The term “consumerism” can refer to many things, but in this article I mean to specifically address the increasingly high levels of consumption of goods and services within our society. It often seems to me that we are so immersed in consumerist society that we are unable to understand it—having never known anything different, we have no basis for comparison. I think about this every semester as I lug bag after bag from my car to my dorm room during move-in. “Why do I have so much stuff?!” I’ve wondered in exasperation during every move-in and move-out for the last four years. But somehow I can’t ever seem to bring less stuff.
However, in a few small ways I’ve glimpsed a world less driven by the accumulation of stuff. My grandfather sometimes shares memories of growing up in the wake of the Great Depression, during which time, he says, children were happy to receive an orange and a few pieces of candy for Christmas. And I can remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” book series as a kid and being fascinated and entranced by the combination of elegant simplicity and grit that I saw in her tales of pioneer life.
In general, most of us have a lot more stuff than people did in the past. For example, in 1930, the average American woman had nine outfits; today, she has 30. And because we have more stuff, we also need bigger houses than we used to: the average square footage of our houses continues to go up even as the average family size shrinks. Of course, consumerism is not limited to the physical things we own. We also consume a great deal of food, entertainment and other services. Just think of the ways that portion sizes have increased in America. According to the National Institutes of Health, portion sizes in American restaurants have double or tripled in the last two decades. Or, consider the recent-phenomenon-turned-new-norm of Netflix bingeing. Netflix recently analyzed viewers’ watching habits and found that people tend to finish the first season of a show in only one week’s time.
Some argue that all of this increased spending is good because it contributes to a healthy economy and prevents another recession. But I believe that before we even ask, “Is this good for the economy?” we should be asking simply, “Is this good?” And while healthy economic patterns do matter a great deal, that question cannot be answered through a purely economic lens, as humans are not purely economic beings.
So, is consumerism good? One way to answer this question is to consider the production process for the goods we consume. In many cases, it seems that our ability to own three times as many outfits as the average person in 1930 is largely dependent on the availability of cheap clothing. But this clothing is often cheap because it is produced by underpaid (and perhaps endangered) factory workers in less-developed countries. Our increasing access to cheap clothes seems to be dependent on global inequality. By purchasing clothing or other goods from vendors that depend on cheap labor, we participate–at least indirectly–in unjust economic structures. There is also a question of sustainability. It takes a great deal of resources to produce the goods we are buying. Given the limited resources of our planet, we need to ask how important the things we are buying really are. Do we need them? If we don’t truly need them but just want them, how significantly will they actually improve the quality of our lives? These are questions we need to ask ourselves again and again if we are to avoid being unthinkingly lulled into unhealthy and potentially unjust consumerist habits.
While consumerism seems to me to be a disconcerting and seriously problematic reality, I often tend to think optimistically about our generation’s concern about social issues, including consumerism. However, after reading a sociological study of young adults done by Christian Smith, I now wonder if my optimism is unmerited. Smith notes, “Fewer than one in 10 emerging adults we interviewed voiced any kind of focused discontent or more intense criticism of mass consumerism. And only a minority of those spoke of actually changing their own thinking and behaviors accordingly.” This is yet another reason to be concerned about consumerism: most people aren’t all that worried about it.
Addressing post-World War II Britain, Dorothy Sayers writes, “A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.” This is all too relevant to our present circumstances. Advertisers work endlessly to convince us that the things we buy will grant us more pleasure, ease, entertainment and satisfaction, ultimately making us happier people. I can’t help but wonder if our unceasing consumption of goods is driven largely by spiritual poverty. The culturally endorsed remedy is to buy, buy, buy. But this seems like a futile solution when what we need to do is learn how to be—how to seek a good life built on love of God and love of people.
Sources: Forbes; National Institutes of Health; The New York Times; Dorothy Sayers, “Creed or Chaos?”; Christian Smith, “Lost in Transition”