Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: consumerism from BUSINESS: The Ultimate Resource

the influence of the general public, as end users of products and services, on the way companies manufacture and sell their goods. Consumers exert considerable power over companies as organizations become more customer-focused. Demand is rising for products that are of high quality, ethically produced, well priced, and safe, and consumerism pressurizes companies to operate and produce goods and services in accordance with the public's wishes. In fact, the goals of consumerism are not at odds with those of marketing (see marketing management), as both have the end goal of pleasing the consumer. In practice, however, marketing does not always succeed, and there is still a need for legislation to back up the right of consumers to demand products that are of good quality and for consumer protection bodies that influence the commercial world on consumers’ behalf. A particular form of consumer pressure, motivated by environmental concerns, is green consumerism, which campaigns for environmentally friendly goods, services, and means of production.

Summary Article: Consumerism
From Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste

Consumerism is a way of life rooted in mass production and the marketing industry. It includes a practice where social identity and prestige are constructed, experienced, and signaled through the purchase and possession of consumer goods and services. Consumerism is fueled by easy credit and by advertising designed to create desire for commodities by associating their acquisition with valued states such as happiness, peace of mind, attractiveness, gratification, affluence, and success. Consumerism is central to an economy in which people are preoccupied with material consumption to the point where the amount of goods acquired may be far in excess of actual need. Producers of commodities in industrialized societies profit by ever-expanding consumption, but meeting this growing demand has been using up natural resources at an unsustainable rate.

At the other end of the product life cycle, consumerism includes the practice of discarding broken, out-of-fashion, and even slightly used products, making room for new acquisitions. This has resulted in a huge and rapidly moving waste stream that itself has become problematic. Most social theorists agree that contemporary consumerism began at the dawn of the 20th century and gathered momentum with an expanding middle class in Europe and North America after World War II. With modern globalization it has spread worldwide, wherever consumer products and associated images and narratives have penetrated societies whose traditional cultural economies have been disrupted by colonialist or neoliberal restructuring.

The term consumerism also has a number of more specialized meanings. In economic theory, it refers to the idea that continuously expanding mass consumption is beneficial to an economy. In a related usage, consumerism is the idea that the choices made by consumers should shape production and, by extension, the structure of the economic system as a whole. In economic policy terms, it is used to characterize policies that promote consumption. Finally, consumerism is a synonym for the modern consumer protection movement, which advocates the rights and interests of those who purchase products. In this context, consumerism promotes policies to ensure product safety, quality guarantees, and truthful advertising.

History and Significance of Consumerism

The origins of modern consumerism are linked to the invention of factory assembly lines at the turn of the 20th century. Mass production increased worker productivity to the point at which prices of consumer goods became affordable to most workers in industrially developed societies. It also created workplace and profit conditions conducive to labor union organizing. Industrial wages rose, boosting many into the new middle-class lifestyle of consumerism. In 1899, economist Thorstein Veblen identified a pattern of conspicuous consumption among middle-class people seeking to cement their social status through their consumptive behaviors. The expanded world of goods available in the industrialized world made such behavior possible.

Early in the mass consumption era, engineers began designing products in such a way that consumers would need to replace them periodically, either because they are used up or have become obsolete before wearing out. Consumerist policies promoted demand as a growth strategy in the 1950s, especially in the United States, where members of a growing middle class viewed their upward mobility in material terms, such as owning many household appliances, a single-family home, and an automobile. “Store-bought” clothing, processed foods, and manufactured chemical products acquired the glamour of modernity and high status. Attributing to such commodities the power to gratify, modernize, and uplift consumers became a common form of commodity fetishism. The novel luxury of buying such items off the shelf imbued them with special significance in the 1950s and early 1960s. This was a time when admiration for the scientifically up-to-date was a cultural norm, along with a rationale in which “second hand,” “home grown,” and “homemade” came to signify either the lingering frugality of Depression-era poverty or nostalgia for a romanticized pre-industrial past. The implicitly competitive character of consumerist status display was captured in the imperative of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Growing consumerism has been linked to other systemic changes, including the decline of mass transit, increased industrial pollution, suburban sprawl, an industrialized food system, and growing dependence on cheap fossil fuels and easily available consumer credit. By the 1970s and 1980s, rising lifestyle costs and personal debt made a two-wage-earner household common for middle-class American families.

