Photo of a Whole Foods milk aisle, showcasing a variety of dairy options to choose from. Large corporation stores are one of the main engines of consumerism in the modern day. Photo taken by Lucas Lash.
In 2022, the US census declared the US poverty rate at 11.5%, estimating 37.9 million people were below the poverty line, a stark decrease from the 22.2% of people below the poverty line in 1960. In 2023, the US population stands at approximately 334 million, once again a stark contrast from just 179 million in 1960 according to the US Census Bureau. This extreme increase in both people and wealth along with the rise of the internet, has caused consumerism to reach an all-time high. Consumerism is the process of individuals purchasing goods to increase their well-being, often purchasing more than what they need to satisfy their basic needs. It specifically targets the primal urges of the brain, encouraging impulsive and irrational decisions. The ideals of consumerism drive our modern societal and economic systems.
The effects of consumerism are too complicated to categorize as simply good or bad. “In one way consumerism benefits society because people can get products that are actually what they say they are; those protections haven’t always been there,” says Joel Egli, a business teacher at Franklin High School. Quality assurance is one of the biggest benefits of consumerism, because large standardized corporations have been forced to zero in on their product standards. “You hardly ever open up a can of Coca-Cola and it’s the wrong recipe… the product [is] the same every time,” explains Egli. Additionally, “[consumerism] has in some ways benefited society because people have [larger amounts of available] food to eat, clothes to wear, things to match their needs.” Another potential benefit with consumerism is the creation of jobs. According to CNN, over 4.5 million jobs were created in 2022 in line with the boom in consumerism and production. Franklin psychology teacher Greg Garcia lists another benefit to consumerism. “It builds a sense of belonging, we all share this experience, we all share the struggles and triumphs of wanting to get something we really want, and the thrill of obtaining that thing.”
While a few positives for consumerism exist, so do a slew of negatives. Overconsumption of resources is one of the biggest issues with the consumerism system: “this disposable mindset… is inevitably [going to] cause a dramatic reduction of resources,” explains Garcia. Overconsumption of resources goes hand in hand with the excess waste produced due to this mindset. In 2018 there were 292.4 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste produced by the US, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Egli fears that “resources [are] being used up at a rate that is unsustainable.” He gave an example of the difference between how products used to be viewed as repairable, in contrast to how they are treated now. “You used to buy one really nice pair of boots, and you [would] go to a cobbler and get them fixed … now people buy a new pair of shoes, and if they don’t like [them] they throw them out and get a new pair.” Things like iPhones, shoes, earbuds, and clothes, are all products we as a society have become too familiar with constantly replacing.
Not only is the environment taking a huge hit from modern consumerism, but so are our individual psyches. “[Consumerism] has the ability to undercut something called executive functioning” says Garcia. “Executive functioning is a series of thought patterns that curb certain irrational impulses.” In other words, the primal part of your brain takes control from the cerebral cortex, the more logical part of your brain.
Consumerism also creates a haves and have-nots mindset. “[A shopper] can say ‘I have this, look at you, you do not have this’ making a downward social comparison,” says Garcia. For instance, a wealthier shopper buys an expensive bag from a designer store, and looks down on someone buying a bag from a normal retail store as less than them. According to the Pew Research Center, from 1980 to 2016, income inequality has risen by 20% in the US. According to brookings.edu, this rise is due to surges in globalization, one of the key engines of consumerism. This difference in income and spending capability further increases class division. “There can be a certain amount of harm being at the receiving end of a downward social comparison, people who can afford ‘these things’ look down on those who can’t,” says Garcia.
The production of goods is another aspect of consumerism that is far from clean. Large mega corporations often have very little government oversight and can misuse their power, often turning to unethical forms of labor. With huge profit margins and mind-boggling sales, with mega companies like Apple bringing in a September quarter record of $90.1 billion in 2022, according to Apple’s fourth quarter report, ethics have often taken a back seat to fuel the machine of consumerism. In 1991, Jeff Ballinger released a report uncovering Nike’s use of sweatshops and appalling work conditions to produce their shoes. Even today, poor work conditions plague our consumerized world. In July of 2022, The Department of Labor found unethical and unsafe working conditions at multiple Amazon warehouses.
Despite the problematic practices that often accompany mass consumption, it is unlikely that consumerism will ever go away. “I think it would be darn difficult to stop the machine now that it’s been turned on,” says Egli. The ideals of consumerism are even more permanent than the systems created. “Consumerism exists because people want us to accumulate resources, if those resources aren’t available consumerism as we understand it might change. But the drives we have, to accumulate materials that satisfy needs, that has always been there; and in that regard, I don’t think consumerism will change,” spoke Garcia. Consumerism is also a large part of our country’s history: “[consumerism] is nothing new to this country, it’s kind of what we’ve been built on.” So while we may eventually run out of resources, the principles of consumerism are likely to stay constant in human society.
One immediate way to fight against it is to fight against the corruption of consumerism. Egli urges people to “hold these companies accountable for what they do to their employees, their consumers, and to the environment.”