Consumerism is the bane of the modern society. We buy faster cars, bigger televisions, and sleeker phones and aspire for even more technological new editions. It seems like a constant chase proving ourselves smarter by these kinds of shopping sprees. In our day to day lives there is disconnect between what we need and what we crave. We are driven by brand names – Audi or Mercedes car, Iphone for cell phone, Nike or Adidas for shoes etc. In social circles there are discussions on the brands we use. Adults and children alike are influenced by advertisements which portray life styles in an unrealistic manner. This leads to the question of what do people really need? This paper tries to answer the question of consumerism and its impact on human lives. It also tries to see if there are sustainable ways of fulfilling the needs without the gluttony.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines consumerism as ‘the belief that it is good for people to spend a lot of money on goods and services.’ There are people who buy very expensive items for the house but never ever use them. Some even get into debt crisis because of the hoarding of useless items. The trend to fill the houses is said have started in the 1980’s were the average size of the American homes was only about 1500 sft (Wright, 2007). Between 1980 to 2007 the size of single family detached house increased from 1500 sft to 2200 sft. Bigger houses meant more number of items to buy to fill the house. Large refrigerators, multiple televisions, furniture, entertainment equipment, three car garages and open kitchens were a result of the expansion. This is called hyper-consumerism- the urge to buy and fill spaces with unnecessary stuff that increases debt, puts extra pressure on resources of the earth and deprives some other deserving person of his basic necessities. Wealthiest 20% of people on the earth consume 76.6% of all products while the poorest consume of mere 1.5% of products (Anup Shah, 2011).
‘Compared with the early 1970’s, in 2007 we (Americans) spent 32 percent less on clothes, 18 percent less on food, 52 percent less on appliances, and 24 percent less on owning and maintaining a car’ (Ellen Ruppell Shell, 2007). How this possible when in other countries cost of living has increased several notches? This is possible because Americans market a product by the box not necessarily by the quality of the content. Chinese electronics, mobiles, toys and gadgets and products from other countries are marketed in USA for cheaper prices. Bargain hunting as an American trait is fueled by the advertisers.
There are several studies which show evidence of rich nation’s consumption patterns depriving poor countries of the basic necessities. For example when petroleum products are bought for USA for car consumption, some other country might be using environmentally unfriendly kerosene to run their vehicles just because they cannot afford the price of clean fuels. As car ownership increases in US petroleum products import increases and this leads to an unfair distribution of natural, non-renewable resources across the world.
Intense breeding of livestock for popular eat outs like KFC or McDonalds use water, land, grasses and grains sufficient enough to feed an entire developing nation. ‘The water necessary for meat breeding comes to about 190 gallons per animal per day, or ten times what a normal Indian family is supposed to use in one day, if it gets water at all’ (Vandana Shiva, 2000). While the common consumer in US may not feel the global impact of his purchases, it is evident that hyper-consumerism damages not only the nation but also the world. According to E. Shell the US practice of scouring the world for cheap resources and cheap labor is not sustainable. Cheap, mass produced food has pervaded the American market and it is leading to many health problems. Childhood obesity, lack of exercise due to car dependency, unhealthy eating choices are national hazards.
In a recent conversation I heard a child asking why people smoke. The answer was ‘just for fun’. As often seen in the society there are several aspects which can be termed as 'just for fun'. To name a few- drug abuses, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, shopping lifting for the thrill of it etc. Big companies pay millions in advertisements to prove that it is fashionable to smoke. Children and teens are the worst hit by such brand promotions. Every toy, cereal box, clothing, movies, cartoons advertise products which trigger their emotions. Lot of times we see children creating scenes in toy stores trying to persuade their parents to buy a particular brand of toy. The advertisements play with young minds and create an impression that without a brand ‘you are nothing’. Between the ages of 2 and 11 years old, children see more than 25,000 advertisements a year on television alone (Diane E. Levin, 2010). Sexuality, violence, disrespect, indiscipline are unknowingly conveyed to children through products which are meant to add fun. The sense of belonging, play, cooperation, sharing, compassion qualities are lost in childhood due to over exposure to screen media.
Advertisement expenditure of many big companies have increased manifold in the past few decades. Ads are researched, analyzed and created to target young minds or not so young adults. Take any commercial- it promotes smoother skin, closer shave, whiter teeth, and youthful clothes. This is termed as infantilizing adults. Young girls on the other hand are taught to ‘grow up’ to wear clothes and makeup to resemble sexy models or pop stars and young boys to emulate super-men. Trying to reverse the life cycles of growing up, the media ignores senior citizens, sick and differently able people. The impact of media is so high on everyone seem to be chasing the mirages of youth.
There are counter arguments that say ‘what is wrong in having a faster car, bigger home or better technology’. After all human have always strived to better their living conditions by use of technology. In the 1950’s having household gadgets like refrigerator, television, toaster or blender was a result of mass production and mass consumption. These have helped reduce the burden of household work. Car as an invention quickly overtook the world with its convenience and comfort. Large house developments moved people from the core cities to suburbs seeking peaceful, clean, noise free environment. But in the present era a car, a house or a television are no longer bare necessities. They have reached the status of ‘symbols of style’. They are influencing the way the world operates. To acquire expensive lifestyles men and women work longer hours, child bearing is postponed for want to time, divorce rates and single living increases and family structures destroyed. Children and senior family members dependent on alternate home care options (Michael Cahill, 2001). The social implications along with the environmental impacts of consumerism are equally worrisome to the nation.
Weighing the pros and cons of consumerism it can be proven that hyper-consumerism is bad for the society, the nation and the world at large. More intensely implied are the environmental impacts of consumerism. People need a clean, safe home, a mode of transportation which takes us to work place, healthy food, and whole some entertainment. But we need to ask ourselves ‘at what cost?’ If our consumerist attitude costs a citizen of another country his long hours of back breaking work, his struggle for daily square meal then it is not worth promoting it. Capitalistic markets have endangered not only the nation but also global citizens. As a solution ‘the hold of consumerist capitalism over us can be moderated on the demand side by ‘civic consumer’ resistance and bent a little of the supply side by corporate goodwill’ (Benjamin R. Barber, 2007). Citizens of the developed world need to realize the impacts of their consumerist behavior and resist marketing strategies. Corporates have a responsibility to encourage sustainable practices by losing ‘a little’ of their profits. Since interdependence of nations is a given fact it is high time we realize that hyper consumerism has to be stopped to prevent permanent damage to the world.
Wright. “Consumerism.” Contemporary American Society, Chapter 7. 2007. Web. Last edited August 2009. Date accessed: Oct 7th, 2013. http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/ContemporaryAmericanSociety/Chapter%207%20--%20consumerism%20--%20Norton%20August.pdf
Shah, Anup. “Consumption and Consumerism.” Global Issues. 06 Mar. 2011. Web. 08 Oct. 2013. <http://www.globalissues.org/issue/235/consumption-and-consumerism>
Ellen Ruppell Shell. “Cheap- The high cost of Discount Culture.” Pages 2-3. 2009.
Vandana Shiva. “Stolen Harvest”, (South End Press, 2000), pp. 70-71.
Diane E. Levin. “Advertising Is Harmful to Children.” Advertising, 2010. Pages 2-3. 2010. Web. Date accessed 10-5-2013.
Michael Cahill. “The Implications of Consumerism for the Transition to a Sustainable Society”. Social Policy and Administration ISSN 0144-5596. Vol 35, No.5. December 2001. Pp 627-639.
Benjamin R. Barber. “Consumed”. How markets corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and swallow citizens whole. 2007. pp 316-317