Is it right to channel youthful energy into consumerism?

By Editorial   October 6, 2017 | 09:00 am PT
The recent hype around 'expensive' bubble tea is just part of a consumerist wave that's been rising in Vietnam's biggest cities.

Bubble tea has stirred up quite a controversy in recent weeks as netizens argue whether its frequent consumption is wasteful or simply a matter of personal choice.

Last month, Swedish fast fashion brand H&M also made headlines as thousands of shoppers lined up for its first store opening in Saigon.

These are just some signs of rising consumerism in Vietnam. 

When describing professional middle class youth in Vietnam, a research paper published in 2007 in the Journal of Modern Asian Studies stated:

"The evidence that is available suggests a greater interest in consumption, leisure activities, accessing information and news, and the maintenance and achievement of social status."

Yet, "there does not seem to be a significant political identity emerging among middle class Vietnamese or an interest in mobilizing political resources, although there is some evidence of involvement in topical issues which could lead to criticism of the government position and policy."

This is, in part, due to the close relationship between members of the middle class and the Vietnamese state, the report said.

Let's be clear, Vietnamese consumers are actually the world's second most avid savers, according to Nielsen, a global information and measurement company.

During the first half of this year, 63 percent of surveyed Vietnamese shoppers said they would put their spare cash into savings. 

But over a third of respondents are also spending more on leisure activities like holidays and clothes, and they're more likely to be young, according to analysts.

With the rise of the so-called "middle and affluent class" earning $714 a month or more in Vietnam, the country "is following the global trend of standardization," said retail expert Fabrice Carrasco of Kantar Worldpanel.

"What Vietnamese want today, especially the younger generation, is to have international brands that offer modernity and a feeling of being part of the wider world," he added. 

Or as Nguyen Huong Quynh, managing director of Nielsen Vietnam, put it: "This reflects their strong desire for a better life."

This rise in spending is clearly driving growth in Vietnam's services sector. Official data shows the retail sector grew 10.2 percent in value last year, while tourism grew a whooping 16.6 percent. 

But spending-fueled growth, or consumerism, also has its costs. 

Research shows that people who place a high value on wealth and status are more depressed and anxious  than those who do not. Vietnamese, however, have consistently been ranked among world's happiest people

Consumerism could also signal less value being placed by society on heritage.

"The more people get caught up in a consumerist lifestyle, the more heritage preservation becomes a ‘luxury’ concern," said Tran Huu Khoa, a 27-year-old Vietnamese architect who petitioned to save the iconic Saigon Tax Trade Centerbut to no avail. 

"It would be impossible to expect millions of people in Saigon to concur that they need heritage sites, not shopping malls." 

And similar "destruction" can be seen in nature. 

"Rising consumption has helped meet basic needs and create jobs," Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch Institute said in a statement. "But [...] this unprecedented consumer appetite is undermining the natural systems we all depend on, and making it even harder for the world's poor to meet their basic needs."

In Vietnam, it's most visible by the piles of trash left behind on pristine beaches, and the cable cars and resorts being built by conglomerates in protected areas.

In fact, a study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology in 2015 shows that what we consume is responsible for up to 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and between 50 and 80 percent of total land, material and water use.

In the end, the question is whether they [millennials] take responsibility for how they spend, not what they buy, said Phan Tuong Yen, a lecturer in psychology at Hoa Sen University in HCMC. 

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