What is meant by the term “consumerism” and what damage does it cause?

Consumerism is a word that was born around the 1920s and constitutes one of the key elements of our society (called, not surprisingly, “consumer society”). In fact, in the most economically developed states, especially after the end of the Second World War, there has been a strong increase in private consumption and a rapid massification of the market for goods such ascarThe home appliances or the vacation. On the other hand, consumerism does not only have to do with unbridled purchasing and waste, but also with the places where we spend our free time, with the way in which we build and modify relationships with others, with our relationship with art and culture or the way we construct our identity. Let’s delve deeper into the meaning of the term and let’s see which ones damage can lead to uncontrolled consumerism.

  • 1What does “consumerism” mean and how does it work?
  • 2How did consumerism develop?
  • 3Shopping centres, the cathedrals of consumption
  • 4The credit card, symbol of consumerism
  • 5What are the harms of consumerism?

What does “consumerism” mean and how does it work?

We call consumerism the economic-social phenomenon, typical of high-income countries, where social activities and social relationships revolve around the exchange of money and the consumption of goods and services. There “consumer society” It’s often labeled the buying spree, but it’s a more complex phenomenon than that.

In sociology the idea of ​​a single consumer who acts rationally, from time to time, evaluating the costs and benefits of a possible purchase is incomplete and misleading: consumption is a collective, relational and social phenomenon and it should not be understood only as a simple act of purchasing or satisfying a need (I buy a dress because I’m cold) but as a way of acting full of expressive and symbolic meanings.

In fact, we consume for various reasons among which:

  • express our identity (I choose to buy a Milan shirt),
  • our social status (I can afford the original shirt)
  • our personal preferences (I prefer the colors of the second shirt and buy that instead of the first shirt).
How consumerism works

How did consumerism develop?

Consumerism developed mainly from second half of the twentieth centurydue to a combination of several factors:

  • L’industrialization and the growth of mass productionwhich allowed a large quantity of goods to be produced at an increasingly lower unit cost.
  • A political-institutional environment favorable: thanks to the strengthening of the welfare state, consumption trends became partly independent of market fluctuations.
  • The increase in the competitiveness of companies.
  • The spread of advertising.

Consumption, from the 1950s onwards, became “massified”: we witnessed a democratization of luxury and to an expansion of access to “secondary” consumption (i.e. not strictly necessary for survival) also for that large segment of the population that previously used the majority of its resources to satisfy primary needs (food, electricity).

Shopping centres, the cathedrals of consumption

Consumption, as we know it today, has evolved since the 1950s and has come to include places traditionally not coinciding with the purchase: museums and universities, where we find university clothing boutiques, bookshops with jewellery, carpets and various objects, as well as restaurants and bookshops.

Already in 1925, consumption was defined by Samuel Strauss as the religion of Western society. Furthermore, according to George Ritzer, professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, i shopping centersrepresent the modern cathedrals of our time.

The shopping center, as well as the streets of a city, are increasingly places of consumption: since there is no (or very difficult) way to find leisure activities that do not involve the consumption of something (trivially, even spending an afternoon with friends meeting at the bar is a consumer activity), we are educated to think that there cannot be another way of carrying out social activities: this is because time and space, in consumerist societies, are regulated and marked by purchasing logics.

The credit card, symbol of consumerism

A decisive role was then played by the credit card both because it involved the reduction or abolition of physical money (with a whole series of repercussions on the perception of the actual expenditure incurred) and because it allowed the deferral of payments. The of himself color It has become a status symbol, a sign of social elevation: from a plastic and unattractive card, white or green in colour, it has become silver and gold.

What are the harms of consumerism?

Alongside the positive narratives that place emphasis on the fact that consumption and purchasing allow one to exercise one’s self-determination, happiness and personal fulfillment, there are also many negative ones, supported by various arguments:

  • Indebtedness and dissatisfaction: according to Jean Baudrillard what is created by the consumerist system is not the need for specific objects but rather the need to need, the desire to desire, which generates a continuous cycle of endless consumption.
  • Commodification: with this term we mean the process by which everything is transformed into a commodity to be sold and purchased. Jean Baudrillard accuses that in a consumerist society everything is reduced to consumption, even the human body.
  • Environmental degradation: also due to planned obsolescence, that is, the deliberate design and intentional production of products that lose their usefulness in a relatively short period of time, we are led to replace them more quickly, increasing waste, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Weakening of social bonds: if in the past real social relationships were established with shopkeepers, today supermarkets have changed the structure of interactions between consumers and sellers. Furthermore, the spread of technology and the introduction of household appliances such as the microwave oven and the freezer have modified the family unit as we were used to knowing it, allowing us to consume meals at any time of the day, eliminating the traditional ritual of lunch in family.
  • Failure to perceive inequality: the sociologists Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Fromm have carried out a critical reflection on the mass diffusion of consumer goods: by consuming all or almost in the same way, we delude ourselves into enjoying a superficial equality. The spread of previously inaccessible consumer goods among the less wealthy classes, however, does not truly abolish class distinctions, but rather prevents awareness of this economic-social “inferiority”.