The Center for Global Awareness is releasing our 6th book this summer: Connecting the Roots of a Holistic System: The Global Economy, A Brief Edition. The book is for students in grades 9-12 and non-economic major undergraduate students. To celebrate this event we are publishing a series of blogs this summer that summarize the essence of one of the chapters in the book: The Impact of Neoliberalism in the United States: Ten Consequences. We hope you follow and enjoy the blog series! The following blog is the fourth in the series.
Impact #4: Increased Commodification
Have you ever gone to a Starbucks and purchased a coffee product that cost you $5 (US) or more? If you are a person earning minimum wage, you could easily spend an hour’s pay on your coffee. During the mid-1960s, I remember my father, a World War II veteran, going to a nearby diner’s lunch counter and getting a cup of coffee for 10 cents, and it was refillable! In fact, the diner advertised that it had “Bottomless Coffee Cups.” But he didn’t have a choice of a latte or cappuccino; it was just regular coffee served in a ceramic cup and saucer. What happened? How did coffee become so expensive? Coffee has been commodified.
Commodification is a big word for impact #4. It comes from the word commodity, which in economics means an exchangeable unit of economic wealth, like a primary product or raw material. I like to use the word because it shows a part of capitalism that has expanded with neoliberalism. Commodification is turning something with little or no economic value into a product or service that has a particular value or a higher monetary value. In the example above, coffee is a commodity. Although coffee was a commodity in the 1960s, its value has increased today because of added marketing value. In the case of Starbucks, through clever advertising and enhancing the taste, Starbucks turned a low value commodity into a high value one that has led to a greater profit margin. Commodification is everywhere.
Commodification changes things, concepts, activities, services, events, ideas, products, relationships, labor, identities, and even people into products that are for sale. It even includes relationships, which were formerly not commercial, into relationships that have an exchange value. For example, companies such as E-harmony have turned the dating experience into a commodity which connects single people together for a fee. Since capitalism needs to constantly grow, commodification is one way to create new products and services that add economic value. Corporations and entrepreneurs are continually searching for goods, ideas, services and even individuals that they can turn into commodities.
Commodification is not necessarily bad but it has grown since the 1980s; nothing escapes its reach. The following is a list of just a few of the many arenas of commodification since the 1980s. Some of these are services that the family or neighbors used to provide for free or very little money, but are now commodities. I am sure you can think of more.
Commodification has hit weddings. Several decades ago most weddings were low budget affairs, with the reception held in a church basement, with cake and punch, mints if you were lucky. Today many weddings are extravagant affairs that even necessitate a costly wedding planner. Costs skyrocket upward into thousands of dollars. Or some couples choose a pre-packaged wedding in Las Vegas, Nevada, or on a Caribbean Island. My son and daughter-in-law chose to skip the hassle of a big wedding and instead, they and another couple wed at a resort in Jamaica. They had a lot of fun, and it was relatively easy. But I missed attending their wedding. My daughter and her husband, on the other hand, decided to have a medium-sized wedding, but to save money they did much of the planning and work themselves. It was a lot of work, but it did have a personal touch that made it truly their own. They were able to do it by making their family and friends work! A “crew” of us put together the wedding programs, arranged the flowers, shined the glasses, hauled supplies, cleaned up, and even set up tables. It was fun, though.
The majority of women just a generation or two ago – especially those with young children – were not in the full-time paid work force. Their labor was mainly at home taking care of family and home and perhaps taking in some part-time work here and there. In other words, their labor was not commodified.
The following story of my mother tells of women’s typical non-commodified labor prior to the 1970s. My mother was a stay-at-home mom in the 1950s and 1960s, although she also did part-time accounting and other clerical tasks for my father’s home construction business. She did all the cooking, washing, ironing, cleaning, gardening, shopping, caring for my sister and me, and helping with the care and transportation of elderly relatives. She was also involved in the school, the Parent Teacher’s Association (PTA), Brownies, 4-H, League of Women Voters, and other activities. She was always busy and took pride in her activities. One of the most time consuming tasks that my mother performed was making family meals and shopping for food. We rarely ate out at restaurants, nor did we have take-out meals; our meals were nutritious and home-cooked – three times a day.
We find today that a full-time working woman is unable to carry out all these time-consuming tasks as my mother did generations ago. Since the 1970s, women have increasingly been entering the paid work force, which means commodification has stepped in to fill the void of women’s unpaid labor services with comparable services that private business now performs for a market price. One is the family meal. Food is a commodity unless you grow your own, but the labor at home to transform the food into meals is unpaid.
Another task that women (it was usually women) performed at home was the care of children and elderly parents or relatives. I felt I was lucky to be able to partially care for my children at home before they reached school age, although many times I needed day-care services, and other family members helped out when I was teaching. Although parents still perform most childcare, there is a demand for day care for children either at home through the employment of nannies, through informal arrangements with relatives, neighbors or friends, or through for-profit day care corporations.
Bottled water is an example of the commodification of a previously free resource. An increasing share of the bottled water sold in the U.S is coming from municipal water supplies. Categorized as “purified” by the bottled water industry, bottling companies purchase municipal tap water, put it through a filtration process, bottle it and then sell it back to consumers for hundreds to thousands of times the cost. The bottled water trend in reality is a marketing gimmick that has fooled consumers into believing that water in little plastic bottles and priced 200 times higher than tap water is somehow healthier. Bottled water, however, generates over 20 billion plastic bottles added to landfills annually.
I am now part of the commodification craze. Even though we are a non-profit, the Center for Global Awareness sells educational books and resources about world history, global issues, and cross cultural topics. I have commodified my ideas and put them into books that we sell in the marketplace. None of us can escape commodification.
- What forms of commodification do you encounter in your daily life? Are they beneficial or detrimental to your life?