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An electronics store in a shopping mall in Jakarta.

Consumerism is a social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase commodity goods in ever greater amounts. The term is often associated with criticisms of consumption starting with Thorstein Veblen or, more recently by a movement[citation needed] 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.[1]

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).[2]



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 alternatively: "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.




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 (e.g. Ancient Egypt, Babylon and Ancient Rome).

A great turn in consumerism arrived just before the Industrial Revolution. In the nineteenth century, capitalist development and the industrial revolution were primarily focused on the capital goods sector and industrial infrastructure (i.e., mining, steel, oil, transportation networks, communications net works, industrial cities, financial centers, etc.). [3]

At that time, agricultural commodities, essential consumer goods, and commercial activities had developed to an extent, but not to the same extent as other sectors. Members of the working classes worked long hours for low wages – as much as 16 hours per day, 6 days per week. Little time or money was left for consumer activities.[4]

Further, capital goods and infrastructure were quite durable and took a long time to be used up. Henry Ford and other leaders of industry understood that mass production presupposed mass consumption. 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. [5]

While previously 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.

Consumerism has long had intentional underpinnings, rather than just developing out of capitalism. As an example, Earnest Elmo Calkins noted to fellow advertising 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".[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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.” [9]

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” [10]. 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.



Since consumerism began, various individuals and groups have consciously sought an alternative lifestyle, such as the "simple living",[11] "eco-conscious",[12] and "localvore"/"buy local"[13] movements.

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[14] 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.[15] Dr. Jorge Majfud says that "Trying to reduce environmental pollution without reducing consumerism is like combatting drug trafficking without reducing the drug addiction." [16]

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".[17]

Critics of consumerism include Pope Benedict XVI,[18] German historian Oswald Spengler (who said, "Life in America is exclusively economic in structure and lacks depth"[19]), and French writer Georges Duhamel, who held "American materialism up as a beacon of mediocrity that threatened to eclipse French civilization".[20]

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."[21] 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.[22]

Counter arguments

There has always been strong criticism of the anti-consumerist movement. Most of this comes from libertarian thought.[23]

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


  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". Britannica Concise Encyclopedia Online. 2008.
  3. ^ Ryan in Ritzer 2007, p. 701
  4. ^ Ryan, Michael T. (2007) "consumption" in George Ritzer (ed.) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, 701-705
  5. ^ Ryan in Ritzer 2007, p. 702
  6. ^ "Essay - Dawn of the Dead Mall". The Design Observer Group. 11 November 2009. Retrieved 14 February 2010. 
  7. ^ Veblen, Thorstein (1899). The Theory of the Leisure Class. 
  8. ^ Calder, Lendol Glen (1990). Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 222. ISBN 069105827X. 
  9. ^ Levine, Madeline. “Challenging the Culture of Affluence.” Independent School. 67.1 (2007): 28-36.
  10. ^ Miller, Eric. Attracting the Affluent. Naperville, Illinois: Financial Sourcebooks, 1991.
  11. ^ 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)
  12. ^ See for example: Alan Durning, "How Much is Enough: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth" (NY: W.W. Norton, 1992)
  13. ^ 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)
  14. ^ Fool Britannia
  15. ^ Global Climate Change and Energy CO2 Production—An International Perspective
  16. ^ [ UN Chronicle The Pandemic of Consumerism ]
  17. ^ Lebow, Victor.
  18. ^ Web log. 17 July 2008.
  19. ^ Stearns, Peter. Consumerism in World History. Routledge
  20. ^ Stearns, Peter. Consumerism in World History. Routledge
  21. ^ Coghlan, Andy., Andy. "Consumerism is 'eating the future'". Retrieved 2009-12-12. 
  22. ^ Coghlan, Andy., Andy. "Consumerism is 'eating the future'". Retrieved 2009-12-12. 
  23. ^ A defense of consumerism, as pragmatically less lethal than religion and nationalism appears in Charles Arthur Willard Liberalism and the Problem of Knowledge: A New Rhetoric for Modern Democracy. University of Chicago Press. 1996.

