Many people in the U.S. have gotten used to our consumerist society and endlessly partake in it. We can declare to being constantly bombarded by visual stimuli, bear witness to the long lines for limited-edition collaborations between brands, splurging on clothes in-stores or online, and of course, seeing the crowds of people in stores during Black Friday trying to land a “good deal”. As much as consumerism has helped the economy, it has also had its negative consequences which have become more prominent due to the increasing awareness of the overwhelming amount of consumer debt and of environmental issues.
First, we have to address the definition of consumerism. So what is consumerism? In today’s world, it has been widely accepted as the social and economic force for the demand for mass-produced goods. However, there are many more definitions and explanations of the concept of consumerism. Peter Stearns, a professor from George Mason University, explained it as “a society in which many people formulate their goals in life partly through acquiring goods that they clearly do not need for subsistence or for traditional display” (Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption). So, its definition can be expanded from a social and economic force to a popular and widespread mentality and behavior shared amongst most Americans. It is this mentality and behavior that many think about when they hear the word consumerism. Such has shaped the American consumerist culture.
This consumerist mentality and behavior began to really take shape going into the 1920s and World War I. The line between items of necessities and those of luxury and leisure began to become increasingly blurred from then on. Products invented during the “roaring 20’s” included things such as the washing machine, iron, radio, the refrigerator, and the most defining of the era, the automobile which was Ford’s Model T. Many people saw these newly invented goods as necessities but the average American, at the time, could not yet afford them. Therefore, Ford made the automobile more available to everyone through consumer credit in which Americans would pay for products through installments, dividing the total cost into smaller payments and paying them over a span of time. These “installment payments [were introduced and] pioneered by Singer Sewing Machines” (Consumerism). Through the availability of consumer credit, many were filled with the instant gratification of purchasing a product even though the product had not actually been paid for with cash. In 1920, there were 8 million of the Model T produced and in the homes of Americans. Only 10 years later, there were 28 million in total. Nowadays, we can still pay through installments along with credit cards.
As aforementioned, consumer credit began to be available to the common person in the 1920s through installment payments. Credit cards were only “issued by specific merchants or groups of merchants. In 1958 the general-purpose credit card was born when Bank of America created a bankcard that eventually became the Visa card. In 1966 a group of banks joined together to create what became Mastercard” (Consumerism, Erik Wright, and Joel Rogers). As a result of the use of credit cards, consumerism started to exponentially increase. Nowadays, applying for a credit card requires steady employment and minimal effort. Credit cards are given to whoever has good employment regardless if the person is new to credit, educated about credit, or responsible. Consumption skyrocketed even though people knew that their purchases did not fit well within their budget. This is where the ugly side of credit in consumerism comes into play.
Although we can use credit to get something we want immediately, many do not use and manage their credit cards wisely. We are encouraged to use our earnings for necessities such as food, water, shelter, insurance bills, and the occasional hospital bills. Then, out of our earnings, we are encouraged to save a certain portion over time to be able to buy goods we want. Yet, in our hyper-consumerist culture, we want things now instead of later. People purchase goods sometimes not knowing if they will have enough money in their paycheck to pay off their credit card bill or they don’t take into consideration the number of bills they are paying with that credit card and eventually the total accumulates and becomes too much to be able to pay it off completely. In the process, hurting the finances of that person and their credit score. This leads into credit card debt. The numbers are appalling. According to Erik Wright, an American sociologist, and Joel Rogers, an academic, stated that “ in 1968, consumers’ total credit card debt was $8.8 billion (averaged over the year, in 2008 dollars). By 2008 the total averaged over $942 billion” (Consumerism). Such statistics illustrate how alarming credit card debt is. Yet, the numbers for consumer debt in general are more disheartening. Wright and Rogers further provide us with considerable larger numbers with “[t]he size of the total consumer debt [growing] (in constant dollars) nearly 3 times in size from $898 billion in 1980 to $2.6 trillion in 2008” (Consumerism). One of the solutions to this growing debt is to utilize credit in the correct and responsible manner. If we don’t change our behaviors, and how we think about credit cards, we can find ourselves in even worse waters.
