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What is Consumerism?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The term “consumerism” is used in several different ways. In economics, it usually refers to a movement which promotes the right and safety of the consumer which arose in the early 1900s as people grew increasingly concerned about consumer safety and manufacturing methods. In philosophy, consumerism refers to a way of life in which people place a high value on material possessions, and in which people tend to consume more than they need. Critics of this way of life espouse anti-consumerism or productionism.

The practice of consuming beyond basic needs is ancient; one need only look at the lavish tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs for an example. However, consumerism in the modern sense really came into its own with the advent of mass production, and an increasing separation between producers and consumers. Historically, people produced many of their own goods, or lived and worked in close proximity to their producers, and production was primarily limited to basic needs, except in the case of goods aimed at the upper classes.

With the Industrial Revolution came several radical changes in consumption patterns. The first was an increase in consumption among all socioeconomic classes, driven by producers who were making an excess of goods and needed to create a market for it. The second was a radical rift between producers and consumers, as goods could be shipped anywhere in the world and people rarely met or interacted with the people who made their goods. The Industrial Revolution also made it possible to shift from a production oriented society to a consumption oriented society, because fewer producers could make more goods.

In the sense of consumer protection, the rumblings of consumerism arose in response to issues like contaminated foods, faulty mechanical products, and other issues. Advocates for consumers started to argue that safety standards needed to be put in place, and companies needed to be held accountable for their faulty products, for the protection of consumers. Consumerism in this sense also expands to disputes about false advertising claims, lobbying for disclosure, and a variety of other topics.

In the sense of a way of life in which the consumption of consumer goods is placed at a high priority, consumerism has been an age-old topic of criticism, and the criticism only becomes more severe over time. Consumerism is closely related to materialism, and both trends tend to emerge in capitalist systems, in which consumerism may be encouraged for a variety of reasons. Consumerism tends to underscore class differences and widen socioeconomic gaps, as people use consumer goods as a display of class status. Worldwide, consumption of resources occurs disproportionately among the rich, with the world's poor consuming a fraction of the world's resources. Status symbols such as large houses, fancy cars, and designer clothing are sometimes viewed and attacked as symbols of consumerist lifestyles.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon997040 — On Nov 08, 2016

Kudos! Something we as a society need to work on. Comments 1-4 were pleasant to read, so well written and thoughtful. Totally different from sophomoric rants and name-calling usually seen by keyboard SJW's and trolls.

I have a couple of tips I've found useful for impulse spending, although nothing takes the place of working off a realistic budget, avoiding credit purchases, and limiting impulses to a set amt. Such as only two things and a daily total of $10. (Yes, it's low on purpose).

Now the tips: First one is easy. Do not go shopping hungry or dog-tired. Eat a nutritious snack that has protein and complex carbs, such as nut butter or meat on crackers and a piece of fresh fruit, with plenty of water. If you're either hungry, or very tired, you're more likely splurge on foods, or to make quick judgments without considering value-for-cost or comparison-shopping.

Hang onto every receipt. When you get your impulse purchases home, spread them out on your bed or couch. Look them over for flaws and quality of manufacture/construction. Walk away for awhile. Before retiring that night, go over them once more. Place them back into their shopping bags. Something called "buyer's remorse" may kick in within 24 hours. If it does, or if you realized you really can live without it by the third day from purchase, then return it for a refund. Most states have a consumer-protection 72-hour return law, even for big-ticket things like appliances or automobiles! Check with your local States Attorney Office.

Remember these old adages: "Haste makes waste." "A penny saved is a penny earned." "Penny wise and pound foolish." I know someone who asked me to explain the last one and I said, "Spending $1.00 on gas to save $0.59 cents on an item." She's still working on that concept.

By sunshine31 — On Feb 11, 2011

Bhutan- I know what you mean. There are people that are on a waiting list for a Hermes bag which to me sounds a little silly. It is all about image.

What I think is sad is when parents get used to overspending on their kids and catering to their demands which makes the parents feel that they have to keep up with the gifts in order to receive love from their children.

This happens a lot during Christmas time when gifts are only revered if they are expensive by some kids.

Consumerism really dampens the true meaning of Christmas. Children that grow up demanding things grow up with an unrealistic expectation on how the real world works and often struggle as a result.

Consumerism is like sugar. It gives you a temporary high but can leave you hungry later on because only the cheapest things in life can be bought with money.

By Bhutan — On Feb 09, 2011

Mutsy - I totally agree. I think that consumerism images play into people’s emotional feelings and cause some people to buy on impulse.

For example, if you are watching a commercial and the model is wearing a pair of $200 jeans and is having a great time and looks fabulous, some women will see that commercial and feel that they want the image that the jeans are selling.

This is why some that some people that do not have a lot of money can justify a purchase like that. Since they use their credit card they really don’t have to worry about paying for it in the moment.

Status symbols like the expensive jeans or expensive handbags provide a particular image that the buyer wants to be a part of and the advertisers know that.

By mutsy — On Feb 07, 2011

BrickBack-You know that is true. But I think people just want to have some nice things once in a while.

The problem develops when you feel that this is the only way you can be happy. A lot of people are addicted to shopping because it does offer some momentary pleasure.

I also think that this is a big problem with parents of teenagers who suffer from constant peer pressure to have the latest gadgets.

Overspending is really like overeating. At the time of the purchase you are enjoying the moment but then you have to deal with the binge afterward.

For an excessive spender this could be problematic because the addiction creates huge financial problems that have deep ramifications.

By BrickBack — On Feb 04, 2011

I think that consumerism today has really gone a little out of control. Too many people are buying things that they cannot afford and maxing out their credit cards.

Often people that continue to charge up their credit cards buy things that hang in the closet with the tags still on them.

I believe that capitalist consumerism really takes shape because many people want to keep up with what others have and enjoy the latest and greatest gadgets without regard if they can afford them or not.

People generally spend more when they have a credit card which is why so many stores push them on people and offer additional discounts on their purchases.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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