Consumerism is a rather new concept in the history of time, and it has grown at an exponential rate since its first appearance. Understanding consumerism and its impact upon our society and planet is becoming increasingly prevalent. To understand its importance, it’s helpful to know what consumerism is, and why it began in the first place.
Consumerism is the purchasing and marketing of goods. Most of the goods are non-essential items but are promoted as things we need in order to fit in with society. Consumerism is what drives the economy, but is also one of the leading causes of carbon emissions.
Because consumerism fuels the economy but also negatively affects the environment, how do we move forward where we receive the best of both worlds? Is it possible to imagine a society that consumes less, but isn’t stricken with poverty?
What Is Consumerism?
Consumption is what drives wealthy societies. It is the need for more “stuff” – the newest and best technology, more clothing, fast food – anything and everything we want but don’t necessarily need.
Do you believe it’s possible that we can create a world where our purchases are for the greater good of both humanity and the Earth?
Consumerism first arrived in the 1700s, when there was a rising desire for fashion, art, and material items that would show off one’s wealth. During this time, even those in poverty could make small purchases, which grew the economy and started the drive for more consumer goods. While materialism was looked down on by the Christian church, economic philosophers were starting to make the connection between consumption and economic gain.
Bernard Mandeville wrote an economic tract called “The Fable of the Bees” that showed the direct correlation between consumerism and a better society. He theorized that by purchasing more “useless” items, there will be more money for things that were needed, such as hospitals, jobs, and education. In this way, consumerism was something to help society at large, and was in some ways, encouraged.
From that time, consumerism only grew, and it has now become the framework of our society. Every day, through television, social media, ads, billboards, and the radio we are told that in order to be a certain way (happy, slim, beautiful, confident) we need to purchase a specific item. Then, and only then, we will have what we desire.
That’s the thing about materialism though, it’s never enough. When one believes that in order to be a certain way they must require this “thing,” they will consistently find themselves purchasing more and more. Unfortunately, our society thrives off of this illusion, and it is how corporations have grown to what they are now.
What Are Some Examples of Consumerism?
Consumerism is everywhere to be seen, as I believe it is more prevalent than ever. However, we can see examples and signs of it throughout recent history.
Looking back on my time in France, I remember marveling at the beauty and artistry of 18th-century castles. Although I didn’t realize it then, these impressive architectural designs were a staple of the budding consumerism taking place.
While consumerism steadily grew through the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn’t until the 1920s that consumerism shook and forever changed the foundations of society.
Consumerism in the 1920s
The 1920s in the United States was a controversial time, to say the least. Women’s roles in society were being questioned and changed like never before. More and more cries and rallies for social equality and justice for African Americans were taking place. There was a divide in society, between those in the city and those still favoring familiar ways. Amongst the societal upheaval, there was an undercurrent of consumerism and materialism that was the driving force of it all.
There was societal pressure to grow the economy, and the best way to do that was for every citizen to purchase more and more goods. Ads were popping up like never before, as well as factory jobs that provide more income for the middle-class worker. Much like Bernard Mandeville described, buying goods and useless items was a positive act a good citizen could make for a better society.
So, what was driving this mass consumption? The rise of technology and assembly line manufacturers meant more and more average Americans could buy and afford luxury items. These items included radios, TVs, automobiles, and household appliances. Once such an item was purchased, such as a radio, then ads could be listened to at home, and Americans were encouraged to continue their spending.
According to History.com:
“the nation’s total wealth more than doubled between 1920 and 1929, and this economic growth swept many Americans into an affluent but unfamiliar “consumer society”.”
Effects of Consumerism
Consumerism has wide-ranging effects on individuals, society, and the planet. The pressure to consume and the emphasis on material wealth can create disparities and encourage social divisions.
One impact of consumerism is measuring self-worth by possessing goods, which can lead to never-ending desires and discontentment. Financial strain and debt are also common consequences of consumerism, as people often feel pressured to keep up with the latest trends and maintain a certain lifestyle, even if it means living beyond their means.
One of the greatest effects of consumerism is a society focused on material gain, and this focus has a significantly negative impact on our environment. According to a video by Our Changing Climate, “100 companies were found to be the root cause of 70% of global emissions.”
Whoa, just let that sink in. These are manufacturing companies that almost everyone purchases from. The more we support corporate companies, and the longer they produce in the way they are, the more emission they will continue to emit, leading to further climate crisis.
These are the effects of consumerism on a global scale, and I recommend watching this video (mentioned above), to have more of an understanding of how consumption affects the climate:
Why is Consumerism Bad?
It’s easy to become angry and think consumerism is bad, and it’s true that the way it is now certainly isn’t for the greater good. That being said, I don’t believe consumerism is inherently bad. There is balance in all things, and there is truth in the philosophers who said that consumption leads to wealth in society, leading to better hospitals and education.
