Consumerism, or the ideology of increasing mass-consumption to promote economic growth, continues to serve as a driving force behind American history ever since its inception during the Industrial Revolution. Although Americans have changed throughout the years, our desire to accumulate material goods and wealth has not. While consumerism is not without its positives, the overall side-effects of consumerism have been harmful, especially to our environment and culture, as well as our emotional and financial wellbeing.
It goes without saying that our world has been made unhealthy by our own hand. The global push to produce goods inexpensively on a massive scale, the overuse of natural resources and reckless overproduction of pollutants has tainted our water, earth and air. Cumulatively, we “have used more of the earth’s natural resources since 1955 than in all of human history combined” and yet corporations, lobbyists and governments refuse to take basic steps to even slow down, much less halt or reverse the damage (“American Consumerism”). Americans are overzealous in constantly pushing boundaries, making things bigger and better without acknowledging the effects this has on the world around us. While it can sometimes improve products and encourage technological innovation, the fact that planned obsolescence even exists undermines any positive impact of development. Developing our technology to fail is inherently destructive to the environment. The worst thing is that often the consumer is not only complicit in that process, they help to drive it. Due to our cultural take on material wealth, we play a starring role in our own obsession with consumption.
As infants, our exposure to advertisements begins and continues relentlessly for the rest of our lives. By age 16, “the typical American will have seen almost six million ads” which comes down to “more than one ad per waking minute” (Frantz). These ads teach us to look to shopping to solve our problems. In essence, to practice retail therapy. We buy things to feel better, or look good and stay trendy. A classic example is our notion of “keeping up with the Joneses,” to show off to others how well-off we are, or at least the illusion of it. Culturally, it is fashionable to display how much we have and how little we had to work for it. Grassy lawns came about this way, to demonstrate that a wealthy family did not need to farm for a living and could afford to have a useless, solely decorative patch of land. It appears that we have not changed much over the years. Additionally, consumerism has a part to play in our society’s changing values – it harms us both interpersonally and intrapersonally. It seems that “questions relating to democracy, equality, and compassion are becoming the first casualties” of our bad habits (Frantz). Too often we praise charity and practice greed. As for ourselves, our lifestyle hurts our happiness and our wallet.
Our perceived need to keep on acquiring new products is fed by popular culture. People in advertisements are always happy because they have that new car, themed hand-towel set, vintage spoons, or 50 chicken nuggets. It does not matter what they have, but the illusion that having this thing has made their lives so much better. For us, this often means that we feel an alarming dissatisfaction when we buy. Instead of recognizing the dissonance between the message and the action, however, we think that perhaps we simply need to buy more to achieve that happiness. So we spend more than we need, we work harder to keep up with our spending, and ultimately spend more time away from home and the possessions that define us.
During the economic recession in 2008 my family was living comfortably but we were still tight on money. We ate at home and skipped vacations, birthday parties, music and horse riding lessons. In hindsight these were minor changes but they felt like a big deal to nine-year-old me. One thing that did not change during that time was my mother’s purse collecting. Every week or two she would have a new purse that she would use briefly until the next one came in, sometimes costing up to a couple hundred dollars. It was upsetting and frustrating that these wastes of money were just accumulating for no other purpose than to satisfy her need to buy. But it’s something we are all guilty of. These days, I have a difficult time resisting the urge to buy a bath bomb whenever I pass by a Lush store. It’s weird that purchasing a ball of sodium bicarbonate makes me happy, but it does. It is like spending $10 for a moderately enhanced bath. To me, that’s the essence of consumerism: buying and often wasting just because you can, but on a society-wide level.
Ultimately, our shopping habits have done little but harm our world, our values and our finances. The culture of consumerism needs to change soon, and that begins with individual decisions regarding our own purchases, because corporations will not stop their current course as long as there is profit to be made. With our advances in understanding the importance of waste reduction and recycling as well as our impact on the environment, informed buyers can make better choices about what and how much they buy, as well as who they choose to buy from. Hopefully these changes will bring about positive change both for families and for the health of our environment.