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Anti-consumerism is a sociopolitical ideology opposed to consumerism, which discourages ever-growing purchasing and consumption of material possessions. Anti-consumerist activists express concern over modern corporations or organizations that pursue solely economic goals at the expense of environmental, social, or ethical concerns; these concerns overlap with those of environmental activism, anti-globalization, and animal-rights activism. One variation on this is the concept of postconsumers, who emphasize moving beyond addictive consumerism.[1]

The anti-consumerist activist movement has gained strength as a reaction to long-term problematic treatment of consumers and animals, as well as the incorporation of consumer education into school curricula. In recent years, there have been an increasing number of books, like Naomi Klein's No Logo in 2000, and films like The Corporation and Surplus, popularizing an anti-corporate ideology to the public.

Criticism of economic materialism comes primarily from two sources: religion and social activism. Some religions assert materialism interferes with connection between the individual and God or that it is inherently an immoral lifestyle. Thomas Aquinas wrote "Greed is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.". Some notable individuals, such as Francis of Assisi, Ammon Hennacy, and Mohandas Gandhi claimed spiritual inspiration led them to a simple lifestyle. Social activists state materialism is connected to crime, pollution, environmental degradation, war, economic inequality, poverty, along with general social malaise, discontent, and hedonism. Another concern is that materialism is unable to offer a raison d'être for human existence. Critics of consumerism include Pope emeritus Benedict XVI,[2] German historian Oswald Spengler (who said, "Life in America is exclusively economic in structure and lacks depth"[3]), and French writer Georges Duhamel, who held "American materialism up as a beacon of mediocrity that threatened to eclipse French civilization".[3]


Anti-consumerism is often associated with criticism of consumption, starting with Thorstein Veblen, but according to Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class consumerism can be traced back to the first human civilizations. Consumerism can also denote economic policies associated with Keynesian economics, and, in an abstract sense, refer to the belief that the free choice of consumers should dictate the economic structure of a society (cf. producerism).

Politics and society[edit]

An anti-consumerist stencil graffiti saying "Consuming consumes you"

Many anti-corporate activists believe the rise of large-business corporations poses a threat to the legitimate authority of nation states and the public sphere.[citation needed] They feel corporations are invading people's privacy, manipulating politics and governments, and creating false needs in consumers. They state evidence such as invasive advertising adware, spam, telemarketing, child-targeted advertising, aggressive guerrilla marketing, massive corporate campaign contributions in political elections, interference in the policies of sovereign nation states (Ken Saro-Wiwa), and news stories about corporate corruption (Enron, for example).[citation needed]

Anti-consumerism protesters point out that the main responsibility of a corporation is to answer only to shareholders, giving human rights and other issues almost no consideration.[citation needed] The management does have a primary responsibility to their shareholders, since any philanthropic activities that do not directly serve the business could be deemed to be a breach of trust. This sort of financial responsibility means that multi-national corporations will pursue strategies to intensify labor and reduce costs. For example, they will attempt to find low wage economies with laws which are conveniently lenient on human rights, the natural environment, trade union organization and so on (see, for example, Nike).

An important contribution to the critique of consumerism has been made by French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, arguing modern capitalism is governed by consumption rather than production, and the advertising techniques used to create consumer behaviour amount to the destruction of psychic and collective individuation. The diversion of libidinal energy toward the consumption of consumer products, he argues, results in an addictive cycle of consumption, leading to hyper consumption, the exhaustion of desire, and the reign of symbolic misery.

Critics have linked the rise of anti-consumer sentiment to Marxist and socialist ideologies. In 1999, the libertarian magazine Reason attacked anti-consumerism, claiming Marxist academics are repackaging themselves as anti-consumerists. James Twitchell, a professor at the University of Florida and popular writer, referred to anti-consumerism arguments as "Marxism Lite."[4] Similarly, philosopher Stephen Hicks[5] argues that anti-consumerist thought comes, in part, from a drastic volte face in Marxist theory: "[Marxism] presupposed that capitalism would drive the proletariat into economic misery, which capitalism had failed to do. Instead, capitalism had produced great amounts of wealth and — here is the innovation — capitalism had used that wealth to oppress the proletariat..."

Conspicuous consumption[edit]

It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly.

Trying to reduce environmental pollution without reducing consumerism is like combating drug trafficking without reducing the drug addiction.

In many critical contexts,[citation needed] the term describes the tendency of people to identify strongly with products or services they consume, especially with commercial brand names and obvious status-enhancing appeal, such as a brand of expensive automobiles or jewelry. It is a pejorative term which most people deny, having some more specific excuse or rationalization for consumption other than the idea that they are "compelled to consume". A culture that has a high amount of consumerism is referred to as a consumer culture.

To those who embrace the idea of consumerism, these products are not seen as valuable in themselves, but rather as social signals that allow them to identify like-minded people through consumption and display of similar products. Few would yet go so far, though, as to admit that their relationships with a product or brand name could be substitutes for healthy human relationships that sometimes lack in a dysfunctional modern society.

