AskDefine | Define consumerism

Dictionary Definition



1 the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically beneficial
2 a movement advocating greater protection of the interests of consumers

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A policy of protecting and informing consumers through honesty in advertising and packaging, improved safety standards etc
  2. A materialistic attachment to possessions
  3. An economic theory that increased consumption is beneficial to a nation's economy in the long run.

Related terms

Extensive Definition

Consumerism is the equating of personal happiness with the purchasing of material possessions and consumption. The term is often associated with criticisms of consumption starting with Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen.
Veblen's subject of examination, the newly emergent middle class arising at the turn of the twentieth century, comes to full fruition by the end of the twentieth century through the process of globalization.
In economics, consumerism refers to economic policies placing emphasis on consumption. In an abstract sense, it is the belief that the free choice of consumers should dictate the economic structure of a society (cf. Producerism, especially in the British sense of the term).


Consumerism has strong links with the Western world, but actually is multi-cultural and non-geographical. People purchasing goods and consuming materials in excess of their basic needs is as old as the first civilizations (see Ancient Egypt, Babylon and Ancient Rome, for example). Since consumerism began, various individuals and groups have consciously sought an alternative lifestyle through simple living.
The older term and concept of "conspicuous consumption" originated at the turn of the 20th century in the writings of sociologist and economist, Thorstein Veblen. The term describes an apparently irrational and confounding form of economic behaviour. Veblen's scathing proposal that this unnecessary consumption is a form of status display is made in darkly humorous observations like the following:
''"It is true of dress in even a higher degree than of most other items of consumption, that people will undergo a very considerable degree of privation in the comforts or the necessaries of life in order to afford what is considered a decent amount of wasteful consumption; so that it is by no means an uncommon occurrence, in an inclement climate, for people to go ill clad in order to appear well dressed."'' (The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899).
The term "conspicuous consumption" spread to describe consumerism in the United States in the 1960s, but was soon linked to debates about media theory, culture jamming, and its corollary productivism.
While consumerism is not a new phenomenon, it has become widespread over the course of the 20th century, and particularly in recent decades. The influence of neoliberal capitalism has made the citizens of capitalist countries extraordinarily wealthy compared to those living under other economic systems.


Webster's dictionary defines Consumerism as "the promotion of the consumer's interests" or alternately "the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable". It is thus the opposite of anti-consumerism or of producerism.
  • Anti-consumerism is the socio-political movement against consumerism. In this meaning, consumerism is the equating of personal happiness with the purchasing material possessions and consumption.
  • In relation to producerism, it is the belief that the free choice of consumers should dictate the economic structure of a society, rather than the interests of producers. It can also refer to economic policies that place an emphasis on consumption.


In many critical contexts, consumerism is used to describe the tendency of people to identify strongly with products or services they consume, especially those with commercial brand names and obvious status-enhancing appeal, e.g. an expensive automobile, expensive jewelry. A culture that is permeated by consumerism can be referred to as a consumer culture. Impulse buyers are quite different from shopaholics, who cannot resist spending money.
Opponents of consumerism argue many luxuries and unnecessary consumer products are social signals allowing people to identify like-minded individuals through the display of similar products. Some believe relationships with a product or brand name are substitutes for healthy human relationships lacking in societies and along with consumerism are part of the general process of social control and cultural hegemony in modern society. Critics of consumerism are quick to point out that consumerist societies are more prone to damage the environment, contribute to climate change and use up resources at a higher rate than other societies.
It is in the interest of product advertisers and marketers that the consumer's needs and desires never be completely or permanently fulfilled. It is smarter for the marketer to sell the consumer a flashy trinket that will wear out and break quickly. It is even better for the product to be part of a continuously changing fashion market, where items in a nearly-new and good condition must be replaced to stay current with the latest trend. In this way steady profits are assured, but consumers are not comfortable or satisfied for very long with what they have.

