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Consumerism: From Individual Need to Corporate Greed

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Exclusive | Faye Williamson shines a light on consumerism, its history and the interwoven impact it has on society and beyond.

Photo by Justin Lim

The year is 2020 and the cracks of Consumerism are clear. It’s a profit before planet culture and never before has there been such sacrifices for it. The toll has been taken on the earth’s inhabitants, habitats and ecosystems - billions of people and animals have suffered since its birth.

To understand Consumerism in depth we should understand how it started, and where its long term trends have been heading.

History of Consumerism

To consume, was once a mere necessity to maintain one’s healthy existence. Prior to the industrial revolution, mostly the powerful and elites within society found themselves with what one might describe today as living a consumer lifestyle with items such as fine furnishings and clothing.

They maintained their status with the knowledge that they were within a very small minority who were in possession of high-quality objects and food. Religious influence in the 16th

century, before materialistic class divides, justified this as God’s intentions. The idea of spirituality and the reward of a good afterlife meant more than life’s materialistic offerings.

In 1776, economist and philosopher Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, which introduced the concept of capitalism. Suggesting that luxury produce is good for economies, and that everyone should have their own economic interest, promoting the idea of consumerism. In 1796, the first British department store was opened in London, spelling the beginning of shopping as a leisure activity and a source of entertainment.

Between 1840 and 1870 the Industrial Revolution brought a new era for societal structure and its interwoven relationship with our planet. As a new wave of mass-produced items at cheaper prices arrived, so to was born an economic power structure of labour, consumption and waste.

While consumerism in the 19th century was centred on increasing living standards and more economic independence for the majority of people, by the 20th century it had morphed into an unsustainable force which has at times manifested itself in uglier forms such as human, animal and psychological exploitation besides environmental and sentient disregard.

The Consumer Trend

Marketing is one way to describe how you get the ideas to do, or buy the things you want. Through advertising channel such as social media, television, billboards and online adverts help drive your decisions on products, trends and life’s upgrades whilst shaping your character along the way.

Edward Bernays, himself a pioneer in the field of P.R. and propaganda in the 20th century, stated that the average consumer is unaware of the extent to which they are manipulated by marketing strategies and advertising.

“Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power” - Edward Bernays,

Despite the presumption that materialistic possessions bring happiness, it has been revealed that those with the largest amounts of wealth are no happier than those on the opposite end. This is where the difference between relative and absolute wealth takes place; relative wealth, where we are the same or better than our peers, is more important than materialistic wealth.

The Conscious Consumer

The trend of wealth and consumption is as much about external appearance and impressions within social circles as it is a personal endeavour or craving. Where you invest your money, is either fuelling a societal trend of moral significance or it is not.

The primary characteristics of our consumerist society influence our present circumstances and future change. The hope is that the need to move away from the modern trend of unsustainable acquisition and towards beginning a new cycle of conscientiousness is realised.

"development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"

The concept of sustainability is composed of three pillars: Economic, Environmental, and Social—also known informally as profits, planet, and people.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any” – Alice Walker

To abolish consumerism completely is impossible, that’s true. However, being aware, and through directing your financial powers towards more conscious companies and products you will help influence a new wave of sustainability.

It’s arguable that the profit over planet culture equates to the majority of private industries and the impact for the earth’s inhabitants, environment and ecosystems is clear. It’s time to wake up and craft a new, more conscious consumer trend.

Edited by Shaun Britton.


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