What is Consumerism?

(Read time: 6 minutes)

I wanted to better understand my desire to seek new purchases even though theoretically I do not always require the end product. There have been instances where I have felt the need to buy something simply because I wanted it without considering the hidden causes and effects. I came across the word consumerism while listening to a podcast by Russell Brand. For those of you who don’t know the context behind which he uses the word, consumerism is a social and economic direction which encourages the increased consumption of goods and services, largely driven by desire rather than need. But why does this actually happen and what are its impacts?

The consumer class represents those who are able to purchase goods and services other than those which are required to satisfy their basic needs. More broadly speaking, the consumer class correlates to the middle class but in wealthier countries, parts of the lower class may in some regard belong to the consumer class. More crudely defined by National Geographic, the consumer class is the group of people who are characterised by “diets of highly processed food, desire for bigger houses, more and bigger cars, higher levels of debt, and lifestyles devoted to the accumulation of non-essential goods”.

According to the European Commission, at the start of the millennium around 1.6 billion people belonged to the consumer class and this group represented around 25% of the global population. However, as reported by the Financial Times, this increased to 3.8 billion in 2018 (representing approximately 50% of the global population). The Brookings Institution has further reported that this figure is expected to increase to 5.3 billion by 2030, which will represent an estimated 60% of the global population.

As the global middle class grows this will inevitably bring increased levels of consumption, thus leading to increased economic growth, more opportunities for an increased standard of living, and increased employment opportunities. Nonetheless, will increased consumption combined with a high level of consumerism be the beginning of a very dangerous phase in our planet’s timeline?

According to research conducted by ICFAI University there are two primary consumption motives: hedonic and utilitarian. The value of utilitarian shopping is related to the functional aspect of shopping, whereas the value of hedonic shopping is derived from its perceived fun or playfulness. In other words, the hedonic shopping motive directly correlates to consumerism, and according to a paper by Mark Arnold and Kristy Reynolds  this form of shopping contains six categories:

  1. adventure shopping causes a sense of stimulation and excitement;
  2. gratification shopping enhances one’s mood;
  3. social shopping increases social interaction with others;
  4. idea shopping enables one to stay in touch with current trends and express themselves;
  5. role shopping is gaining pleasure from buying for others; and
  6. value shopping causes a sense of excitement from finding deals.

The role of an advertiser is to understand these motives whilst researching and building tools which will persuade you to purchase more, and these techniques are becoming increasingly innovative and intrusive. At the same time, according to some psychologists, the motives behind consumerism can be a form of addiction as it temporarily causes a dopamine spike; the subsequent habitual desire for this hit thus leads to higher forms of materialism.

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo, Japan

According to the American Psychological Association, the least materialistic people report high rates of satisfaction. However, studies have also shown that materialists can be satisfied if they have the means and a lifestyle which doesn’t conflict with other desires. In contrast, for materialists with less money and conflicting desires, research suggests unhappiness will develop. The relationship between mental state and materialism is naturally complex, however early research shows materialism can lead to unhappiness since it takes time away from other aspects of your life which can cultivate happiness; examples include learning a new skill, developing relationships with family and friends, or reading a good book.

The unfortunate truth remains that the consumerist mindset has been built largely on exploitation of our subconscious desires, which can result in a vicious cycle of consumption. However, as with anything, the issue is one of balance because the purchasing process and education of its impacts are the responsibility of the individual. With the rise of conscious consumerism, I hope we are all encouraged to understand our purchases, recognising why we are purchasing the product and making educated decisions throughout the process whilst also attempting to mitigate some of the negative impacts.

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