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Consumerism is the equation of personal happiness with consumption and the purchase of material possessions.

The term is often associated with criticisms of consumption starting with Thorstein Veblen.

Veblen's subject of examination, the newly emergent middle class arising at the turn of the twentieth century, comes to full fruition by the end of the twentieth century through the process of globalization.[1]

In economics, consumerism refers to economic policies placing emphasis on consumption. In an abstract sense, it is the belief that the free choice of consumers should dictate the economic structure of a society (cf. Producerism, especially in the British sense of the term).[citation needed]


[edit] History

Consumerism has strong links with the Western world, but is in fact an international phenomenon. People purchasing goods and consuming materials in excess of their basic needs is as old as the first civilizations (see Ancient Egypt, Babylon and Ancient Rome, for example).

The great turn in consumerism arrived with the Industrial Revolution. While before the norm had been the scarcity of resources, The Industrial Revolution created an unusual situation: for the first time in history products were available in outstanding quantities, at outstandingly low prices, being thus available to virtually everyone. And so began the era of Mass Consumption, the only era where the concept of consumerism is applicable.

It's still good to keep in mind that since consumerism began, various individuals and groups have consciously sought an alternative lifestyle, such as the "simple living,"[2] "eco-conscious,"[3] and "localvore"/"buy local"[4] movements.

Consumerism, the promotion of consumer rights and protection. Subject to the doctrine of caveat emptor (Latin, “let the buyer beware”)

The older term and concept of "conspicuous consumption" originated at the turn of the 20th century in the writings of sociologist and economist, Thorstein Veblen. The term describes an apparently irrational and confounding form of economic behaviour. Veblen's scathing proposal that this unnecessary consumption is a form of status display is made in darkly humorous observations like the following:

"It is true of dress in even a higher degree than of most other items of consumption, that people will undergo a very considerable degree of privation in the comforts or the necessaries of life in order to afford what is considered a decent amount of wasteful consumption; so that it is by no means an uncommon occurrence, in an inclement climate, for people to go ill clad in order to appear well dressed." (The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899).

The term "conspicuous consumption" spread to describe consumerism in the United States in the 1960s, but was soon linked to debates about media theory, culture jamming, and its corollary productivism.

By 1920 most people [Americans] had experimented with occasional installment buying.[5]

While consumerism is not a new phenomenon, it has become widespread over the course of the 20th century,[citation needed] and particularly in recent decades. The influence of neoliberal capitalism has made the citizens of capitalist countries extraordinarily wealthy compared to those living under other economic systems.[citation needed]

[edit] Usage

Webster's dictionary defines Consumerism as "the promotion of the consumer's interests" or alternately "the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable". It is thus the opposite of anti-consumerism or of producerism.

  • Anti-consumerism is the socio-political movement against consumerism. In this meaning, consumerism is the equating of personal happiness with the purchasing material possessions and consumption.
  • In relation to producerism, it is the belief that the free choice of consumers should dictate the economic structure of a society, rather than the interests of producers. It can also refer to economic policies that place an emphasis on consumption.

[edit] Criticism

In many critical contexts, consumerism is used to describe the tendency of people to identify strongly with products or services they consume, especially those with commercial brand names and perceived status-symbolism appeal, e.g. a luxury automobile, designer clothing, or expensive jewelry. A culture that is permeated by consumerism can be referred to as a consumer culture or a market culture.

Opponents of consumerism argue that many luxuries and unnecessary consumer products may act as social signals allowing people to identify like-minded individuals through the display of similar products, again utilizing aspects of status-symbolism to judge socioeconomic status and social stratification. Some believe relationships with a product or brand name are substitutes for healthy human relationships lacking in societies and along with consumerism are part of the general process of social control[6] and cultural hegemony, or social controls in modern society. Critics of consumerism are quick to point out that consumerist societies are more prone to damage the environment, contribute to climate change and use up resources at a higher rate than other societies.[7]

In a capitalistic market aimed at selling, certain trends may emerge:

It is in the interest of product advertisers and marketers that the consumer's needs and desires never be completely or permanently fulfilled, so the consumer can repeat the consumption process and purchase more products.

Made-To-Break products are more beneficial to the producer, marketer and thus the entire market, creating the culture of consumerism. Thus, planned obsolescence is embedded in the manufacturing and marketing process of new goods and services.

It is even more beneficial for the product to be part of a continuously changing fashion market, where items that are new, in good condition, and can last for many years are deemed at need of constant replacement by a conditioned buyer in order to keep in synch with current trends as they are marketed to the consumer's social class and various income level.

In this way steady profits are assured for the self-perpetuating system, but consumers are not comfortable or satisfied for a sustainable length of time with what they own.

