What is Consumerism? Is it Bad?

Fri, 15 Nov 2013 16:14:00 CST  — by: Parker Haynes, C'14, Sustainability Undergraduate Fellow

fw-blog-oil-palm-plantation-klumSustainability undergraduate fellow Parker Haynes (C'14) is attempting to create awareness of the implications of consumerism among the student body. Here is why.

Consumerism is the socioeconomic system in which people are encouraged to purchase unnecessary goods and services in a never ending cycle. 

Though the consolidation of wealth and luxury was wreaking political havoc in Europe long before sociology really arrived on the scene, an American sociologist named Thorstein Veblen was one of the first to criticize the consumerist practices of an entire nation (the United States), and that was back in the late 1800’s.  Note that this was around the time that mass production of goods got underway. The driving forces behind such enormous participation in materialistic behavior are not entirely clear, but the consensus is that advertising has played a significant role.  How, you might ask, does advertising dictate the thoughts and wallet-brandishing of so many people, when you certainly don’t feel the need to buy a new Dodge Durango, even after watching Ron Burgundy give it his blessing.  Sociologists and psychologists alike believe that the accumulation of luxury goods has become a core value in western culture, and in the United States in particular.  At present, the idea that our value as people is contingent upon the amount of luxury goods that we buy and display to others is, whether we like it or not, deeply entrenched in our culture, and merely reinforced by advertisements.

What does this mean for us as individuals and for the environment? 

Luxury goods, things we don’t really need, can certainly improve our quality of life, and many times even deepen our connection with the rest of the world.  But I think when the desire to own nice things compels us to buy things we don’t actually want or won’t actually use, we have entered into an unhealthy relationship with consumer goods.  In addition to personal finance considerations, such as risking debt by living outside one’s means, the physicality of such goods must be considered.  Much of the stuff we buy is mass-produced, and in multiple points in the production process, the well-being of the people and natural resources involved in the physical assembly and transportation of a consumer good may not be carefully considered.  More often than not, the price of a retail product is lower than it would be if the labor was fair and the resources extracted sustainably. This is the biggest problem for us, because low prices not only encourage us to buy more goods, but they can also lead us towards buying the least ethical and sustainable product. As a result, much of the world's poverty and environmental degradation is a result of consumerism in the western world. Think before you buy, is the bottom line, and remember that Ron Burgundy isn’t going to hunt you down if you don’t buy a truck.


Mark your calendars for "A Consuming Conversation."  Come hear Professors Willis, Peters, Brown, and Thompson discuss the development and implications of modern consumer culture in a cross-disciplinary conversation.  Wednesday, November 20th at 5 pm in Convocation Hall.  Catered by Julia's.

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