices are also based on similar connotations rather than environmental sensitivity. For example, the pressure cooker. The poor as well as the rich have been using pressure cookers for over at least 30 years in Turkey and still consider it to be a modern device. Downscale families consume a lot of what they call "dry" foods: beans, lentils, chick peas. They get a regular stock of these dry foods from relatives who still live in a village. As they cannot afford meat and many other expensive foodstuffs, their meals are based mostly on dry foods. Cooking dry foods is very time- and gas-consuming, but less in the pressure cooker than in a pot. However, the pressure cooker is seen not only as something that saves time and gas but also as a device of modern technology and something that is part of a modern kitchen. Advertising and television programs reinforce the image that the pressure cooker helps the modern, practical, and caring home-maker to cook for family and guests. Neighbors discuss the weekly cooking program (which features a cook, in an upscale setting, using a pressure cooker to make many different dishes) on television sponsored by Tefal and mothers buy the heavily advertised latest Tefal models for their daughters. Furthermore, word-of-mouth about which appliances to use, which are "a must", is widespread among neighbors and friends. This example indicates several consumption symbols: family and neighborhood solidarity, idea of a modern and decent kitchen, and convenience for the time-pressured homemaker.

Another example is the new metro, which connotes contemporary urbanity (positive), modernity, Westernization, progress, speed, high-technology, fun, and cleanliness. The low impact metro is making headway against the car, which reigns as one of the most desirable objects (in Turkey, as well as in eleven other countries, see Ger and Belk 1996b) and the preferred means of transport. The metro is becoming a desirable and novel option in a few cities where metro systems are recently being constructed. It is much faster and cleaner and less crowded than the bus. Furthermore, the metro is a high-tech novelty, a spectacle. Middle aged housewives take the metro together for an afternoon outing. A maintenance man took his mother on the metro, just for fun and leisure.

As modernity becomes conventional, some consumers resort to nonindustrial ways. Despite the spreading use of manufactured foods, or because of it, unprocessed food is preferred by some as it is perceived to be the real thingCnatural, healthy, and tasty. Unprocessed items gain a nostalgia value and distinctiveness. Cuisine, preparing tasty and fresh meals, nd caring for children and family are very important in the Turkish culture. The sophisticated upscale gourmet can express his/her environmental sensitivity, devotion to family and guests, competence, creativity, and taste by using unprocessed foods and has household help to ease the chore of food preparation.

A final example is package/container reuse and recycling, both of which are partially unintentionally low impact practices. Paper is sometimes "recycled" by giving it to the poor. This is more for the purpose of helping the poor, who sell the paper in bulk, than being green. Many households save and use jars and cardboard boxes to store a variety of things and plastic bags to carry things. In the rural areas they even make toys for their children from such containers and boxes. Families and small retailers use big cans to plant flowers in and beautify their surroundings. Reusing packaging thus signals creativity and, sometimes, status, when a prestigious brand name is visible on the package or the bag. Many are careful to carry things in bags of prestigious stores. Consumers can continue to show off with containers, such as Nescafe Gold jars, after the products themselves are no longer available for display. Even for the well-to-do, reuse is acceptable and admirable because this practice is thrifty without cutting down on something or deprivation. The varied uses of different types of containers provide a means to express one’s creativity and sense of aesthetics, status, green values, and thrift.

These examples illustrate that some practices happen to be low impact more by "chance" than a green intention. They happen to be by "chance," just like the high impact practices, as consumers deal with the contradictions of their daily lives, and as they express their identity. Consumption is constitutive of identity (e.g., McCracken 1988). In this process of identity construction, consumers face tensions to be like others (normalcy) yet also different. In transitional societies they also face tensions in their attempts to face the future (modernity, progress) rather than the past (poor, rural, backwards, traditional) yet to also maintain their roots, to be religious yet modern, and to be sensible and thrifty yet also provide for the family respectably. Negotiation of identity through consumption rests on culturally constructed meanings of objects and of practices. And, for many, environment ethics plays only a minor part, if at all, in these negotiations.


Consumption is pervasive and the consumption ethos is spreading all over the world (Featherstone 1991; Ger and Belk 1996a; Miller 1995; Shultz, Belk, and Ger 1994). Global marketing, advertising, information technology, media, tourism, and the export of popular culture (MTV, computer games, television, films, comic books) turn the world into a global marketplace. Global marketing and communications not only involve the goods themselves but also alluring images, symbols, and displays of high level consumption. Such seductive images win an uncritical admiration in transitional societies, where consumers face a sudden encounter with such goods and practices (Ger 1997; Sklair 1991). In these societies, emerging out of poverty or restricted consumption, exposure to the consumption patterns of the affluent of the world is likely to lead to thoughts that "we deserve it too." Desirability of modern Western ways and the "good life" manifests itself in views such as "show us what you yourself do in the West, then it will be a fashion here too." With such a strong ethos of consumption and modernization, consumers in transitional societies tend to perceive a single, universal, "Western"/American way to modernity, progress, and the "good life." With that vision of the single way, many feel they have to catch up and reach that level. Furthermore, attempts to consume in order to reach that one and only "good lie" are legitimized as consumers draw from various ethics prevalent in their cultures to make their consumption moral (Ger and Belk 1998).

