Consumerism is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. Early criticism of consumerism was in the works of Thorstein Veblen in 1899, which examined the middle class emerging at the turn of the 20th century, which came to fruition by the end of the 20th century through the process of globalization.
In politics, the term "consumerism" has also been used to refer to the consumerists' movement, consumer protection 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 political 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 consumer.
In economics, "consumerism" may refer to economic policies which emphasise consumption. In an abstract sense, it is the consideration that the free choice of consumers should strongly orient the choice by manufacturers of what is produced and how, and therefore orient the economic organization of a society (compare producerism, especially in the British sense of the term). In this sense, consumerism expresses the idea not of "one man, one voice", but of "one dollar, one voice", which may or may not reflect the contribution of people to society.
The term "consumerism" has several definitions. These definitions may not be related to each other and confusingly, they conflict with each other.
- One sense of the term relates to efforts to support consumers' interests. By the early 1970s it had become the accepted term for the field and began to be used in these ways:
- "Consumerism" is the concept that consumers should be informed decision makers in the marketplace. Practices such as product testing make consumers informed.
- "Consumerism" is the concept that the marketplace itself is responsible for ensuring social justice through fair economic practices. Consumer protection policies and laws compel manufacturers to make products safe.
- "Consumerism" refers to the field of studying, regulating, or interacting with the marketplace. The consumer movement is the social movement which refers to all actions and all entities within the marketplace which give consideration to the consumer.
- While the above definitions were becoming established, other people began using the term "consumerism" to mean "high levels of consumption". This definition has gained popularity since the 1970s and began to be used in these ways:
- "Consumerism" is the selfish and frivolous collecting of products, or economic materialism. In protest against this, some people promote "anti-consumerism" and advocate simple living.
- "Consumerism" is a force from the marketplace which destroys individuality and harms society. It is related to globalization and in protest against this some people promote the "anti-globalization movement".
In a 1955 speech, John Bugas (number two at the Ford Motor Company) coined the term "consumerism" as a substitute for "capitalism" to better describe the American economy:
Bugas's definition aligned with Austrian economics founder Carl Menger's vision (in his 1871 book Principles of Economics) of consumer sovereignty, whereby consumer preferences, valuations, and choices control the economy entirely (a concept directly opposed to the Marxian perception of the capitalist economy as a system of exploitation).
Vance Packard worked to change the meaning of the term "consumerism" from a positive word about consumer practices to a negative word meaning excessive materialism and waste. The ads for his 1960 book The Waste Makers prominently featured the word "consumerism" in a negative way.
Consumerism can be sometimes used in reference to the anthropological and biological phenomena of people purchasing goods and consuming materials in excess of their basic needs, which would make it recognizable in any society including ancient civilizations (e.g. Ancient Egypt, and Ancient Rome). However, the concept of consumerism is typically used to refer to the historically specific set of relations of production and exchange that emerge from the particular social, political, cultural and technological context of late 19th and early 20th century capitalism with more visible roots in the social transformations of 16th, 17th and 18th century Europe.
The consumer society emerged in the late seventeenth century and intensified throughout the eighteenth century. While some claim that change was propelled by the growing middle-class who embraced new ideas about luxury consumption and the growing importance of fashion as an arbiter for purchasing rather than necessity, many critics argue that consumerism was a political and economic necessity for the reproduction of capitalist competition for markets and profits, while others point to the increasing political strength of international working class organizations during a rapid increase in technological productivity and decline in necessary scarcity as a catalyst to develop a consumer culture based on therapeutic entertainments, home ownership and debt. The more positive, middle-class view argues that this revolution encompassed the growth in construction of vast country estates specifically designed to cater for comfort and the increased availability of luxury goods aimed at a growing market. This included sugar, tobacco, tea and coffee; these were increasingly grown on vast plantations in the Caribbean as demand steadily rose. In particular, sugar consumption in Britain during the course of the 18th century increased by a factor of 20.
Critics argue that colonialism was indeed a driver of consumerism, but they would place the emphasis on the supply rather than the demand as the motivating factor. An increasing mass of exotic imports as well as domestic manufactures had to be consumed by the same number of people who had been consuming far less than was becoming necessary. Historically, the notion that high levels of consumption of consumer goods is the same thing as achieving success or even freedom did not pre-exist large scale capitalist production and colonial imports. That idea was produced later, more or less strategically in order to intensify consumption domestically and make resistant cultures more flexible to extend its reach.