By getting away from the rush of society and consumerism culture, one can connect to the simple ways of life, and find that happiness is not what you have, but what you are.
Consumption, as it is now, is “bad” in the sense that it is hurting the Earth, and disconnecting the human race from enlightenment, spirituality, and our unique place in the ecosystem. It is hurting us by continuing the belief that we need more “things,” and disconnects us from the inner happiness that can be, and is always, within us. Consumerism creates vanity, envy, and comparison – all of which corporations and those in high wealth thrive off of – even if they don’t realize it.
A recent study published by Sage Journals demonstrated that our desire for items is likened to that of an addiction, or “binging.” Spending is becoming impulsive, reflexive, and in some ways, uncontrolled. It is this manner of consumerism that creates the biggest impact, as it is without thought or intention to one’s life or the greater good.
Consumerism also creates an abundance, and I mean ABUNDANCE of waste. Trash. Everywhere. I honestly cannot think too hard about all the trash on the Earth because it’s too much and makes my heart sick. Do you ever wonder where all your trash goes? It’s buried or burned. That’s right – you either get toxic fumes dispersing in the atmosphere, or it’s buried miles beneath the soil where plastic will sit for centuries.
There is much that needs to be done, on an individual level and corporate level. Every human needs to be mindful of their impact, their consumption, and their waste. Corporations and governments need to take responsibility for their impact instead of sweeping it under the rug and directing attention elsewhere. They need to be held accountable.
How To Be a Better Consumer
Change is an incremental journey, so don’t feel like you all of sudden have to change your spending habits. It starts with awareness and curiosity. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- How much money do you spend on items you don’t need?
- How often do you eat fast food or processed food?
- What are the sourcing practices of the companies you purchase goods from?
- Am I willing to learn more about my impact on the Earth?
I know that this can feel very overwhelming, that’s why I encourage you to start small with changes that feel obtainable. By simply being open to these questions, and allowing ourselves to really explore each of them, we can find the change we desire.
The way our society is built, one cannot simply stop buying things. Things are not what they once were, which means we depend on companies, agriculture, ranching, and other people to have the basic necessities for survival.
The good news is that you can practice ethical consumerism, which is about purchasing items that have been ethically sourced, made, and distributed. In order to find out which companies practice ethical sourcing and manufacturing, it will require a bit of digging. Companies that do practice ethical sourcing are usually transparent about it, but others may require further research.
In a world where one must consume, why not do it in a way that feels best? If you’re going to spend your money, why not spend it in a way that will benefit the Earth?
Buy Less, Grow Your Own Food, Connect to the Earth
There is only so much we can do as individuals to support the healing of the Earth, but I believe change on the individual scale is absolutely necessary in order to see change on a larger scale. So, what can you do other than practice ethical consumerism?
For starters, simply buy fewer unnecessary things.
Second, start growing your own food. Plant some vegetables in some pots on the balcony or start a garden if you have the space to do so. By connecting to the plants we eat, we’re able to have more of a relationship to what we physically consume, which leads to eating healthier and making wiser food purchases.
Third, get outside and connect to the beauty and wisdom of Nature. If you live in the city, take some time away and go explore the wilderness (safely, of course). By getting away from the rush of society and consumerism culture, one can connect to the simple ways of life, and find that happiness is not what you have, but what you are.
Is Consumerism Bad or Good?
Consumerism is what is. It’s what holds our society together as we know it, and the answer to that question would change depending on who you ask. Are there negative and “bad” things about consumerism? Absolutely. Are there positive aspects of consumerism? Yes, though our society would need to change in order to reap these benefits.
How Can I Be Less Consumerist?
Be mindful of your spending habits, and when you do spend money, make sure it’s a company that practices ethical sourcing and manufacturing.
Items That Bring Value To Peoples Lives
Spending money isn’t an inherently bad thing, as long as it is done with mindfulness and intention. I know that my friends and family practice mindful spending, so I was curious about what they had recently purchased that they believed brought value to their life. Here’s what I discovered:
|Valuable Purchase||Tally of Family/Friends|
|Plane ticket to see family||2|
|Good meat for my dogs and cats||1|
|A thrifted dress||1|
|Darn Tough Socks||1|
|Joggers (previous pair had holes in them)||1|
|Medicinal herb seeds||1|
- Minimalism – The Benefits and Joys of Minimalist Living
- Ethical Consumerism – Getting More and Living Better
- Buy it For Life – Saving with Quality over Quantity
- Conscious Consumerism – Living Well by Choosing Well
- Stopped Buying – My Guide to Buying Less to Save Much More
- Consumer Goods – Making Smart Choices For Simple Living
Consumerism has taken the world by storm, and it is leaving devastating consequences. So, how can we, as consumers, make wiser and more ethical purchases? Do you believe it’s possible that we can create a world where our purchases are for the greater good of both humanity and the Earth? I believe so, but it’s going to require everyone digging deep and making changes within their life. So, how can you make a change?