Since the day we become aware of our surroundings, we constantly see ads online or off. Whether we want to or not. Promising us that if we purchase a certain product, it will change our lives in some dramatic way, shape, or form. A study was conducted and “found that by age 16 the typical American will have seen almost six million ads. This translates into more than one ad per waking minute” (So, What’s Wrong with Consumerism?). Since a young age, the practice of consumption is laid upon us. We see billboards, TV commercials, and strategically placed ads in media we use daily. They influence American culture. They urge us to buy the latest phone, the latest fashion pieces, or buy fast food. We become really knowledgeable about slogans brands use and become brand logo savvy to the point where mobile games are being based off of such knowledge. Americans are all too familiar with Nike’s “Just do it” and its iconic swish to McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” and its famous golden double arcs. The problem, however, does not arise from our knowledge of brand symbols/slogans and what they represent. The issue truly begins to take shape when advertising convinces us that consumption is the answer to life’s challenges. As if buying temporary and materialistic things, we definitely do not need, will magically relieve us of all the problems we face in life. Nonetheless, many of us fall into that rabbit hole and do not learn from our fall. We sometimes get caught up in a loop and do not learn from our meaningless purchases. Instead, we consume repeatedly, each time coming up with an excuse for why the previous buy failed to improve our lives in a meaningful and dramatic way and why we need to buy even more. This introduces the problem of impulse and online shopping.
Online shopping has become more widespread and prominent due to the convenience of the internet, debit/credit cards and our brain’s response to it. With the convenience of online shopping, we now don’t have to take time to drive to the nearest shopping mall/center, wait in queues to check out and drive back home. Now, we can avoid that and shop from the comfort of our homes at any time we want. Thanks to warehouses such as Amazon, we can get things cheaper even though they come from a different city, state or even a different country. Many proclaim their love for online shopping since “consumers have a better experience online than in the store…and there is a broader selection online and deeper inventory” (Online Shopping). We can see how much more, people prefer online shopping through the recent development of Cyber Monday. We were used to the idea of physically going out to hunt for the best deals but “[o]nline retail shopping in the United States — excluding travel and autos — has grown fourfold since 2002 and surged 15 percent… reach[ed] $186 billion in sales, while growth in overall retail sales… was in the low single digits” (Internet Shopping). Whenever we buy anything online, we are hit with that instant gratification when we click “place order.” In brain chemistry, we get a dopamine hit, the happy hormone, when we buy something. With online shopping, we get an additional dopamine hit when it arrives and another when we open up the package. Apart from the convenience, minimal effort, and inexpensiveness of online products, this is another reason for the increasing popularity of online shopping. However, this growing demand for cheap products can be detrimental to the workers that are employed in such warehouses.
The convenience of online shopping, especially on Amazon, are made possible through the hard work of laborers. Earlier this year, Amazon came under fire for the treatment of its workers and the long hours they have to put in. A worker stated “They overwork you and you’re like a number to them. During peak season and Prime season, they give you 60 hours a week. In July, I had Prime week and worked 60 hours. The same day I worked overtime, I got into a bad car accident because I was falling asleep behind the wheel” (We are not robots’: Amazon warehouse employees push to unionize). The increase of consumerism and online shopping for cheap products proves to be detrimental to the health of workers that have to endure long hours without breaks. The same thing applies to fashion.