Modern Consumerism in the 21st century

Beginning in the 1990’s the most frequent reason given for attending college had changed to making a lot of money, outranking reasons such as becoming an authority in a field or helping others in difficulty. This statement directly correlates with the rise of materialism, specifically the technological aspect. At this time compact disc players, digital media, personal computers, and cellular phones, all began to integrate into the affluent American’s everyday lifestyle. A large change in American culture has subsequently occurred – “a shift away from values of community, spirituality, and integrity, and toward competition, materialism and disconnection.”
Companies and corporations have realized that rich consumers are the most attractive targets for marketing their products. The upper class' tastes, lifestyles, and preferences, trickle down to become the standard which all consumers seek to emulate. The not so well off consumers can “purchase something new that will speak of their place in the tradition of affluence” . A consumer can have the instant gratification of purchasing a high-ticket item that will help improve their social status.
Emulation is also a core component of 21st century consumerism. As a general trend, regular consumers seek to emulate those who are above them on the social hierarchy. The poor strive to imitate the rich and the rich imitate celebrities and other icons. One needs to look no further than the celebrity endorsement of products to dissuade the notion that the American population makes its own decisions and models itself as a group of individualists.

Counter arguments

There has always been strong criticism of the anti-consumerist movement. Most of this comes from libertarian thought, but also from the Humanist Movement.
The libertarian attack on the anti-consumerist movement is largely based on the perception that it leads to elitism. Namely, libertarians believe that no person has the right to decide for others what goods are necessary for living and which aren't, or that luxuries are necessarily wasteful, and thus argue that anti-consumerism is a precursor to central planning or a totalitarian society. Twitchell, in his book Living It Up, sarcastically remarked that the logical outcome of the anti-consumerism movement would be a return to the sumptuary laws that existed in ancient Rome and during the Middle Ages, historical periods prior to the era of Karl Marx in the 19th century.

Further reading

  • Elizabeth Chin (2001) Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture University of Minnesota Press ISBN 978-0816635115
  • FutureShop: How the New Auction Culture Will Revolutionize the Way We Buy, Sell and Get the Things We Really Want (Hardcover, 246 pages)
  • Veblen, Thorstein (1899): The Theory of the Leisure Class: an economic study of institutions, Dover Publications, Mineola, N.Y., 1994, ISBN 0-486-28062-4. (also available: Project Gutenberg e-text)
  • Jan Whitaker (2006): Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class, St. Martin's Press, N.Y., ISBN 0-312-32635-1. (Hardcover, 352 pages)
  • Miller, Eric. Attracting the Affluent. Naperville, Illinois: Financial Sourcebooks, 1991.
  • Kalle Lasn & Bruce Grierson, Malignant Sadness, (Adbusters June/July 2000).
  • Mona Hymel, Consumerism, Advertising, and the Role of Tax Policy, 20 Virginia Tax Review 347 (2000).
  • John C. Ryan & Alan T. Durning, Stuff: The Secret Life of Everyday Things (Northwest Environmental Watch 1997).
  • Susan Strasser, A Social History of Trash, (Orion Magazine, Autumn 2000).
consumerism in Danish: Konsumerisme
consumerism in German: Konsumerismus
consumerism in Spanish: Consumismo
consumerism in Persian: مصرف‌گرایی
consumerism in French: Consumérisme
consumerism in Italian: Consumismo
consumerism in Hebrew: תרבות הצריכה
consumerism in Hungarian: Konzumizmus
consumerism in Malay (macrolanguage): Kepenggunaan
consumerism in Polish: Konsumpcjonizm
consumerism in Portuguese: Consumismo
consumerism in Russian: Консьюмеризм
consumerism in Slovenian: Potrošništvo
consumerism in Finnish: Konsumerismi
consumerism in Ukrainian: Cпоживацтво

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

buy, buying, buying power, buying up, catalog buying, coemption, consumer power, consumer sovereignty, cornering, emption, hire purchase, impulse buying, installment buying, mail-order buying, marketing, money illusion, purchase, purchasing, purchasing power, rebuying, repurchase, shopping, shopping spree, window-shopping
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