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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 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).


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, Babylonmarker and Ancient Rome, for example).

A great turn in consumerism arrived just before 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.

Since consumerism began, various individuals and groups have consciously sought an alternative lifestyle, such as the "simple living", "eco-conscious", and "localvore"/"buy local" 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.

While consumerism is not a new phenomenon, it has become widespread over the course of the 20th century, and particularly in recent decades.


Webster's dictionary defines Consumerism as "The movement seeking to protect and inform consumers by requiring such practices as honest packaging and advertising, product guarantees, and improved safety standards.

or alternately "The theory that a progressively greater consumption of goods is economically beneficial.". 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 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.


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 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.

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

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 Columbiamarker and epidemiologist Warren Hern of the University of Colorado at Bouldermarker, 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.

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 telephones all began to integrate into the affluent American’s everyday lifestyle. 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 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 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 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 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.

Counter arguments

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

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.

See also


Further reading

  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932. Shows how a society can be influenced by consumerism.
  • Barber, Benjamin R. (2008) Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. W. W. Norton ISBN 0393330893
  • Chin, Elizabeth (2001) Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture University of Minnesota Press ISBN 978-0816635115
  • (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)
  • (Hardcover, 246 pages)
  • Shell, Ellen Ruppel, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, New York : Penguin Press, 2009. ISBN 9781594202155
  • 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.


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