Consumerism

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"Consumerist" redirects here. For the blog of that name, see The Consumerist.
An electronics store in a shopping mall in Jakarta (2004)

Consumerism is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. Early criticisms of consumerism are present in the works of Thorstein Veblen (1899). Veblen's subject of examination, the newly emergent middle class arising at the turn of the twentieth century,[1] comes to fruition by the end of the twentieth century through the process of globalization. In this sense, consumerism is usually considered a part of media culture.

In the domain of politics, the term "consumerism" has also been used to refer to something quite different called 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 buyer.[2]

In the domain of economics, consumerism refers to economic policies placing emphasis on consumption. In an abstract sense, it is the consideration that the free choice of consumers should strongly orient the choice 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).[3] Also this vote is not "one man, one voice", but "one dollar, one voice", which may or may not reflect the contribution of people to society.

Overall, since the end of the twentieth century, the bourgeoning of consumerism as a way of life across all domains has remade politics, economics and culture:

In the almost complete absence of other sustained macro-political and social narratives – concern about global climate change notwithstanding – the pursuit of the ‘good life’ through practices of what is known as ‘consumerism’ has become one of the dominant global social forces, cutting across differences of religion, class, gender, ethnicity and nationality. It is the other side of the dominant ideology of market globalism and is central to what Manfred Steger calls the ‘global imaginary’.[4]

Term[edit]

The term "consumerism" has several definitions.[5] These definitions may not be related to each other and confusingly, they conflict with each other.

  1. One sense of the term is to describe the efforts to support consumers' interests.[5] By the early 1970s, it was the accepted term for the field and began to be used in these ways:[5]
    1. "Consumerism" is the concept that consumers should be informed decision makers in the marketplace.[5] Practices such as product testing make consumers informed.
    2. "Consumerism" is the concept that the marketplace itself is responsible for ensuring social justice through fair economic practices.[5] Consumer protection policies and laws compel manufacturers to make products safe.
    3. "Consumerism" refers to the field of studying, regulating, or interacting with the marketplace.[5] The consumer movement is the social movement which refers to all actions and all entities within the marketplace which give consideration to the consumer.
  2. While the above definitions were being established, other people began using the term "consumerism" to mean "high levels of consumption".[5] This definition gained popularity since the 1970s and began to be used in these ways:
    1. "Consumerism" is the selfish and frivolous collecting of products, or economic materialism. In protest to this some people promote "anti-consumerism" and advocacy for simple living.[5]
    2. "Consumerism" is a force from the marketplace which destroys individuality and harms society.[5] It is related to globalization and in protest to this some people promote the "anti-globalization movement".[6]

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.[7] The ads for his book The Waste Makers prominently featured the word "consumerism" in a negative way.[7]

History[edit]

Origins[edit]

Consumerism is 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, Babylon 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[who?] 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[who?] 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[8] 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.[9][10][11][12]

Culture of consumption[edit]

Bernard Mandeville's work Fable of the Bees, which justified conspicuous consumption.

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.[13]

Josiah Wedgewood's pottery, a status symbol of consumerism in the late 18th century.

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 Wedgewood, 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.[14]

Mass-production[edit]

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.).[15] 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 his 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.[16][need quotation to verify]

Black Friday shoppers, DC USA

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".[17]

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.[18]

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.[19]

In the 21st century[edit]

McDonald's and KFC restaurants in China

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.[citation needed] This correlates with the rise of materialism,[citation needed] specifically the technological aspect: the increasing prevalence of compact disc players, digital media, personal computers, and cellular telephones. 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.”[20]

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”.[21] 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.

