Consumerism

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An electronics store in a shopping mall in Jakarta (2004)

Consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. The term is often associated with criticisms of consumption starting with Thorstein Veblen. 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 this sense, consumerism is usually considered a part of media culture.

Sometimes, the term "consumerism" is also used to refer to the consumerists movement, consumer protection or consumer activism, which seeks to protect and inform consumers by requiring such practices as honest packaging and advertising, product guarantees, and improved safety standards. In this sense it is a movement or a set of policies aimed at regulating the products, services, methods, and standards of manufacturers, sellers, and advertisers in the interests of the buyer.[2]

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).[3]

The term "consumerism" was first used in 1915 to refer to "advocacy of the rights and interests of consumers" (Oxford English Dictionary) but in this article the term "consumerism" refers to the sense first used in 1960, "emphasis on or preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods" (Oxford English Dictionary).

Contents

History

Origins

Consumerism has weak 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 networks, industrial cities, financial centers, etc.).[4]

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.[5]

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.[citation needed] 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.[6][need quotation to verify]

While previously the norm had been the scarcity of resources, the Industrial Revolution created an unusual economic situation. For the first time in history products were available in outstanding quantities, at outstandingly low prices, being thus available to virtually everyone. 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 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".[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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[citation needed]. This correlates with the rise of materialism[citation needed], specifically the technological aspect: the increasing prevalence of compact disc players, digital media, personal computers, and cellular telephones. 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.” [10]

Businesses have realized that wealthy consumers are the most attractive targets of marketing. The upper class's tastes, lifestyles, and preferences trickle down to become the standard for all consumers. The not so wealthy consumers can “purchase something new that will speak of their place in the tradition of affluence”.[11] A consumer can have the instant gratification of purchasing an expensive item to improve 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.

Criticism

Overview

Since consumerism began, various individuals and groups have consciously sought an alternative lifestyle. These movements range on a spectrum from moderate "simple living",[12] "eco-conscious shopping",[13] and "localvore"/"buying local",[14] to Freeganism on the extreme end. Building on these movements, ecological economics is a discipline which addresses the macro-economic, social and ecological implications of a primarily consumer-driven economy.

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 car, designer clothing, or expensive jewelry. A culture that is permeated by consumerism can be referred to as a consumer culture or a market culture.[15] Consumerism can take extreme forms such that consumers sacrifice significant time and income not only to purchase but also to actively support a certain firm or brand.[16]

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[17] in modern society. Other researchers argue that the struggle for symbols of social distinction promoted by consumer culture creates narcissistic, hostile relations between individuals, which can be criminogenic in locations where consumer products are difficult to acquire, or where individuals simply see no limit to their acquisition.[18] 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.[19] Dr. Jorge Majfud says that "Trying to reduce environmental pollution without reducing consumerism is like combatting drug trafficking without reducing the drug addiction."[20]

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".[21]

Critics of consumerism include Pope Benedict XVI,[22] German historian Oswald Spengler (who said, "Life in America is exclusively economic in structure and lacks depth"[23]), and French writer Georges Duhamel, who held "American materialism up as a beacon of mediocrity that threatened to eclipse French civilization".[23]

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."[24] 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.[24]

Not all anti-consumerists oppose consumption in itself, but they argue against increasing the consumption of resources beyond what is environmentally sustainable. Jonathan Porritt writes that consumers are often unaware of the negative environmental impacts of producing many modern goods and services, and that the extensive advertising industry only serves to reinforce increasing consumption.[25] Likewise, other ecological economists such as Herman Daly recognize the inherent conflict between consumer-driven consumption and planet-wide ecological degradation.

Counter arguments

There has always been strong criticism of the anti-consumerist movement. Most of this comes from libertarian thought.[26]

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.

Historian James Livingston's book Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul [Basic, 2011], is a pro-consumerist argument from the left. He argues that under-consumption caused the current economic crisis, and goes beyond that to make a moral case for spending more and saving less.

See also

References

  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, answers.com
  3. ^ "Consumerism". Britannica Concise Encyclopedia Online. 2008.
  4. ^ Ryan in Ritzer 2007, p. 701
  5. ^ Ryan, Michael T. (2007) "consumption" in George Ritzer (ed.) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, 701-705
  6. ^ Ryan in Ritzer 2007, p. 702
  7. ^ "Essay - Dawn of the Dead Mall". The Design Observer Group. 11 November 2009. http://changeobserver.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=11747. Retrieved 14 February 2010. 
  8. ^ Veblen, Thorstein (2010). The Theory of the Leisure Class. 
  9. ^ Calder, Lendol Glen (1990). Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 222. ISBN 0-691-05827-X. 
  10. ^ Levine, Madeline. “Challenging the Culture of Affluence.” Independent School. 67.1 (2007): 28-36.
  11. ^ Miller, Eric. Attracting the Affluent. Naperville, Illinois: Financial Sourcebooks, 1990.
  12. ^ 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)
  13. ^ See for example: Alan Durning, "How Much is Enough: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth" (NY: W.W. Norton, 1992)
  14. ^ 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)
  15. ^ "Consumerism - enough is enough". Stiff Kitten's blog. May 9, 2010. http://stiffkitten.wordpress.com/2010/05/09/consumerism-%E2%80%93-enough-is-enough/. Retrieved 7 January 2012. 
  16. ^ Eisingerich, Andreas B.; Bhardwaj, Gunjan; Miyamoto, Yoshio (April 2010). "Behold the Extreme Consumers and Learn to Embrace Them". Harvard Business Review 88: Pages 30–31. http://hbr.org/2010/04/vision-statement-behold-the-extreme-consumersand-learn-to-embrace-them/ar/1. 
  17. ^ "Fool Britannia". Newindpress.com. http://www.newindpress.com/sunday/sundayitems.asp?id=SEV20060406083003&eTitle=Focus&rLink=0/. [dead link]
  18. ^ Hall, S., Winlow, S. and Ancrum, C. (2008) Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture. London: Routledge
  19. ^ Global Climate Change and Energy CO2 Production—An International Perspective[dead link]
  20. ^ Majfud, Jorge (2009). "The Pandemic of Consumerism". UN Chronicle. http://www.un.org/wcm/content/site/chronicle/home/archive/issues2009/toprotectsucceedinggenerations/pid/21570. Retrieved 7 January 2012. 
  21. ^ Lebow, Victor. http://hundredgoals.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/journal-of-retailing.pdf
  22. ^ Web log. 17 July 2008. http://babs22.wordpress.com/2008/07/17/australia-pope-attacks-consumerism/
  23. ^ a b Stearns, Peter. Consumerism in World History. Routledge
  24. ^ a b Coghlan, Andy. "Consumerism is 'eating the future'". http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17569-consumerism-is-eating-the-future.html. Retrieved 2009-12-12. 
  25. ^ "Consumerism - Big Ideas". http://www.mymultiplesclerosis.co.uk/big-ideas/consumerism.html. Retrieved 2010-04-20. 
  26. ^ 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.

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