Consumerism - what does it mean? Is it a positive or negative concept or can it be both? What drove the development of the consumer society and how has our society changed as a result of it?
Consumerism – how can we define it? If one consults a dictionary or encyclopedia there are two aspects of consumerism.
The first is consumerism meaning a social and economic state that encourages more and more buying of goods and services. It is often used negatively to refer to the overconsumption of goods or to purchasing more for the satisfaction of owning than from a need.
The second is a movement to look after the consumers' interests and work towards making sure that products and services are covered by regulations that guarantee the rights of the consumer.
The first definition is the one we are interested in here. What drives us to go shopping for more and more? Can we continue to consume at the rate we do today?
Consumerism - how and when did the urge for more material goods develop? There are various theories, but it is a fact that consumption grew at the end of the 17th century, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, which, as you have learned, first took place in Britain. Society was changing with the emergence of a middle class who had the means to attain more luxury items. Buying patterns changed as goods became more easily available, including exotic goods from the colonies. Keeping up with new fashion trends stimulated consumption, not only in clothing but also in ornamental goods. Mass production created more goods for sale and cheaper prices and therefore goods were available and affordable by a wider range of people in society.
In the 20th century, the consumption of goods increased at a tremendous rate powered by politics, media and culture.
After WWII marketing experts planned to stimulate the US economy. There was a lot of money available from war income and new ways of spending it emerged: holidays, domestic equipment, cars and housing.
In the late 1940s and early 50s, new products appeared: TVs, transistor radios, polaroid cameras, freezers, new fabrics, plastic goods such as Tupperware (1948). And computer technology developed.
TV advertising fuelled the demand for goods. Advertisers convinced people to buy more and more goods and services and the economy boomed.
Here is a quote from a Victor Lebow, a US economist, in 1955.
"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. The measure of social status, of acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. [-----] The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies. [-----] We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing pace." (Victor Lebow, 1955 Journal of Retailing)
Was Lebow advocating consumerism or being ironic about it?
The amount spent on household goods and services globally, passed $20 trillion in 2000, four times more than in 1960. (Worldwatch Institute)
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