Apples to Apples: What Fruit Can Tell Us About American Consumer Culture

There’s nothing more American than apple pie… and consumerism. Joseph Cohen, a sociology researcher at Queens College, defines consumerism as the “belief that personal wellbeing and happiness depends…on the level of personal consumption” and that “the center of happiness is…material possessions.” Many other researchers, including Amitai Etzioni, have argued that consumerism is a hallmark of American life and the cause of our economic problems. 

In colonial times, the home was a place of production rather than consumption. People grew their own crops, produced their own clothing, and traded for anything they couldn’t produce themselves. But as technology began to grow and machines began to outpace human labor, consumption became easier. People had more leisure time because they could work less physically demanding jobs. In the mid-1800s, the first department store opened, a status symbol for those who could afford to spend the day shopping instead of working. Road infrastructure and the increasing construction of railroads helped to promote consumerism by decreasing import and export costs and allowing people to travel and access more retail. Soon, consumption became an embedded part of American culture.

Even as American family financial wellbeing has been falling and average individual debt has been rising over the past 30 years, household expenditures have continued to rise. In the 1980s, psychologist Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi found that when interviewing various American households, the happier families’ favorite items were often sentimental with less material value, while the unhappier families were fonder of items with more monetary value. When comparing different countries, no correlation has been between average income and happiness. Even as per capita income has tripled in America, life satisfaction levels have stayed largely stagnant.

Consumerism has been a deep-rooted part of American culture, especially since the 1950s. After WWII as the economy recovered and people started returning to their jobs and earning money, Americans were eager to spend. The American consumer was praised as a patriotic citizen. Sales of cars, TVs, and household appliances skyrocketed, as people sought to modernize their lives and fit in with the status quo. Holidays like the 4th of July, originally purely commemorative, became commercial multimillion-dollar marketing events. In 2018, retail spending in America during the Christmas holiday period topped $1 trillion, and a recent phenomenon known as the Christmas Creep (applying to other holidays like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day as well), in which merchants and retailers begin marketing holiday items increasingly earlier before the start of the actual holiday season, has continued to grow. That attitude hasn’t changed. As of July 2019, the U.S. self storage market was worth $38 billion and just keeps growing, showing our obsession with materialism

Food, too, has been affected by consumerism. As food deserts, where access to healthy food is limited, in America continue to grow, the $256 billion dollar fast food industry has also continued to see growth. It has become increasingly convenient, and cheaper, to buy processed, ready-made meals, rather than buying and preparing fresh produce, and the industry has capitalized this notion, increasing marketing and production of instant food products.

One unlikely bellwether of American consumerism is the humble apple. The ancestors of the apples we eat now would be unrecognizable after hundreds of years of selective cultivation. They originated in Kazakhstan and were originally grown not for eating but for cider. Apples are grown all throughout the continental United States, especially in Washington which has claimed the apple as the official state fruit and grows about two-thirds of all apples consumed in the United States.

After being harvested, apples can be stored for several months in controlled climates, often up to a year, before reaching grocery shelves. Commercially farmed apples are also coated in food-grade wax to prevent moisture loss and lengthen their storage time, keeping them as crisp and juicy for as long as possible. The long storage time helps maintain apple demand throughout the year, not just when they’re in season, and helps the market adapt to demand fluctuation. Consumer surveys have found that the five characteristics of apples that American consumers are interested in are sweetness, acidity, crispiness, juiciness, and hardness. The apple industry also looks for specific traits in its apple cultivars, like storage longevity and harvestability. The surprisingly high demand for premium-priced apples, like the Honeycrisp, has only continued to grow, despite the Amazon Fresh price of a single Honeycrisp being $1.35, compared to $0.76 for a single Fuji apple. Many institutions across the US have created breeding programs to try and create the next best apple, selected for all the desired characteristics.

It can take 20-30 years to breed and select a new apple variety viable enough for commercialization. In order to develop an even better apple, horticulturist Bruce Barritt lobbied the apple industry and Washington State University to create an apple breeding program in 1994. Each year, Barritt created around 10,000 unique crossbreeds of apple trees, which were then narrowed down by appearance and taste, then storage and longevity, then finally harvestability and planting. 

What resulted from Barritt’s work was the Cosmic Crisp. First bred in 1997, it didn’t hit the markets until December 2019, and was slated to be the biggest apple launch in history, even given its very own Instagram page. It is a cross between the Enterprise and the Honeycrisp, specially selected for long storage hardiness, a crisp texture, high sugar and acidity levels, and its appearance — a deep red with dots, resembling stars, across the surface, giving it its name. Given a $10 million dollar marketing budget, it was viewed as a championship of collaboration between industry and research. 

Excited by the prospects of such an amazing apple, Washington growers ordered an unprecedented 1.5 million trees, 10 times the usual amount of trees initially planted at the same stage for other apples. The Cosmic Crisp reached this milestone in just 3 years, compared to 20 years for the previous consumer favorite premium apple, the Honeycrisp. Thousands of acres of old apple trees were uprooted to make room for the Cosmic Crisp trees. Now, there are over 13 million Cosmic Crisp trees. But of course, such an increase in supply depends on strong demand in the market, a gamble, especially as apples available for the 2019 launch had to be planted in 2014. 

For older varieties of apples, growers had open access to plant any apples they wanted, causing the prices of premium varieties like Fuji and Gala dropping. Now, apple cultivars are patented and have to be licensed to growers. Because its development was funded by the Washington apple industry with a goal to specifically promote Washington-grown apples, the Cosmic Crisp (technically known as the WA 38) can be planted by anyone in Washington as long as they pay $1 per tree and a royalty of $4.75 per box. 

The surprising economics of the apple-growing industry show American consumerism at its finest. Was anyone actually unsatisfied with the apples we have now? Or are we just so obsessed with having the next greatest thing that we’re willing to spend millions and decades just for an apple that is at best marginally better than the apples we’re used to eating? Reviews from Salon and the Wall Street Journal have found it to be a pretty good apple, but not necessarily worth the extreme price. The Washington apple industry invested so much into the Cosmic Crisp. Maybe it wasn’t Steve Jobs’ Apple launch, but in the world of fruit, it was a pretty big deal. 

The Cosmic Crisp certainly fits the definition of consumerism. The fruit industry believed that Americans would pay unprecedented amounts for apples, and they weren’t wrong. Premium apples have been seeing sales gains, while traditional apple varieties haven’t. Our quality of life is unaffected by the types of apples we eat, and yet we’re still willing to shell out for a humble apple. Consumerism has reached such a basic American symbol, and apples show just how deeply rooted in our culture consumerism has become.

The series of events that has led us to spend $10 million on marketing a single type of apple has been unprecedented and, very debatably, meritorious. But maybe, the dedication shown to perfecting a single fruit with the next best already under development represents the quintessential American values of constant improvement and hard work. Somehow, the development of an apple represents the American dream — blood, sweat, and tears, mixed with a little bit of greed.

Categories: Culture

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