Criticism[edit]

Main articles: Anti-consumerism and Affluenza

Overview[edit]

Buy Nothing Day demonstration in San Francisco, November 2000

Since consumerism began, various individuals and groups have consciously sought an alternative lifestyle. These movements range on a spectrum from moderate "simple living",[22] "eco-conscious shopping",[23] and "localvore"/"buying local",[24] 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.[25]

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[26] 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.[27] Dr. Jorge Majfud says that "Trying to reduce environmental pollution without reducing consumerism is like combatting drug trafficking without reducing the drug addiction."[28]

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".[29]

Critics of consumerism include Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI,[30] German historian Oswald Spengler (who said, "Life in America is exclusively economic in structure and lacks depth"[31]), and French writer Georges Duhamel, who held "American materialism up as a beacon of mediocrity that threatened to eclipse French civilization".[31]

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."[32] 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.[32]

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.[33] Likewise, other ecological economists such as Herman Daly and Tim Jackson recognize the inherent conflict between consumer-driven consumption and planet-wide ecological degradation.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  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. ^ consumerism, answers.com
  3. ^ "Consumerism". Britannica Concise Encyclopedia Online. 2008.
  4. ^ James, Paul; Szeman, Imre (2010). Globalization and Culture, Vol. 3: Global-Local Consumption. London: Sage Publications. p. x. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Swagler, Roger (1997). "Modern Consumerism". In Brobeck, Stephen. Encyclopedia of the Consumer Movement. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio. pp. 172–173. ISBN 0874369878. , which is based on Swagler, R. (1994). "Evolution and Applications of the Term Consumerism: Theme and Variations". Journal of Consumer Affairs 28 (2): 347–360. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6606.1994.tb00856.x.  edit
  6. ^ Barber, Benjamin R. (Spring 2008). "Shrunken Sovereign: Consumerism, Globalization, and American Emptiness". World Affairs. Retrieved 23 April 2013. 
  7. ^ a b Glickman, Lawrence B. (2012). Buying power : a history of consumer activism in America (Paperback ed. ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 265. ISBN 978-0226298672. 
  8. ^ http://www.recercat.net/bitstream/handle/2072/41988/1163.pdf?sequence=1
  9. ^ Ewen, Stuart (1976, 2001). Captains of Consciousness. Basic Books. 
  10. ^ Ewen, Stuart (1982, 2000). Channels of Desire. University of Minnesota. 
  11. ^ Lears, Jackson (1994). Fables of Abundance. 
  12. ^ Ewen, Stuart (2000). PR! The Social History of Spin. 
  13. ^ Peck, Linda, "Consuming Splendor: Society and Culture in Seventeenth-Century England", Cambridge Press, 2005
  14. ^ "Coming to live in a consumer society". 
  15. ^ Ryan in Ritzer 2007, p. 701
  16. ^ Ryan in Ritzer 2007, p. 702
  17. ^ "Essay - Dawn of the Dead Mall". The Design Observer Group. 11 November 2009. Retrieved 14 February 2010. 
  18. ^ Veblen, Thorstein (2010). The Theory of the Leisure Class. 
  19. ^ Calder, Lendol Glen (1990). Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 222. ISBN 0-691-05827-X. 
  20. ^ Levine, Madeline. “Challenging the Culture of Affluence.” Independent School. 67.1 (2007): 28-36.[dead link]
  21. ^ Miller, Eric. Attracting the Affluent. Naperville, Illinois: Financial Sourcebooks, 1990.
  22. ^ 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)
  23. ^ See for example: Alan Durning, "How Much is Enough: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth" (NY: W.W. Norton, 1992)
  24. ^ 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)
  25. ^ Eisingerich, Andreas B.; Bhardwaj, Gunjan; Miyamoto, Yoshio (April 2010). "Behold the Extreme Consumers and Learn to Embrace Them". Harvard Business Review 88: Pages 30–31. 
  26. ^ "Fool Britannia". Newindpress.com. [dead link]
  27. ^ Global Climate Change and Energy CO2 Production—An International Perspective[dead link]
  28. ^ Majfud, Jorge (2009). "The Pandemic of Consumerism". UN Chronicle. Retrieved 7 January 2012. 
  29. ^ Lebow, Victor. http://hundredgoals.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/journal-of-retailing.pdf
  30. ^ Web log. 17 July 2008. http://babs22.wordpress.com/2008/07/17/australia-pope-attacks-consumerism/
  31. ^ a b Stearns, Peter. Consumerism in World History. Routledge
  32. ^ a b Coghlan, Andy. "Consumerism is 'eating the future'". Retrieved 2009-12-12. 
  33. ^ "Consumerism - Big Ideas". Retrieved 2010-04-20. 

External links[edit]