Money management

What you should know about consumerism

18 August 2020 | Posted by Clare Seal

Consumerism is something of a buzzword at the moment, as the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way that we shop – along with almost everything else about the way that we live our lives. A sterile definition of consumerism is that it is a social and economic model that encourages continuous acquisition of goods and services beyond the bare essentials, but it has a tangible effect on our everyday lives, so it’s important that we understand it properly. 

Consumerism has its roots in the industrial revolution, where the manufacture of goods was sped up to the point where supply exceeds demand. Produces then had to develop ways to encourage people to buy more products than they ‘needed’, by making them desirable. 

Some level of consumerism has been the norm for as long as most of us can remember, but in recent years our barriers to consumption have been lowered significantly by the rise of online shopping and easy access to credit in developed and developing countries.

Consumerism has its benefits…

Consumerism’s greatest benefit is undoubtedly the economic growth that it has fuelled. The manufacture and selling of goods is a cornerstone of most economies, and has created millions of jobs worldwide, at every stage of the supply chain. 

Also beneficial is the access that a consumerism economy gives us to superior goods and services. Competition in the market means that we’re constantly being offered upgrades on the tools that help us in everyday life – just think about the device you’re reading this article on compared to its 2010 equivalent, for example.

…but it has many disadvantages, too.

With the rise of social media and the huge pivot to online of the last twenty years, the way that we consume has shifted, too. Instagram, in particular, has fostered a culture of comparison and amplified the need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ to a point where many people are buying more goods than they can afford.
This desire to keep up, coupled with the ready availability of credit, has led to a rise in consumer debt, which hit an all-time high in 2019. This pressure to spend more, coupled with unnecessary clutter and the financial effect of overconsumption, can have a negative effect on your wellbeing, so it’s a good idea to keep your personal consumption levels in check.

What about the planet?

Another reason to limit your consumption is, of course, the global environmental impact of consumerism. Increasing amounts of fossil fuels are needed to keep the wheels of the manufacturing industry turning, while waste is also being generated at an unsustainable pace. Animal habitats are being destroyed, both by climate change and by the over-consumption of natural resources, leading to irreversible loss of species (extinction).

Finding a balance for the future

If that sounds a little bleak, it might reassure you to know that combatting the effects of consumerism on both the planet and on human wellbeing are top of the agenda for younger generations. ‘Millennial’ and ‘Gen-Z’ generations are increasingly factoring the environment into their decision-making; from where they shop to who they vote for.

The challenge has always been how to reduce the impact of consumerism without pulling the rug out from under the economy and jobs market, but there are ways to shift your behaviour to consumers more responsibly. Buying second-hand, especially when it comes to fashion, is growing in popularity, as are more eco-friendly choices such as reusable water bottles and coffee cups, all of which are perfect examples of how small-scale changes can add up. 

For larger-scale change to happen, though, consumers and investors need to look at what kind of businesses their money is funding. Shopping with greener brands is a start, but making sure any money you invest is fuelling ethical businesses will have an even greater long-term impact. 

Key takeaways

  • Consumerism dates back to the industrial revolution, but still has a strong grip on today’s society.
  • Consumerism fuels economic growth, but can damage personal wellbeing and the environment. 
  • Finding new, more responsible ways to consume, and investing in ethical funds, is a good place to start when tackling the damage done by consumerism.

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