A Cultural phenomenon wherein social and cultural norms encourage the pursuit and acquisition of material goods and experiences as a measure of self-worth.
Consumerism is, quite precisely, the consuming of life by the things consumed. It is living in a manner that is measured by having rather than being.
Richard John Neuhaus, Doing Well By Doing Good
Consumerism is considered by critics to be a side effect of contemporary capitalism.
Material goods and quality of life
How do you measure quality of life?
At a baseline, there needs to be enough materials goods to provide for basic human needs: shelter, food, water. In an urbanized culture, few people have the wherewithal to be self-sufficient, so material goods and services needed can be purchased. Next up the ladder of human needs might be a lack of stress, health, a sense of belonging, love and/or happiness. These could be provided by family, friends, art, and/or a sense of purpose, which might come from work or religion or... material goods (more on that later).
How much is enough?
When you have “enough,” your economic consumption goes down. Remember supply and demand? Demand goes down, prices go down. In a modern manufacturing economy with a surplus of goods (too much supply), decreased demand and decreased prices leads to decreased profits. An economy based spending money for repair, maintenance, replacement, and the occasional meaningful experience does not create as much profit as much as an economy with robust demand for new goods and experiences.
For more background on the rise of consumption as a result of the growth of industrialization, see: the consumer revolution
Another side effect of such a manufacturing economy with too much supply is a devaluing of craftsmanship and skill, and a concurrent valuing of material wealth (it’s a measurable standard that can be easily compared). Too much supply. Too little demand. What to do?
The aim of advertising is to sell product. How? By creating demand. How do you create demand if people’s needs are being met? By catering to their wants. By blurring the distinction between need and want. By creating dissatisfaction with current goods. An entire industry is devoted to crafting imagery and stories to connect emotions with material items.
“It is our imaginations that advertising exploits, and it is our imaginations that religion and myth traditionally played the role of satiating, telling stories that have morals to them, lessons to be learned. Now consumerism fulfills this role. The consumer ideology serves as the golden rule, advertising serves as sermons, products serve as our idoltry, and just as religion instills faith at an early age, so too does consumerism.” (Bill Mason, “The Myth of Consumerism”)
Material goods will make me happy.
In addition to advertising’s efforts to manipulate the subjective feeling of “what is enough/what is satisfying,” advertising also preys on the human needs for relationships and for esteem. The demands of modern life have eroded the bonds of family, religion, and art which previously fulfilled those needs. So the powerful need for acceptance and a sense of belonging can be easily hijacked by consumerism, as goods (brands or items that denote class, status, or affiliation) become outward makers and signifiers of a group membership—or even of love and affection.
“…To an outsider, we would appear to be a race of people grown inept at human expression -- making love, fixing dinner for someone, presenting an idea -- without devices or accouterments to focus and enhance our meaning.” (Barry Lopez, 1995)
Think of celebrations: birthdays, weddings, childbirths: ritual occasions now come with the expectation that the appropriate response is a material gift (since the pace of modern life rarely allows for a direct investment of time).
“Perhaps the saddest aspect of this imperative to consume in the West is that we're asked to accept a certifiable piece of rubbish: more satisfaction is ultimately to be found in a product -- a style of trouser, a personally tailored system of electronic communication, an exercise regimen, a career -- than in another human being.” (Barry Lopez, 1995)
And, even apart from this notion that acquisition of consumer goods may replace human relationships, our desire to distinguish ourselves as individuals, to define ourselves as distinct from others plays right along into the hand of brand marketers. We display our distinctiveness in our choices of where we live and what we buy. And, as newer items reach the masses, early adopters abandon products to find the "next new thing," and the cycle starts again.
Alternatives to consumerism
In a consumer culture, even rebellion can be co-opted, branded, and packaged for consumption (note the commercial enterprises aimed at the teenage market—which position themselves as alternative, anti-establishment, or edgy). Opting out of participation in consumer culture altogether is not necessarily a productive alternative. Attempts at self-sufficiency might result in an inability to meet basic health or nutrition needs, in addition to social ostracism.