With the rise of globalization, industrial corporations have managed to increase profits while keeping prices affordable by moving production to economically underdeveloped areas of the world where labor costs are low and regulatory regimes are lax. This has led to the decline of industrial employment in the most developed parts of the world, where nonunion service and professional jobs now predominate. Globalized communications have promoted consumerist values and lifestyles to a receptive worldwide audience aspiring to middle-class status understood in terms of material consumption. Products that facilitate media connectivity such as televisions, computers, cell phones, and other handheld devices are often among the first major purchases of such households. Using these products exposes a global population of would-be consumers to a stream of ideas, values, and images of affluent Western consumerist lifestyles, together with a steady barrage of commercial advertising specifically designed to stoke consumerist desires. This is one reason for today's high level of labor migration (both legal and illegal), as households deploy young adult members to work in parts of the world where higher wages make it possible for them to remit money and goods to increase the material living standard and social prestige of the sending family. Studies tracking worldwide buying trends have shown that by the close of the first decade of the 21st century, more than two billion people have adopted consumerist lifestyles of exchanging labor for money to buy nonessential goods such as large houses, late-model cars, and processed foods.

Critiques of Consumerism

Economic efficiencies have made mass consumption possible, but their real purpose is generating profits rather than social good. Consumerism has been widely critiqued as having detrimental effects on personal autonomy, family and community values, psychological health, household finances, social capital investment, and the natural environment. These impacts are among the hidden costs of consumerism, along with waste that is not accounted for as such. According to its critics, the consumer culture that began with providing basic conveniences and well-paying jobs has grown into an oppressive hegemony that degrades human well-being as well as the planet's ecosystems.

Critics charge that consumerism transforms the natural motivation to acquire a sufficient supply of necessities into an artificially generated and insatiable quest for things and the money to buy them, and that this transformation distorts healthy social relationships. This is said to occur, for example, when people come to judge their own and others’ personal value in terms of their buying power, a calculation that renders the poor worthless. Conspicuous consumption has become central to claiming a respectable level of social worth. This presents the marginally middle class with the difficult choice of either working extra hours in order to buy more and more esteemed goods, going into crippling debt, or doing without the status-conferring goods and suffering the consequent social inferiority. In consumerist culture, even close social relations are often mediated through spending money on non-necessities as a way of demonstrating love and acknowledging connection.

Consumers identify with their possessions and perceive them in part as representing who they are and who they aspire to be. Such displays communicate identity through richly nuanced symbolic associations of style and brand, so that consumers may quickly assess the socioeconomic and cultural status of others. The construction of one's persona through shopping choices can be thought of as a creative process. Thus, people may actively “consume” products in the sense of assimilating them to their own uses and reworking their advertised meanings into new and personally significant ones. This sort of consumption is limited by the available choices (those that producers deem most profitable) and social pressure to conform to the norms of popular culture shaped by advertisers. Some argue that keeping in step with changing fashions and sharing media-based experiences have come to occupy the place of socially integrating rituals and community engagement in less-consumerist societies.

Money cannot buy love, nor can it guarantee happiness. Psychological research shows that a strong consumerist orientation can promote unhappiness, because striving for money takes time away from the close relationships that are a foundation of happiness for most people. A number of studies have also confirmed that those who organize their lives around consumption goals that exceed their financial reach report significantly lower overall well-being as measured in quality of relationships, mood, self-esteem, and psychological problems. With real wages in decline, consumers in the early 21st century also face the frustration of exchanging precious time for money in order to buy things they no longer have time to enjoy.

The psychological critique of consumerism also argues that it interferes with the process of individuation by connecting it to media-based fantasies and advertising ideals. Many children now spend more time engaged with digital media than they do interacting directly with family members. As young consumers become more alienated from close social relationships, the self is increasingly constructed in relation to the personas portrayed in the media, rather than the real persons around them. For adults, the habit of buying things without knowing where, or how, or by whom they were made supports an infantile understanding of the significance of products they use every day. Similarly, when used products are routinely removed by garbage disposal services, consumers may just as easily shed their sense of responsibility for the consequences. To the extent that affluent consumers no longer perform for themselves activities of domestic reproduction such as cooking, laundry, repair, and child minding, they surrender self-sufficiency and competence in these basic life skills.

Critical analyses of consumerism within the field of political economy also claim profoundly negative consequences. According to them, continuous restructuring of the world economy to produce goods for those with the money to buy them at sufficiently profitable prices has resulted in greater social inequality. A disproportionate amount of the resources that are essential to all people, such as fertile land, have been diverted into the production of commonplace luxuries such as tropical fruits for temperate-zone consumers, while peasant farmers dispossessed by agro-industry go hungry. The privatization of clean-water systems in underdeveloped societies keeps the consumer class healthy, while those who can't pay are exposed to devastating waterborne illnesses. Workers with few options suffer oppressively low wages and dangerous conditions in the duty-free industrial zones of hundreds of countries to manufacture clothing, toys, and electronics products that they cannot afford to buy.