In the U.S., there is a big influence by big brand names and celebrities. When collaborations drop, they are usually only limited to increase the demand for it. Names such as Supreme, Bape, and Off-White are the latest in streetwear. People line up outside their stores when a new article of clothing drops and are limited to just buying one item. People that are well off can afford to do this. However, many try to keep up with trends while only spending what they can afford. This is where fast fashion comes in. Fast fashion has become increasingly talked-about and perceived negatively… and rightfully so. Company’s try to sell what is in trend at the moment to increase their profits. In order to do that they mass produce cheap products through cheap labor. Many of these “cheap” labor workers work extremely long hours without much rest time in between all while earning little. Fast fashion brands try to increase their profit margins by moving “production to supplier firms in developing countries…these… companies then subcontract production to manufacturing companies…that are not officially authorized by or affiliated with the fast fashion brands that carried out the initial outsourcing. Without authorization or affiliation, fast fashion brands carry no legal obligation to ensure decent working conditions…And because unauthorized subcontractors are unregistered, they operate without government regulation and oversight, resulting in deteriorating work facilities where worker abuse runs rampant” (Factory Exploitation and the Fast Fashion Machine). Not only does fast fashion increase cheap labor and the exploitation of workers, but it also harms the environment. Fast fashion items can be seen as “disposable” since fashion is always changing however, when people dispose of these items in increases the amount of trash in landfills. If we are keeping track of what is happening to our environment we know that we’re running out of places to put all of our trash. We fill up landfills, pollute our oceans and export our trash to developing countries. Recently China and Indonesia have stated that they are not taking our waste anymore. There are other alternatives to fast fashion and cheap consumer goods.
Recently, fast fashion and cheap consumer goods have come under fire. Some consumers are trying to reverse this trend taking part in growing movements like zero-waste households, capsule wardrobes, upcycling clothes, doing a year of no shopping, or even minimalism. Some consumers are using their buying power to encourage companies to create more sustainable products and in turn give a fair wage to workers. Beyond individual choices we can look for a more encompassing solution. Right now we make use and then trash all of our materials which can take a thousand years to biodegrade. Companies could design all of our goods for reuse and to have multiple life cycles before finally composting back into the Earth. we could start with clothing. nearly 100% of our fabrics could be recycled into pulp and turned into new textiles
Other environmental issues have developed over time because of excess consumerism. Globalization, when industries/companies develop international impact or influence and become integrated with each other on a global scale, has become a key factor in making products and services that were once out of reach of other numerous countries increasingly accessible. Items that at one point in time were considered luxuries, such as televisions, cell phones, computers, and air conditioning units, are now viewed as needs. China is a clear example. China’s “major cities were characterized by a virtual sea of people on bicycles, and 25 years ago there were barely any private cars in China. By 2000, 5 million cars moved people and goods; the number is expected to reach 24 million by the end of next year” (So, What’s Wrong with Consumerism?). Increased dependence and demand for gas-powered vehicles increase the emission of greenhouse gases/pollution, increases traffic, and therefore increase the demand and use of more non-renewable fossil fuels. Automobiles and other forms of transportation account “for nearly 30 percent of world energy use and 95 percent of global oil consumption”(So, What’s Wrong with Consumerism?). The environmental consequences of consumerism are not just limited to automobiles and the burning of fossil fuels. America’s diet, with a high demand for meat, takes a toll on the environment as well.
Environmental impact isn’t only limited to technology. It also includes the way we produce and raise our food. To provide enough beef, chicken, and pork to fulfill the increasing demand for protein, the industry has had to move to factory farming. This change in raising livestock has its negative sides. Many of our available water (and other resources) goes to agricultural reasons and into raising such livestock. In order to produce “eight ounces of beef [it] requires 6,600 gallons of water” (The Rise of American Consumerism). In addition “ 95% of world soybean crops are consumed by farm animals and 16% of the world’s methane, a destructive greenhouse gas, is produced by belching, flatulent livestock” (PBS). The enormous quantities of manure produced at factory farms becomes toxic waste rather than a fertilizer, and runoff threatens nearby bodies of water. So even if we claim to have an abundance of food, the process of growing and raising it is compromising the health of the environment.
There, of course, have been things such as veganism and more sustainable farming to face these issues. Many people have become very aware that livestock such as chicken, turkeys, pigs, and cows are “collectively the largest producers of methane in the U.S.”(Veganism and The Environment: by the Numbers.) Veganism does not only apply to the beliefs of animal rights of people involved, but also applies to the improvement of the environment.
Of course, consumerism is an important part of our economy. However, the extent of such a culture and how these goods are made are the real culprits of harming us and the planet. We need to speak out about the negatives of consumerist culture and explore/ encourage ways to make food and things such as clothes and technology in a more sustainable way.