Consumerism and its Meanings

From Black Friday stampedes to the Great Pacific Ice Patch, consumerism has not only left a mark on society but also on the environment and even on mental wellbeing. While originally meaning "advocacy of the rights and interests of consumers", the word is now defined as

a. A doctrine advocating a continual increase in the consumption of goods as a basis for a sound economy. b. Emphasis on or preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods. (OED)

This changing progression of definitions indicates that although a force to be reckoned with, consumerism has not always been problematic. To better understand the matter, it is best to begin by exploring the origins of consumerism. Doing so will lead to to identifying a number of techniques used by industries to prompt people to consume and keep consuming. This is an important subject to tackle, as consumerism has had several impactful consequences with regards to mental health and the environment.


Humble beginnings


For the majority of human history , as well as pre-history, the human condition has entailed a scarcity of resources. Food, clothing, and tools have been crucial for people and societies to survive and prosper. The status quo began to change however, with the advent of colonialism. Production of staples such as tobacco, cotton, rice, and indigo increased drastically, with sugar revenues as much as tripling between 1748 and 1774 (Richardson, 1987). With this plethora of goods came an increase in the variety and abundance of products that were available, and following the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, supply became even more varied and plentiful. Yet there was still something missing.

The law of supply and demand means that such an increase in supply must, as a consequence, lead to a decrease in demand as the market becomes saturated. Colonialism led to Industrialism, which gave rise to means of mass production, particularly through the introduction of the assembly line by Henry Ford. Therefore, as supply continued to outgrow demand, it was obvious that consumers were not consuming enough and new approaches were needed to turn overproduction into extra profit.


Tricks of the trade

As the 20th century unfolded, industries employed advertising, planned obsolescence, and consumer psychology to remedy the lack of sales. Advertising seeks to increase consumption through branding, which is associating a product with particular qualities, which doesn't necessarily stem from the product. Therefore, an alcoholic drink will show images of people socialising and having a good time in order to take advantage of the buyers' needs as social creatures. Or an aftershave will depict a man being approached by women after wearing, showing that a person "might be deficient and lame" (Sachs) but this product will make them desirable. Another advert will exploit consumers' risk aversion by showing a woman being laughed at for wearing an outfit she has worn before instead of a new one.


While these tactics increase the likelihood that people will buy more products, this doesn't mean that they will continue to buy them. This is were planned obsolescence comes in.


Planned obsolescence means manufacturers deliberately designing products to fail prematurely or become out-of-date, often to sell another product or an upgrade... some manufacturers also restrict consumers’ ability to repair their products – by using digital locks or copyrighted software, using incompatible screws or gluing components together, or by refusing to share their repair manuals. Some add clauses to their user agreements so people (often unknowingly) agree not to fix their own products. - Consumers International

A heavy cost


As a consequence of the excessive production, consumption, and the waste that comes with them, we are now faced with increasing amounts of physical and mental health problems, not to mention the damage done to the environment. Overconsumption of advertised snacks and sugary drinks has resulted in a spread of caloric surplus, leading to ever more cases of obesity. With more dubious products such as alcohol or, as used to be the case, cigarettes, the dangers are more obvious in the form of carcinogens and physical addiction.


Consumerism moreover poses a threat to mental stability and well-being. It engenders the idea that one must have an ever renewing range of physical items to be happy. It encourages the pursuit of instant gratification instead of the pursuit of meaning. It incites people to work more on jobs they enjoy less, so they can acquire more products. It is now becoming part of human nature.


We're consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. - Fight Club

But it is not only humans who pay the price of consumerism, as the global number of consumers continues to grow, According to The World Counts, the destruction of Earth's rainforests will be complete by the end of the century. The ocean's supply of seafood will be exhausted by 2048. Not to mention that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, made up of 2.7 million metric tons of plastic, now boasts sibling garbage patches in the South Pacific, North Atlantic, and Indian oceans.


A new hope


All however is not lost. Humans are natural problem solvers, and progress towards solving this problem has a lot to do with information, cooperation, and mindfulness. If consumerism is to be tackled as an urgent and dangerous situation, then it is crucial to raise awareness by writing and discussing about the subject. Such discourse will need to be informative with regards to the machinations and techniques sellers utilise to promote products, in order to enable their targets to defend themselves. Moreover, we will need keen self-awareness to identify and prevent impulse buying or addictive consumption. Thus equipped, would-be consumers stand a fighting chance at reclaiming a sustainable lifestyle, restoring the significance of meaning instead of objects. Along the way we stand a chance of saving not the planet, which can go on with or without us, but its capacity to sustain human life.