Through these kinds of processes, consumerism increases social inequalities, making the lives of some very comfortable, while making it harder for others to meet their basic needs. Social equity also suffers when resources that could be used to support the public education, nutrition, health, and housing programs essential for marginalized citizens to have a chance at a good life are used instead to produce consumer items for the affluent. A final line of political economic critique characterizes consumerism as a hegemonic form of social control by which middle-class masses are pacified and rendered less prone to resisting the disproportionate power of commercial interests in public policy and the operations of the state.

An economic system predicated on continuous expansion implies ever-growing consumption, but environmentalists argue that the current rate and methods of production, use, and disposal of consumer products are degrading the natural systems upon which all life depends. Consumerism has been linked to most of the environmental problems seen today, including water and air pollution, depletion of nonrenewable resources, unsafe and costly waste disposal, and climate change. Critics argue that the high level of fossil-fuel-powered consumerism today ensures a lower standard of living for future generations.

Anticonsumerist Alternatives

Since consumerism began, some have resisted its power by pursuing alternative lifestyles. The “hippie” youth culture of the late 1960s and 1970s rejected consumerism by embracing the values of living simply and communally and of making things by hand rather than buying them. This ethical response to the perceived excesses of consumerism encouraged people to seek gratification in caring relationships, community involvement, and closeness to nature instead of material possessions.

More recent formulations of anticonsumerism are often phrased in terms of “sustainability,” a term most often used to mean living in such a way that the living standards of future generations are not compromised. A standard adopted from Native American cultures into popular anticonsumerism is to consider the impact of decisions on others seven generations into the future. Living an anticonsumerist lifestyle today also entails practicing voluntary simplicity, such as cycling or using public transportation, even though one could afford the convenience of a personal automobile. Anticonsumerist activists today promote “community sustainability,” an ideal understood as having three interlinked components: social equity, economic security, and environmental stewardship. The politically radical version of sustainability-based thinking argues that uncritical consumerism supports oppressive political economic forces that are antithetical to an ideal of living in sustainable communities. In its green-business version, sustainability thinking emphasizes cost savings through more efficient resource use and long-term, rather than short-term, management planning.

Most 21st-century environmentalism calls for reforming consumerist practices to reduce the harmful and wasteful use of natural resources through energy conservation, product reuse and recycling, and switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. It differs from earlier anticonsumerist movements in the gravity of its stated purpose, which is urgent action to avoid catastrophic disruption of the natural systems underpinning human civilization and all life on Earth. “Green consumerism” does not challenge the profit motive of business, but seeks to use ecoconscious consumption strategies to influence how products are made and the sort of consumer choices that are available. It requires purchasers to consider the environmental impacts of all aspects of product life cycles—the supply chains, working conditions, and waste involved in its manufacturing process, packaging, transportation, use, and eventual disposal.

The practice of buying more environmentally benign products has already gained broad acceptance and become a significant market force, for example, in the case of organically produced foods that have become much more available and affordable as a result. Buy-local and eat-local movements seek not only to reduce the fossil fuel pollution associated with transportation, but also to support the economic viability of local communities. The success of such movements indicates that cultural change in consumer habits is occurring. Such change may be crucial, since identifying conventional consumerism as a threat of great magnitude leads to the conclusion that the human future depends on reshaping human's way of life into one that is sustainable within the natural limits of the Earth.

See Also

Commodification, Home Shopping, Household Consumption Patterns, Malls, Materialist Values, Overconsumption, Post-Consumer Waste, Shopping

Further Readings
  • Cross, Gary Time and Money: The Making of Consumer Culture. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Kanner, Tim and Kanner, Allen D., eds. Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004.
  • Shell, Ellen Ruppel Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.
  • Veblen, Thorstein (1899). The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1994.
  • Worldwatch Institute. State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010.
  • Tauxe, Caroline
    Le Moyne College Le Moyne College
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Consumerism
    Key Concepts in Marketing

    Consumerism refers to the shift of power away from producers and towards consumers. Consumerism has been a feature of marketing since...

    Full text Article Green Consumerism
    Encyclopedia of Environment and Society

    THERE IS SOMETHING that all of the following have in common: driving a hybrid car; eating organic and/or local food; building with certified...

    Full text Article consumerism
    International Encyclopedia of Environmental Politics

    Consumerism has both economic and socio-cultural dimensions. It is sometimes claimed that consumption has become more important than production...

    See more from Credo