The older term conspicuous consumption described the United States in the 1960s, but was soon linked to larger debates about media influence, culture jamming, and its corollary productivism.

Anti-consumerist stencil art

The term and concept of conspicuous consumption originated at the turn of the 20th century in the writing of 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.[8]

In 1955, economist Victor Lebow stated (as quoted by William Rees, 2009):

"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".[9]

According to archaeologists, evidence of conspicuous consumption up to several millennia ago has been found, suggesting that such behavior is inherent to humans.[10]

Consumerism and advertising[edit]

Anti-consumerists believe advertising plays a huge role in human life by informing values and assumptions of the cultural system, deeming what is acceptable and determining social standards.[11] They declare that ads create a hyper-real world where commodities appear as the key to securing happiness. Anti-consumerists cite studies that find that individuals believe their quality of life improves in relation to social values that lie outside the capability of the market place. Therefore, advertising attempts to equate the social with the material by utilizing images and slogans to link commodities with the real sources of human happiness, such as meaningful relationships. Ads are then a detriment to society because they tell consumers that accumulating more and more possessions will bring them closer to self-actualization, or the concept of a complete and secure being. “The underlying message is that owning these products will enhance our image and ensure our popularity with others”.[12] And while advertising promises that a product will make the consumer happy, advertising simultaneously depends upon the consumer never being truly happy, as then the consumer would no longer feel the need to consume needless products.

Anti-consumerists claim that in a consumerist society, advertisement images disempower and objectify the consumer.[13] By stressing individual power, choice and desire, advertising falsely implies the control lies with the consumer. Because anti-consumerists believe commodities only supply short-term gratification, they detract from a sustainably happy society. Further, advertisers have resorted to new techniques of capturing attention, such as the increased speed of ads and product placements.[11] In this way, commercials infiltrate the consumerist society and become an inextricable part of culture. Anti-consumerists condemn advertising because it constructs a simulated world that offers fantastical escapism to consumers, rather than reflecting actual reality. They further argue that ads depict the interests and lifestyles of the elite as natural; cultivating a deep sense of inadequacy among viewers.[13] They denounce use of beautiful models because they glamorize the commodity beyond reach of the average individual.

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."[9] 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.

Alternatives to mainstream economic concepts[edit]

Green movements, but also thinkers from other areas, are opposed to the focus put on economics. The need for terminology has created familiar ideas such as carrying-capacity, and ecological footprint. The forces operating behind such restatements of already existing terminology within economics are less familiar and are those of a critique of the economic system as a whole. Such critique is doomed unless it has the back-up of science, in this case a science operating on the same grounds as economics. Within sociology, some sociologists side with the criticism, but on the whole it is biology that screams loudest.

David Ricardo, an early economist, had ideas that state the finitude of growth, rather than the opposite, his ideas were similar to those of Mark Twain, when he said "buy land, they don´t make it anymore". To Ricardian logic, land was a limiting factor.

The need to reformulate economics in terms that capture these issues (i.e. destruction of the land) are Ricardian type arguments. The 'scientism' presented by Michel Foucault produced within sociology to oppose controls over the individual, may well be suitable here. This means that control over economics gives control over environmental hazards. Der Risikogesellschaft (by Ulrich Beck) is the most easily detectable link between concerns of ecology/environmentalism with those of sociology. The 'epistemic communities' operating, as in the case of the so-called[doubt] climate gate reports are scientific, but also political, this being a suiting example of scientism. A historian of religion, Huston Smith states 'scientism' in similar fashion e.g. p. 101 in "The way things are" (ed. Cousineau, 2003 UCLA press). See also David Ricardo#Criticism of the Ricardian theory of trade.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Web log. 17 July 2008.
  3. ^ a b Stearns, Peter. Consumerism in World History. Routledge
  4. ^
  5. ^ Hicks, Stephen R.C. Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Tempe, AZ: Scholargy Publishing, 2004.
  6. ^ The Routledge Dictionary of Quotations, by Robert Andrews, Routledge, 1987, ISBN 0-7102-0729-8, pg 212
  7. ^ The Pandemic of Consumerism, UN Chronicle |date=2009 pg 85 [1]
  8. ^ The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899
  9. ^ a b Coghlan, Andy. "Consumerism is 'eating the future'". Archived from the original on 5 August 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-07. 
  10. ^ Renfrew, Colin; Bahn, Peter (2008). Archaeology: Theories, methods and practice (5th ed.). London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-28719-4. OCLC 181139910. 
  11. ^ a b [ Advertising and the End of the World. Dir. Sut Jhally. Perf. Sut Jhally. DVD. Media Education Foundation , 1997.]
  12. ^ [Tim Kasser, “The High Price of Materialism”, 2002, p.9, Achorn Graphic Services]
  13. ^ a b Joseph D. Rumbo, “Consumer Resistance in a World of Advertising Clutter: The Case of Adbusters”, Psychology and Marketing, Vol.19(2), February 2002


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