The curse of consumerism

Illustration by Alisia Gruendel

The general theory of consumerism is that the more we consume, the better off we are economically. This is true, to a certain extent. An increased production of goods equals more jobs and more money to spend, which creates a demand for more goods. Having the financial resources to afford bigger houses, faster cars, trendier clothes and newer technology has long been part of the American dream, but it comes with a cost (pun intended). 

One of the problems with consumerism is that it can turn into overconsumption. This happens when we buy things neither to practically utilize them nor to realistically make our lives better, but instead to have a symbol of status. We may feel that making a purchase makes us a happier, better, version of ourselves. Other times, we overconsume because we see shopping as a fun hobby and form of entertainment. In either case, consumerism can become excessive and potentially harmful. 

Thanks to capitalism and the market economy, it is very easy to overconsume. A high percentage of the products we purchase in the United States are mass produced, oftentimes resulting in a higher supply of a product than demand. To ensure the continued financial success of overproduction, companies use “planned obsolescence” — when companies plan for a product to become obsolete within a certain period of time so the consumer will buy it again. 

A popular example of planned obsolescence is cell phones. As Adam Hadhazy of BBC explains, “These handsets often get discarded after a mere couple years’ use. Screens or buttons break, batteries die, or their operating systems, apps and so on can suddenly no longer be upgraded. Yet a solution is always near at hand: brand new handset models, pumped out every year or so, and touted as ‘the best ever.’” 

Not only does planned obsolescence hurt the consumer financially, but it is also unsustainable. Instead of purchasing items we use or cherish for years, we consume products we end up discarding when they either fall apart from being poorly designed or stop being trendy. When companies are deceptive about the longevity and quality of their products, consumers are tricked into purchasing items that are bound to end up in landfills and contribute to environmental decline.  

This deliberate deception is what separates planned obsolescence from profit motive, which refers to “an individual’s drive to undertake activities that will yield net economic gain,” according to author Julia Kagan. In general, the theory is that companies will embrace innovation to make better products and generate revenue. Planned obsolescence generates more revenue, but does not deliver on better quality or innovation.  

To make things worse, we are increasingly subject to targeted advertising when we use online platforms. Tailored advertisements try to reshape our desires for material possessions, telling us that the thing we kind of want is the thing we really need to make us happy.  

Despite the fact that many people around the world today are facing high levels of unemployment and economic anxiety as the holiday season approaches, it doesn’t mean that retailers and advertisers won’t be pressuring them to open their wallets, or rather, type in their credit card information online.  

However, this never-ending goal of companies to push consumers into making new purchases is not aligned with the priorities of most Americans this year. One of the biggest lessons many of us have learned during the pandemic is we would rather spend time connecting with family and friends than remain locked inside with our possessions. Connection is becoming more important to us than consumption. Perhaps this year more than ever, we need to keep that in mind while holiday shopping.  

One of the easiest ways to avoid overconsumption is to plan what you are going to purchase beforehand, be it online or in-store. Steer clear of buying something impulsively or emotionally, and be aware that companies and advertisers are there to serve their own interests, not yours. While it is their responsibility to persuade you to purchase an item, it is ultimately your responsibility to determine if that is a wise decision. Of course, it is okay to buy gifts for yourself and others; just as long as you are doing so in moderation, and the items you are buying serve to truly improve a person’s life, rather than for the sake of novelty.  

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