Consumerism – Concept, causes, consequences and types of consumption

We explain what consumerism is, its historical origin, current causes and consequences. Also, what types of consumption exist.

Consumerism means buying a lot of unnecessary products.

What is consumerism?

It is known as consumerism, overconsumption or irresponsible consumption to a dynamics of exacerbated consumption of goods and services, that is, to the tendency to consume excessively, in an exaggerated or frantic way, without paying too much attention to whether the purchased is really necessary or not.

At the same time, consumerism is a sociocultural doctrine and belief, which proposes the acquisition of material possessions as the only way to personal satisfaction, and that distinguish between people based on their greater or lesser consumption capacity.

Consumerism is a trend present in postindustrial capitalist societies, especially in those whose citizens have high incomes and therefore a lot of consumption capacity.

On the other hand, consumerism is radically opposed to responsible consumption or sustainability: those who practice consumerism (“consumerists”) do not care about the durability of society or the ecological damage that their way of life causes, but rather they give themselves to the frenzy of purchase and accumulation.

On the other hand, consumerism is usually promoted by marketing and advertising, since constant and massive consumption creates demand where there was little or no demand, and provides companies with an ideal setting for their products. On the other hand, many social, environmental and progressive sectors criticize consumerist positions and accuse them of carrying out a waste whose consequences will be dramatic for future generations.

Origin of consumerism

Consumerism is only possible within the so-called “consumer society”, whose origins date back to the 20th century. Industrialization, mass production and the appearance of advertising were determining factors for the formation of the “culture of consumption”, that is, a model of citizenship that values ​​itself primarily as consumers.

One of the main responsible for the expansion of consumerism in history was the United States, due to the overproduction that its industries experienced in the 1920s, in turn the result of increased productivity thanks to new industrial technological innovations.

This was also a time of cultural flourishing in which voting became accessible to women, and black citizens took their first steps into the public arena amid an air of great euphoria. This feeling of well-being and hope remained in the American culture identified with mass consumption, despite the fact that its consequences were not long in coming: the great depression of 1929.

Types of consumption

Consumption and consumerism are not necessarily synonymous, and to understand this difference, it may be helpful to establish the different types of consumption that occur within our post-industrial societies, many of which are driven and driven by advertising and marketing. , as well as for social and political events. We refer to:

  • Experimental consumption. This is the name given to the acquisition of a product or service that you want to try, that is not known in advance and that therefore can lead to occasional or habitual consumption, or simply not to be repeated over time. This is what happens when a new product or brand appears on the market.
  • Occasional consumption. Also called intermittent consumption, it is not governed by patterns but is sporadic, casual, depending on the availability of the goods or services demanded and the financial, social and individual situation of the consumer.
  • Usual consumption. Also called regular consumption, it is one that is carried out frequently, in which one or more goods are consumed continuously and constantly, such as basic products or basic necessities. Food, for example, is usually in this band.
  • Extraordinary consumption. This is what those who speak of “nervous purchases” or “impulsive purchases” refer to, and they usually occur in the moments before a great event of political, social or historical importance, or in the moments immediately afterwards. They are a form of defensive reaction by consumers, and are usually characterized by focusing on basic and fundamental goods, or those that are at risk of scarcity.
  • Responsible consumption. The exact opposite of consumerism: a way of consuming that is aware of the consequences of the purchase of a product, both in individual life, social and environmental, and that favors safe and low-risk products to those that provide immediate pleasure and momentary at a very high cost for future generations.

Causes of consumerism

consumerism causes
Advertising has a high impact on the forms of consumption.

Consumerism is the product of complex dynamics within the “consumer society”, as understood by anthropologists. These dynamics can be summarized as:

  • The social and psychological strength of the advertising media and marketing, capable of encouraging the consumption of certain goods through seduction strategies to which we are all, to some extent, vulnerable. Products compete in this way for our attention, and it is normal to respond to it in impulsive and irrational ways.
  • The facilities that offer certain disposable products, whose use is immediate and then go to the garbage, regardless of the fact that their waste and residues may remain (as in the case of plastics) for hundreds of years polluting the environment. However, as the product has disappeared from our homes, we have the impression that it has ceased to exist altogether.
  • The planned obsolescence of many products, especially the technological ones, which obey the consumerist logic of being forced to buy a new one every so often, in order to keep the industry going. These products could last much longer, but they are programmed to stop working at a certain point and force us to buy a new one.
  • The culture of novelty and innovation, which rewards us socially and emotionally only if we have the latest model of a product or service, and instead embarrasses us if we have fallen behind in the race. The worst thing is that keeping up to date is practically impossible, since the pace of innovation is much faster than any personal ability to save or generate wealth.

Consequences of consumerism

The consequences of irresponsible consumption can be very positive for industry and the local economy, as well as dire for the environment and human health. Some of them can be:

  • Creates demand where there was none, or encourages demand for a particular product above others, especially those of low price and low quality. This contributes to the maldistribution of wealth, as it is usually the middle and lower classes that continually consume cheap mass-produced goods, investing their money in objects that do not last at all and provide little benefit.
  • Continuous and excessive garbage productionAs product residues, especially short-lived ones, accumulate in the environment and can take thousands of years to decompose. This, in turn, wreaks havoc on the planet’s delicate biotic balance.
  • The massive consumption of low-quality industrialized products, especially food, brings with it consequences on individual, family and regional health, causing diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
  • The massive preference of certain products over others, especially single-use ones over more durable ones, leads to economic and commercial imbalance between countries and regions whole, pushing the cycles of capitalism towards more frequent and acute crises.