This pattern was particularly visible in London where the gentry and prosperous merchants took up residence and created a culture of luxury and consumption that was slowly extended across the socio-economic divide. Marketplaces expanded as shopping centres, such as the New Exchange, opened in 1609 by Robert Cecil in the Strand. Shops started to become important as places for Londoners to meet and socialise and became popular destinations alongside the theatre. Restoration London also saw the growth of luxury buildings as advertisements for social position with speculative architects like Nicholas Barbon and Lionel Cranfield.
There was growth in industries like glass making and silk manufacturing, and much pamphleteering of the time was devoted to justifying private vice for luxury goods for the greater public good. This then scandalous line of thought caused great controversy with the publication of Bernard Mandeville's influential work Fable of the Bees in 1714, in which he argued that a country's prosperity ultimately lay in the self-interest of the consumer.
Advertising plays a major role in creating a consumerist society, as goods are marketed through various platforms in nearly all aspects of life, pushing the message that the viewer's life is in need of some product. Consumerism is discussed in detail in the textbook, Media in Everday Life. The authors write, "Consumerism is deeply integrated into the daily life and the visual culture of the societies in which we live, often in ways that we do not even recognize" (Smulyan 266). She continues, "Thus even products that are sold as exemplifying tradition and heritage, such as Quaker Oats cereal, are marketed through constantly changing advertising messages" (Smulyan 266). Advertising changes with the consumer in order to keep up with their target, identifying their needs and their associations of brands and products before the viewer is consciously aware. Mediums through which individuals are exposed to ads is ever changing and ever growing, as marketers are always trying to get in touch with their audience, and adapts to ways to keep attention. For example, billboards were created around the time that the automobile became prevalent in society, and they were created to provide viewers with short details about a brand or a "catch phrase" that a driver could spot, recognize, and remember (Smulyan 273). In the 21st century there is an extreme focus on technology and digitization of culture. Much of the advertising is done in cohesive campaigns through various mediums that make ignoring company messages nearly impossible. Aram Sinnreich writes about the relationship between online advertisers and publishers and how it has been strengthen by the digitization of media, as consumer's data is always being collected through their online activity (Sinnreich 3). In this way, consumers are targeted based on their searches and bombarded with information about more goods and services that they may eventually need, positioning themselves as a need rather than a want.
These trends were vastly accelerated in the 18th century, as rising prosperity and social mobility increased the number of people with disposable income for consumption. Important shifts included the marketing of goods for individuals as opposed to items for the household, and the new status of goods as status symbols, related to changes in fashion and desired for aesthetic appeal, as opposed to just their utility. The pottery inventor and entrepreneur, Josiah Wedgwood, noticed the way aristocratic fashions, themselves subject to periodic changes in direction, slowly filtered down through society. He pioneered the use of marketing techniques to influence and manipulate the direction of the prevailing tastes and preferences to cause his goods to be accepted among the aristocracy; it was only a matter of time before his goods were being rapidly bought up by the middle classes as well. His example was followed by other producers of a wide range of products and the spread and importance of consumption fashions became steadily more important.
The Industrial Revolution dramatically increased the availability of consumer goods, although it was still primarily focused on the capital goods sector and industrial infrastructure (i.e., mining, steel, oil, transportation networks, communications networks, industrial cities, financial centers, etc.). The advent of the department store represented a paradigm shift in the experience of shopping. For the first time, customers could buy an astonishing variety of goods, all in one place, and shopping became a popular leisure activity. While previously the norm had been the scarcity of resources, the Industrial era created an unprecedented economic situation. For the first time in history products were available in outstanding quantities, at outstandingly low prices, being thus available to virtually everyone in the industrialized West.
By the turn of the 20th century the average worker in Western Europe or the United States still spent approximately 80-90% of their income on food and other necessities. What was needed to propel consumerism proper, was a system of mass production and consumption, exemplified in Henry Ford, the American car manufacturer. 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.
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:
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.
Madeline Levine criticized what she saw as a large change in American culture – "a shift away from values of community, spirituality, and integrity, and toward competition, materialism and disconnection."
