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Getting to the Root of Consumerism

How can we understand consumerism?

Consumerism is defined as a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. In modern times the best example of this is targeted advertising and marketing focusing on a certain target demographic to influence people to over-consume unnecessary products.

With the Industrial Revolution, what started as mass-production and revolutionising the way we manufacture commodities has now turned into overproduction, where the customer demand could never realistically meet the supply.

Overproduction has made the need for advertising almost essential for every product; this is also partially due to premature or planned obsolescence. This can be defined as companies purposefully making their product more fragile and, in theory, shortening the product's life span, but this then shortens the replacement cycle, meaning that the consumer is forced to replace the object more frequently. Companies will rely on brand loyalty, which is most visible in tech companies like Apple or Samsung; however, when the market becomes oversaturated and more competitive, a product's life span will increase.

When did it all start?

Until the early eighteenth century, the majority of the population had what we would know now as a slow lifestyle, but back then, it was the norm; everyone would live within their means and only have the basics. Despite this, in North-Western Europe, economies started to expand, and in turn, wages increased. Families who had never had extra spending money found that they could afford small luxuries, and their consumption created the start of an economic cycle: the more people spent, the more businesses grew, and the more wages rose.

Britain had the fastest, largest and newest growing industries to provide for the growing demand for goods that had been reserved for only the rich. You could have pottery and ceramics from Stoke-on-Trent, silverware from Sheffield or textiles from Manchester.

The new trends in fashion and homeware were shown in magazines, and fashion that had previously been left unchanged, now changed every year, starting what we now know as the trend cycle. Christians did not approve of the new materialistic way of life, so priests delivered sermons warning against what they had labelled vanity - a sin. This developed a new way of thinking, supported by The Fable of the Bees, a book published in 1714 by social philosopher Bernard Mandeville. This transformed the perception of the role vanity plays in a modern economy:

contemporary society is an aggregation of self-interested individuals necessarily bound to one another neither by their shared civic commitments nor their moral rectitude, but, paradoxically, by the tenuous bonds of envy, competition and exploitation.

Mandeville's theory and thesis of the book proposed that contrary to previous religious beliefs, what made countries rich and strong was shopping for pleasure, although it was dishonourable at the time. It was the consumption of gratuitous items that provided the wheel for the economic cycle to keep turning. Mandeville argued that the only way to generate wealth was to establish demand for unnecessary products, which allowed more workshops and jobs to be created.

Put simply, he proposed that a nation could be spiritually knowledgeable, intellectually polished and poor, or an idle-minded consumer, slave to capitalism and very rich. This thesis persuaded Anglophone politicians of the time and ultimately influenced the modern days way of working.

Where has this left us?

It is easy to see how this way of thinking has transformed into modern-day first-world life. For the majority of us, we accept that we live in consumer economies, and we cannot change that fact. However, we can change our thinking and how we consume (you can read here about how we can change our attitudes to fast fashion). Consumerism has a grip on most of us. It doesn't just affect fashion; we crave the instant gratification of making a luxury purchase that we wouldn't normally want or be able to afford, but this is where influencers play a big role in today's consumerist society.

Influencers are a phenomenon in comparison to what would class someone traditionally as a celebrity. They are regular people who develop their fame through the internet, which some may argue doesn't take skill or talent, however, it definitely does, but you need a completely different skill set for either one. These internet micro-celebrities can fit any niche imaginable, and there will always be a company looking for a certain target demographic that can cling to the fame of these influencers in order to promote their product, whether it be good or bad.

With influencers usually being what is essentially a one-man band, they don't have someone overlooking their actions and may sometimes slip into promoting a bad product; it could be unethical, unsustainable, or simply something that isn't good. This is where we as an audience need to be more aware of what we are purchasing and how we are being subtly influenced, so as to not buy these items that contribute to overconsumption and overproduction.


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