The term “consumerism” is also used to refer to the consumerist movement or consumer activism, which seeks to protect and inform consumers by requiring such practices as honest packaging and advertising, product guarantees, and improved safety standards. In this sense it is a movement or a set of policies aimed at regulating the products, services, methods, and standards of manufacturers, sellers, and advertisers in the interests of the buyer. Please see the articles consumer activism and consumer protection for more on this topic.Consumerism is a social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase goods and services in ever greater amounts. The term is often associated with criticisms of consumption starting with Thorstein Veblen or, more recently by a movement called Enoughism. 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.
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).
The term “consumerism” was first used in 1915 to refer to “advocacy of the rights and interests of consumers” (Oxford English Dictionary) but in this article the term “consumerism” refers to the sense first used in 1960, “emphasis on or preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods” (Oxford English Dictionary).
Consumerism has weak 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 (e.g. Ancient Egypt, Babylon and Ancient Rome).
A great turn in consumerism arrived just before the Industrial Revolution. In the nineteenth century, capitalist development and the industrial revolution were primarily focused on the capital goods sector and industrial infrastructure (i.e., mining, steel, oil, transportation networks, communications networks, industrial cities, financial centers, etc.).
At that time, agricultural commodities, essential consumer goods, and commercial activities had developed to an extent, but not to the same extent as other sectors. Members of the working classes worked long hours for low wages – as much as 16 hours per day, 6 days per week. Little time or money was left for consumer activities.
Further, capital goods and infrastructure were quite durable and took a long time to be used up. Henry Ford and other leaders of industry understood that mass production presupposed mass consumption. After observing the assembly lines in the meat packing industry, Frederick Winslow Taylor brought his theory of scientific management to the organization of the assembly line in other industries; this unleashed incredible productivity and reduced the costs of all commodities produced on assembly lines.
While previously the norm had been the scarcity of resources, the Industrial Revolution created an unusual economic situation. For the first time in history products were available in outstanding quantities, at outstandingly low prices, being thus available to virtually everyone. So began the era of mass consumption, the only era where the concept of consumerism is applicable.
Consumerism has long had intentional underpinnings, rather than just developing out of capitalism. As an example, Earnest Elmo Calkins noted to fellow advertising executives in 1932 that “consumer engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use”, while the domestic theorist Christine Frederick observed in 1929 that “the way to break the vicious deadlock of a low standard of living is to spend freely, and even waste creatively”.
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 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.||”|
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 car, 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 mechanism allowing people to identify like-minded individuals through the display of similar products, again utilizing aspects of status-symbolism to judgesocioeconomic status and social stratification. Some people believe relationships with a product or brand name are substitutes for healthy human relationships lacking in societies, and along with consumerism, create a cultural hegemony, and are part of a general process of social control in modern society. Critics of consumerism often point out that consumerist societies are more prone to damage the environment, contribute to global warming and use up resources at a higher rate than other societies. Dr. Jorge Majfud says that “Trying to reduce environmental pollution without reducing consumerism is like combatting drug trafficking without reducing the drug addiction.”
In 1955, economist Victor Lebow stated:
|“||“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate”.||”|
Critics of consumerism include Pope Benedict XVI, German historian Oswald Spengler (who said, “Life in America is exclusively economic in structure and lacks depth”), and French writer Georges Duhamel, who held “American materialism up as a beacon of mediocrity that threatened to eclipse French civilization”.
In an opinion segment of New Scientist magazine published in August 2009, reporter Andy Coghlan cited William Rees of the University of British Columbia and epidemiologist Warren Hern of the University of Colorado at Boulder, saying that human beings, despite considering themselves civilized thinkers, are “subconsciously still driven by an impulse for survival, domination and expansion… an impulse which now finds expression in the idea that inexorable economic growth is the answer to everything, and, given time, will redress all the world’s existing inequalities.” According to figures presented by Rees at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, human society is in a “global overshoot”, consuming 30% more material than is sustainable from the world’s resources. Rees went on to state that at present, 85 countries are exceeding their domestic “bio-capacities”, and compensate for their lack of local material by depleting the stocks of other countries, which have a material surplus due to their lower consumption.