What is consumerism and why has it become so widespread?
Consumerism is the guiding force behind our modern economies. We base much of our lives on it, so much so that the public is no longer viewed as a group of humans, but rather consumers, solely existing to purchase more . While this self-serving cycle helps us feel happy, the effect rarely lasts long, and the consuming itch returns to us once more. So, you might ask, if we all know this, why have we not stopped playing into it? Let us find the answer together.
Oxford Languages defines consumerism as “the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods” . While this term is commonly used when speaking about the United States, consumerism is not limited to this country and has spread to virtually the whole developed world (consumerism is however typically more prominent in the US, as most Americans view “conspicuous consumption” (i.e. overconsumption) as a virtue; this is unlike certain European countries, such as France or Denmark, where it may be viewed as distasteful ). Whichever way it is viewed publicly, consumerism is still typically envied by the masses. Of course, who wouldn’t want a mansion and a hypercar?
The roots of consumerism go quite far back, with the first hints of consumerism popping up in the 1600s in Europe in noble and wealthy circles . While humans have been consuming for as long as anyone can remember, this had been largely limited to necessities, including ovens, pots, pans, clothing, etc. In the west, the commercialization of 18th-Century England was the first sign that the desire for opulence and showing off purchases was trickling down into the marginally less rich. However, at that time consumerism was still largely constricted to the ultra-wealthy of society .
In late 19th century Britain, a larger selection of food became widely available to buy. No longer was the average person surviving on potatoes and bread, they finally had a choice. While these people still had no access to shops and department stores that sold high-quality, long-lasting items, this shift in the “menu” demonstrated that poorer individuals could now eat for more than sustenance. Extended efforts in advertising also furthered the envy towards richer portions of society .
In the United States in the late 19th century, established shops were dramatically increasing in popularity. The precursor to online shopping, mail-order shopping, was becoming increasingly widespread, as well as the expansion of colossal department stores. This point in time was incredibly important because it saw the move away from small, family-owned retailers, to large, corporate entities that made use of factories and fossil fuels, and valued profit above all else .
Industrialization came soon after World War One. This large societal shift towards factories and machinery largely eliminated the risk of famine and starvation. Due to the massive increase in production and the swift decrease in population (WW1 and Spanish Flu deaths), the amount of wealth available vastly increased. On top of this, because of labour shortages, workers started demanding shorter shifts, which showed that they still valued community and family involvement over consumer goods. This, however, did not last long. Companies, such as Kellog’s, pushed hard to move away from their previously implemented six-hour shift schedule after seeing the increased production they achieved with the longer shifts their employees worked during World War Two .
At this point, companies also realized that if they continued only producing products that met the needs of the population, their increased product output would be stuck in permanent overproduction. This meant that they had to entice people to buy things that they didn’t need. To do this, corporations began massive ad campaigns, encouraging the population to abandon the cautious frugality they once had and to appreciate purchases over free time. This paved the way to, as US president at the time Herbert Hoover put it, “new wants that make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied” .
Consumerism received a large push during the boom of electrification between 1921 and 1929. People were now buying radios, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and much more. During this same time period, car sales exploded, coupled with the introduction of car loans, which made vehicle purchases more accessible to lower-income individuals. However, all of this spending culminated in the Great Depression, followed by World War Two, which kicked consumerism out of the public consciousness for nearly twenty years .
As expected, as the Second World War drew to a close, consumerism once again exploded, now with the added advertising medium of television. With radios and televisions now simultaneously pumping advertisements and propaganda into people’s homes, companies began pushing the idea of selling status. By buying something that was recently only available to the ultra-wealthy, consumers could be made to feel like they are upgrading themselves socially. Planned obsolescence, “the practice of making or designing something in such a way that it will only be usable for a short time so that people will have to buy another one”  was also introduced soon after, another effort to drive purchasing even further .
Even though there have been other developments since the resurrection of consumerism following World War Two, the main concepts have remained unchanged. Up to this day, our culture is hooked on purchasing new items. While some of us may be more conscious about our spending habits and the effect that they have on society and the environment, we all participate in consumer culture in one way or another; that’s how our economy runs! Whether you believe consumerism is an inherent function of an economy or not , the practice is likely here to stay. In my next research round, I will delve into the effects that this shift in purchasing behaviour has caused in the way we think and weigh the value of experiences, free time, and happiness against material objects.
Featured Image: Ally Mozeliak / Heights Staff