[edit] Modern Consumerism in the 21st century

Beginning in the 1990s the most frequent reason given for attending college had changed to making a lot of money, outranking reasons such as becoming an authority in a field or helping others in difficulty. This statement directly correlates with the rise of materialism, specifically the technological aspect. At this time compact disc players, digital media, personal computers, and cellular phones, all began to integrate into the affluent American’s everyday lifestyle. Madeline Levine, criticized what she saw as a large change in American culture has subsequently occurred – “a shift away from values of community, spirituality, and integrity, and toward competition, materialism and disconnection.” [8]

Companies and corporations have realized that rich consumers are the most attractive targets for marketing their products. The upper class' tastes, lifestyles, and preferences, trickle down to become the standard which all consumers seek to emulate. The not so well off consumers can “purchase something new that will speak of their place in the tradition of affluence” [9]. A consumer can have the instant gratification of purchasing a high-ticket item that will help improve their social status.

Emulation is also a core component of 21st century consumerism. As a general trend, regular consumers seek to emulate those who are above them on the social hierarchy. The poor strive to imitate the rich and the rich imitate celebrities and other icons. One needs to look no further than the celebrity endorsement of products to dissuade the notion that the American population makes its own decisions and models itself as a group of individualists.

[edit] Counter arguments

There has always been strong criticism of the anti-consumerist movement. Most of this comes from libertarian thought.[10]

Libertarian criticisms of the anti-consumerist movement are largely based on the perception that it leads to elitism. Namely, libertarians believe that no person should have the right to decide for others what goods are necessary for living and which aren't, or that luxuries are necessarily wasteful, and thus argue that anti-consumerism is a precursor to central planning or a totalitarian society. Twitchell, in his book Living It Up, sarcastically remarked that the logical outcome of the anti-consumerism movement would be a return to the sumptuary laws that existed in ancient Rome and during the Middle Ages, historical periods prior to the era of Karl Marx in the 19th century.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Veblen, Thorstein (1899): The Theory of the Leisure Class: an economic study of institutions, Dover Publications, Mineola, N.Y., 1994, ISBN 0-486-28062-4. (also available: Project Gutenberg e-text)
  2. ^ See for example: Janet Luhrs's "The Simple Living Guide" (NY: Broadway Books, 1997); Joe Dominquez, Vicki Robin et al, "Your Money or Your Life" (NY: Penguin Group USA, 2008)
  3. ^ See for example: Alan Durning, "How Much is Enough: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth" (NY: W.W. Norton, 1992)
  4. ^ See for example: Paul Roberts, "The End of Food" (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2008); Michael Shuman, "The Small-mart Revolution" (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2007)
  5. ^ Calder, Lendol Glen (1999). Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 222. ISBN 069105827X. 
  6. ^ Fool Britannia
  7. ^ Global Climate Change and Energy CO2 Production—An International Perspective
  8. ^ Levine, Madeline. “Challenging the Culture of Affluence.” Independent School. 67.1 (2007): 28-36.
  9. ^ Miller, Eric. Attracting the Affluent. Naperville, Illinois: Financial Sourcebooks, 1991.
  10. ^ A defense of consumerism, as pragmatically less lethal than religion and nationalism appears in Charles Arthur Willard Liberalism and the Problem of Knowledge: A New Rhetoric for Modern Democracy. University of Chicago Press. 1996.

[edit] Further reading


  • Barber, Benjamin R. (2008) Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. W. W. Norton ISBN-10: 0393330893
  • Chin, Elizabeth (2001) Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture University of Minnesota Press ISBN 978-0816635115
  • Cross, Gary (2000). An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won In Modern America. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-11313-7.  (Paperback, 256 pages)
  • Laermer, Richard; Simmons, Mark, Punk Marketing, New York : Harper Collins, 2007. ISBN 978-0-06-115110-1 (Review of the book by Marilyn Scrizzi, in Journal of Consumer Marketing 24(7), 2007)
  • Miller, Eric, Attracting the affluent : the first guide to America’s changing ultimate market, Naperville, Ill. : Financial Sourcebooks, 1991. ISBN 0942061233 (from the editors of Research Alert newsletter)
  • Nissanoff, Dan (2006). FutureShop: How the New Auction Culture Will Revolutionize the Way We Buy, Sell and Get the Things We Really Want. Penguin Press. ISBN 1-59420-077-7.  (Hardcover, 246 pages)
  • Veblen, Thorstein (1899): The Theory of the Leisure Class: an economic study of institutions, Dover Publications, Mineola, N.Y., 1994, ISBN 0-486-28062-4. (also available: Project Gutenberg e-text)
  • Whitaker, Jan (2006): Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class, St. Martin's Press, N.Y., ISBN 0-312-32635-1. (Hardcover, 352 pages)
  • Charles Arthur Willard Liberalism and the Problem of Knowledge: A New Rhetoric for Modern Democracy. University of Chicago Press. 1996.



  • Kalle Lasn & Bruce Grierson, Malignant Sadness, (Adbusters June/July 2000).
  • Mona Hymel, Consumerism, Advertising, and the Role of Tax Policy, 20 Virginia Tax Review 347 (2000).
  • John C. Ryan & Alan T. Durning, Stuff: The Secret Life of Everyday Things (Northwest Environmental Watch 1997).
  • Susan Strasser, A Social History of Trash, (Orion Magazine, Autumn 2000).

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