By Sarah Begley
May 18, 2017

In the late 19th century, the economist Thorstein Veblen famously skewered members of the upper class for trying to telegraph their social status by surrounding themselves with luxury goods — a phenomenon he dubbed “conspicuous consumption.”

But Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, author of The Sum of Small Things, says a new cultural elite is on the rise: the aspirational class. These are people who aren’t necessarily rich but who share a set of views on the most socially conscious ways to spend money — for instance, driving electric cars instead of SUVs and buying only organic produce.

While these are financial choices, Currid-Halkett argues that they are driven primarily by an aspiration to be — or at least appear to be — “their version of better humans.” That’s why, for this milieu, “a $2 heirloom tomato purchased from a farmers’ market is so symbolically weighty … and a white Range Rover is not.”

This appears in the May 29, 2017 issue of TIME.

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