Businesses have realized that wealthy consumers are the most attractive targets of marketing. The upper class's tastes, lifestyles, and preferences trickle down to become the standard for all consumers. The not-so-wealthy consumers can "purchase something new that will speak of their place in the tradition of affluence". A consumer can have the instant gratification of purchasing an expensive item to improve 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 in the social hierarchy. The poor strive to imitate the wealthy and the wealthy imitate celebrities and other icons. The celebrity endorsement of products can be seen as evidence of the desire of modern consumers to purchase products partly or solely to emulate people of higher social status. This purchasing behavior may co-exist in the mind of a consumer with an image of oneself as being an individualist.
Cultural capital, the intangible social value of goods, is not solely generated by the upper class. Subcultures also manipulate the value and prevalence of certain commodities through the process of bricolage. Bricolage is the process by which mainstream products are adopted and transformed by subcultures. These items develop a function and meaning that differs from their corporate producer's intent. In many cases, commodities that have undergone bricolage often develop political meanings. For example, Doc Martens, originally marketed as workers boots, gained popularity with the punk movement and AIDs activism groups and became symbols of an individual's place in that social group. When corporate America recognized the growing popularity of Doc Martens they underwent another change in cultural meaning through counter-bricolage. The widespread sale and marketing of Doc Martens brought the boots back into the mainstream. While corporate America reaped the ever-growing profits of the increasingly expensive boot and those modeled after its style, Doc Martens lost their original political association. Mainstream consumers used Doc Martens and similar items to create an "individualized" sense identity by appropriating statement items from subcultures they admired.
Since consumerism began, various individuals and groups have consciously sought an alternative lifestyle. These movements range on a spectrum from moderate "simple living", "eco-conscious shopping", and "localvore"/"buying local", to Freeganism on the extreme end. Building on these movements, ecological economics is a discipline which addresses the macro-economic, social and ecological implications of a primarily consumer-driven economy.
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. Consumerism can take extreme forms such that consumers sacrifice significant time and income not only to purchase but also to actively support a certain firm or brand.
Opponents of consumerism argue that many luxuries and unnecessary consumer products may act as a social mechanism 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 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:
Critics of consumerism include Pope Emeritus 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.
Furthermore, some theorists are concerned with the place commodity takes in the definition of one's self. Media theorists Straut Ewen coined the term "commodity self" to describe an identity built by the goods we consume. For example, people often identify as PC or Mac users, or define themselves as a Coke drinker rather than Pepsi. The ability to choose one product out an apparent mass of others allows a person to build a sense "unique" individuality, despite the prevalence of Mac users or the nearly identical tastes of Coke and Pepsi. By owning a product from a certain brand, one's ownership becomes a vehicle of presenting an identity that is associated with the attitude of the brand. The idea of individual choice is exploited by corporations that claim to sell "uniqueness" and the building blocks of an identity. The invention of the commodity self is a driving force of consumerist societies, preying upon the deep human need to build a sense of self.
Not all anti-consumerists oppose consumption in itself, but they argue against increasing the consumption of resources beyond what is environmentally sustainable. Jonathan Porritt writes that consumers are often unaware of the negative environmental impacts of producing many modern goods and services, and that the extensive advertising industry only serves to reinforce increasing consumption. Likewise, other ecological economists such as Herman Daly and Tim Jackson recognize the inherent conflict between consumer-driven consumption and planet-wide ecological degradation.
In the 21st century's globalized economy, consumerism has become a noticeable part of the culture. Critics of the phenomenon not only criticized it against what is not environmentally sustainable, but also the spread of consumerism in cultural aspects. Leslie Sklair proposes the criticism through the idea of culture-ideology of consumerism in his works. He says that,
As of today, people are exposed to mass consumerism and product placement in the media or even in their daily lives. The line between information, entertainment, and promotion of products has been blurred so people are more reformulated into consumerist behaviour. Shopping centers are a representative example of a place where people are explicitly exposed to an environment that welcomes and encourages consumption. Goss says that the shopping center designers "strive to present an alternative rationale for the shopping center's existence, manipulate shoppers' behavior through the configuration of space, and consciously design a symbolic landscape that provokes associative moods and dispositions in the shopper".
The success of the consumerist cultural ideology can be witnessed all around the world. People rush to the mall to buy products and end up spending money with their credit cards, thus locking themselves into the financial system of capitalist globalization.