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
  • Cross, Gary (2000). An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won In Modern America. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-11313-7.  (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)
  • Nissanoff, Dan (2006). FutureShop: How the New Auction Culture Will Revolutionize the Way We Buy, Sell and Get the Things We Really Want. Penguin Press. ISBN 1-59420-077-7.  (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.



External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

  • "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed." - Mahatma Gandhi, quoted in E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful
  • "God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the west... keeping the world in chains. If [our nation] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts." - Mahatma Gandhi
  • "Nature provides a free lunch, but only if we control our appetites. " - William Ruckelshaus, Business Week, 18 June 1990
  • "U.S. consumers and industry dispose of enough aluminum to rebuild the commercial air fleet every three months; enough iron and steel to continuously supply all automakers; enough glass to fill New York's World Trade Center every two weeks." - Environmental Defense Fund advertisement, Christian Science Monitor, 1990
  • "Oh, for the good old days when people would stop Christmas shopping when they ran out of money." - Author Unknown
  • "Be glad that you're greedy; the national economy would collapse if you weren't." - Mignon McLaughlin, The Second Neurotic's Notebook, 1966
  • "You can never get enough of what you don't need to make you happy." - Eric Hoffer
  • "After a visit to the beach, it's hard to believe that we live in a material world." - Pam Shaw
  • "You have succeeded in life when all you really want is only what you really need." - Vernon Howard
  • "The only reason a great many American families don't own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments." - Mad Magazine
  • "Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends.... Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts." - Henry David Thoreau
  • "The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied... but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing." - John Berger
  • "Racial injustice, war, urban blight, and environmental rape have a common denominator in our exploitative economic system." - Channing E. Phillips, speech, Washington, D.C., 22 April 1970
  • "To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year." - Elwyn Brooks White
  • "I may be a pessimist, but the philosophy of anti-thrift just now coming into being seems to me the greatest danger to the peace of the world." - Adriano Tilgher
  • "There must be more to life than having everything!" - Maurice Sendak
  • "Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need." - From the movie Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk
  • "He who buys what he does not need steals from himself." - Author Unknown
  • "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." - Edward Abbey
  • "The hardest thing is to take less when you can get more." - Kin Hubbard
  • "In the United States Christmas has become the rape of an idea." - Richard Bach
  • "The gap in our economy is between what we have and what we think we ought to have - and that is a moral problem, not an economic one." - Paul Heyne
  • "Forethought and temperance are the virtues which produced thrift, and with thrift the economic progress of society. And those are the virtues which today are gravely compromised." - Adriano Tilgher
  • "Who covets more, is evermore a slave." - Robert Herrick
  • "... the consumerist pornography of advertising" - Ronald Wright, A short history of progress, Chapter 5, note 68.
  • "He who dies with the most toys, wins." - Anonymous
  • Under present conditions, people are preoccupied with consumer goods not because they are brainwashed but because buying is the one pleasurable activity not only permitted but actively encouraged by our rulers. The pleasure of eating an ice cream cone may be minor compared to the pleasure of meaningful, autonomous work, but the former is easily available and the latter is not. A poor family would undoubtedly rather have a decent apartment than a new TV, but since they are unlikely to get the apartment, what is to be gained by not getting the TV?
  • Mass consumption, advertising, and mass art are a corporate Frankenstein; while they reinforce the system, they also undermine it. By continually pushing the message that we have the right to gratification now, consumerism at its most expansive encouraged a demand for fulfillment that could not so easily be contained by products;...
    • Ellen Willis, "Introduction", Beginning to See the Light (1981).

Consumerism and religion

  • "Mammon, n.: The god of the world's leading religion." - Ambrose Bierce
  • "He who knows he has enough is rich" - Tao Te Ching Chapter 33
  • "Excess and deficiency are equally are at fault." - Confucius, XI 15
  • "Eat and drink, but waste not by excess; verily He loves not the excessive." - Islam Qu'ran 7.31
  • "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy." Isaiah 55:2
Look up consumerism in Wiktionary, the free dictionary


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