The appropriation or defacing of the signifiers of consumer advertising may have a subversive effect in calling attention to the underlying manipulation of our wants and needs. Apart from this “wake up call,” however, culture jamming does not provide an alternative to consumption per se, although if you derive a sense of purpose from irony or activism, it could work for you.
This Buddhist notion suggests that deriving purpose from meaningful work would fulfill the human need for approval and acceptance, and thus you would be immune to advertising’s siren song to acquiring goods to fulfill this need.
Recognizing that it is impossible to free oneself totally from consumer culture, some advocate “voting with your dollars,” that is, consuming products one believes are made by socially responsible company. (Although, again, a corporation can purchase this image.) Right consumption is still consumption, and does not necessarily deal with the underlying causes of consumerism.
Conscious efforts to underconsume—that is, to define what is enough.
A combination of penny pinching and DIY approaches to living, whether intended in the spirit of engagement with a traditional agrarian lifestyle, cultural rebellion (a punk esthetic), or perhaps economic necessity (punk squats).
Engagement with Community
One sympton of consumer culture is that life events, such as weddings and births become consumer events— where a baby shower replaces the community or family function of actually helping out with baby, and wedding gifts stand in for community support for the marriage. Intentional communities, whether communes or cohousing, are an attempt to create engaged communities on a small-scale. In many areas, churches and mosques form the locus of community participation among members of a particular religious faith.
E2 nodes on specific instances of consumerism and anti-consumerism
“How Consumerism Affects Society, the Economy, and the Environment.” Overcoming Consumerism. <http://www.verdant.net/society.htm> (26 January 2005)
Barker, Elliot and Brian Jones. “Consumerism: What is it?” Psychopathology and Consumerism. <http://www.bconnex.net/~cspcc/psychopathy/consume.htm> (14 June 2002)
Cronk, Rip. “Consumerism and the New Capitalism.” Art on the Rebound - A Collection of Essays on Art and Culture.
<http://www.westland.net/venice/art/cronk/consumer.htm>(26 January 2005)
de Souza, Raymond J. “John Paul II and the Problem of Consumerism.” Religion and Liberty. September/October 1999.
<http://www.acton.org/publicat/randl/article.php?id=321> (26 January 2005)
Dominguez, Joe and Vicki Robin. Your Money or Your Life: transforming your relationship with money and achieving financial independence. New York : Viking, 1992.
Heath, Joseph. “The Structure of Hip Consumerism.” Philosophy and Social Criticism. Vol. 27, No. 16. November 2001.
Heath, Joseph and Andrew Potter “The Rebel Sell.” This Magazine. November 2002. <http://www.thismagazine.ca/issues/2002/11/rebelsell.php> (3 August 2006)
Hymel, Kent. “Advertising and the Rise of Consumer Culture.” 7 February 2000. <http://www.lclark.edu/~ria/Essay.html> (26 January 2005)
Jones, Ken. “Consumerism and the Way Out of Consumerism.” Public talk. Tokyo, Japan. 3 May 1997. <http://www.bpf.org/tsangha/jonesconsumer.html> Buddhist Peace Fellowship Papers and Viewpoints. (8 April 2003).
Lopez, Barry. “Looking in a Deeper Lair: A Tribute to Wallace Stegner.” 27 April 1995. Reprinted at Earth Island Journal. Fall 1995. <http://www.earthisland.org/EIJOURNAL/new_articles.cfm?articleID=730&journalID=70> (11 June 2002)
Mason, Bill. “The Myth of Consumerism.” Personal Web site. <http://www.cs.ucr.edu/~wmason/myth.html>(3 April 2002)
Twitchell, James. “In Praise of Consumerism.” Reason August 2000 v32 i4
Watts, Jonathan. “The First Noble Truth (Dukkha): The Spiritual Roots and Delusion of Consumer Culture.” Buddhist Peace Fellowhip Papers and Viewpoints < http://www.bpf.org/tsangha/watts1.html> (8 April 2003); see also <http://www.inebnetwork.org/thinksangha/tsangha/watts1.html> (13 June 2012)