Consumerism is a central component of American society, and a feature of every western nation to some extent. Some people argue that a degree of consumerism is necessary for any capitalist society. However, our drive to grow our economies eternally has led us down an unsustainable path. Consumerism is necessary to grow our economy, but that growth is coming at an increasingly intolerable cost.
The Origins of Consumerism
Understanding exactly what consumerism is and where it first originated is helpful in understanding our current attitudes towards it and the impacts that it has on our lives.
When we want a new product, many of us immediately go online to check the 10 best options. When we look for the ‘best’ of something, we are only concerned with how the product performs i.e. what it can do for us. This is modern consumerism in action. Understanding exactly what consumerism is and where it first originated is helpful in understanding our current attitudes towards it and the impacts that it has on our lives.
Modern consumerism originated in the wake of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Advances in manufacturing technology meant that British manufacturers were able to churn out products much cheaper and more efficiently. This, in turn, meant that there was a sudden influx of consumer goods and they were more accessible to the average 19th-century consumer than they would have been in the past.
It wasn’t long before the industrial revolution spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic, bringing inevitable consumerism with it. Gradually, this has become a way of life for liberal democracies. But whereas consumerism was an incidental by-product of advances in manufacturing for many nations, it took on a special significance in the US.
As the 1950s rolled around, the western world was in tatters. Europe was still largely rubble following both world wars and the United States, while physically intact, had taken an economic pummelling. American consumers were held up as patriots, their spending habits helping to keep the sinking economy afloat.
The Benefits of Consumerism
Consumerism is not an economic disease. The way that we currently practice consumerism is hugely damaging to our environment, but it doesn’t have to be this way. It is important to acknowledge the positive role that consumerism plays in our lives. Unless you want to dismantle capitalism rather than tame it, you have to accept that a degree of consumerism is necessary. After all, economic collapse hurts everyone and hurts the poorest the most.
But fuelling our economy is the only real benefit of consumerism. We don’t need the kind of deeply-ingrained pathological consumerism that is currently infecting American society. There are far more sustainable and rational ways of approaching consumerism than our current approach.
The Impacts of Bad Consumerism
The negative impacts of bad consumerism are myriad and complex. Some of these impacts are immediate and obvious, like the wholesale destruction of large parts of the Earth’s ecosystem. But other impacts are less direct and more subtle. For example, the negative psychological effects that our constant desire for ‘more, more, more’ at any cost has on us. Excessive consumerism harms us on both an individual and societal level.
Taken together, the impacts of bad consumerism make it unsustainable in the long-term. However, we need to make a very large course correction if we want to avoid a disaster of our own making. Covid-19 could be a blessing in disguise in terms of encouraging a rethink of the way that we approach consumerism and might just be the massive shock that people need in order to drastically rethink their priorities.
Transitioning to Good Consumerism
Fortunately, while the potential negative impacts of bad consumerism are manifold, they can almost all be addressed with the same solutions. If we want to transition from our current approach to a more sustainable form of consumerism, we will have to be prepared to make some sacrifices. The good news is that when it comes to consumerism, we the consumers are in the driving seat.
We already know how to produce many common products in a much more sustainable way, but we haven’t created any economic incentives to do so. If it is considerably cheaper for a business to produce its product in a more destructive and less sustainable way, then that is what they will do unless they are pressured or forced to do it more sustainably. As consumers, we need to stop rewarding businesses for their race to the bottom with prices. If we show a willingness to pay more for more sustainable products, the economic incentive will be there.
On an individual level, we all need to rethink the way that we approach consumerism. We need to break our current mindsets and shift the paradigm away from one that emphasizes consuming products just for the sake of it, to one where we factor in the environmental and societal costs of the products we buy, not just their financial costs.
The goal of good consumerism might seem hopelessly out of reach sometimes, but it is a goal worth pursuing. In fact, if we don’t make a serious effort to reform the global economy in the years ahead then we are signing our own death warrants. Neither our planet nor our souls can survive the relentless death march of bad consumerism.