Compared to the tangibility, immediacy and urgency of this legitimized ethos of consumption, ethos of environmentalism is much weaker. If low impact practices are to spread, multiple visions of modernity and multiple ways to alternative good lives must be made salient. And if alternative practices are to be desirable enough to compete with dominant consumption practices, they must be laden with attractive symbolism. Unless the image of the low impact practices attain the attraction and allure of consumption, unless low impact consumption is seen to be joyful, exciting, fun, sociable/relational, and for transitional societies, also Western, modern, and progressive, not more than a few alternative consumers will turn to it. If so, how can such allure be created? Is it possible to make alternative visions of modernity and a good life salient and tempting?


Assuming that structural constraints to low impact practices are reduced and viable choices exist (for example, by increasing the number of transportation alternatives such as providing better public buses and a broader net of metro lines, by establishing a labelling system for organic foods, etc.), can low impact practices be made desirable? There seems to be a potential to do so. Meanings of the currently desirable consumption practices and the tensions of identity negotiation provide clues as to how to tackle this formidable task. This task would involve taking part in the construction and movement of cultural meaning (see McCracken 1988). It would involve creating dreams, myths, legends, and experiences. It would also entail incorporating arts and cultural expression into policy.

Since the ethos of environmentalism cannot compete with the consumption ethos, low impact practices should not be promoted on the basis of the goodness of being "green," collective rationality, norms, or environmental ethics. Instead, alternative visions of good (and, in transitional societies, modern) lives should be constructed, communicated, and played out (see Ger 1997). My argument is consistent with Frat and Dholakia’s (1998) suggestion that forming multiple life modes "will provide seductive examples of alternative ways of being [and that] the strategy is not to accept the current status as the playground or stage, but to construct new playgrounds" (p. 156). Constructing and putting into practice enticing alternative visions of the "good life," alternative ways of being modern (especially in transitional societies), and alternative consumption patterns provide a potential for spreading low impact practices beyond a small subculture of green consumers. This approach will have greater possibility to compete with the unitary "good life" than rejecting that dominant vision and ways of consumption.

There is a potential to construct a temptation, a "romance of [a sustainable] road" by employing popular cultureCmedia, advertising, films, comic books, MTV, computer games, fashion industries, and pop stars. Just as road movies create a romance of the car and the road (see Eyerman and L÷fgren 1995), environmental movies can create a romance, a seduction of alternative, sustainable roads. But these movies must depict action, not just ideas and information. Temptation cannot be created solely by communicating a vision, that vision must be put into practice and displayed while being practiced. That there are other ways of doing things in the West must be shown to whet the appetite. For example, some of the Danish consumption practices can provide alternative Western models (Lµss°e 1990) for transitional societies. Enlisting popular culture celebrities, who are nfluential as role models and opinion leaders, would help. A popular film star or a pop music star demonstrating how s/he engages in a particular low impact practice for herself/himself and/or for her/his children is likely to be effective. Borrowing marketers’ promotion and publicity methods, low impact practices can be inserted in films, television programs, and cartoons for kids. Borrowing from grassroots development projects (Kleymeyer 1994), creative cultural expression can be used to empower the environmental culture: by engaging people in low impact practices in a context of leisure and fun, with music, dance, participative theatre, and arts. Enticing, exciting, empowering, social, and creative alternatives that are enacted in social groups or communities will provide a potential for intentionally as well as incidentally low impact practices.

The experiential consumption meanings examined imply that they are very deeply embedded in culture and therefore very difficult to change. Cars will not cease to connote freedom and power if and when proponents of sustainability make a contribution to the movement of cultural meaning. Especially given the more powerful activities of car manufacturers and road movies. Yet, some of the desirable meanings connected to high impact practices have the potential to be transferred to low impact practices, or low impact practices can be built to convey these meanings. As Wilhite, et. al. (1996) suggest, promoters of sustainability have to find less resource intensive ways to realize the same locally significant cultural criteria that more resource intensive ways achieve. For example, for the Turkish informants, a less resource intensive way of washing/cleaning must connote cleanliness, sociality, aesthetics, and pleasure. An easier task may be to sustain and expand the existing low impact practices by reinforcing their attractive connotations, such as modernity and progress (e.g., metro), helping the poor (e.g., recycling), and distinction, sociality, children/family-orientation, aesthetics, and taste of the home-made (e.g., unprocessed foods).

Encouraging growth in a plurality of consumption patterns and images of "good lives," then, would lead to changes in experiential meanings. It is clear that encouraging plurality is a challenging, if not an overwhelming, task in societies (and in a world), in which most institutions bolster continued growth in consumption, particularly those related to the heavy commercial interests related to some of the high impact practices discussed, including cars and processed foods, to name a few. But, unless plural ways are constructed to be tempting and played out, the future is one of globally spreading high impact consumption and, thus, further environmental degradation and resource depletion.


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