How the ‘obsession with acquisition’ is built into our everyday existence
For basic human survival, air, water, food, clothing and shelter are the only necessities needed for metabolic processes and protection. Besides that, there isn’t anything really required to be able to live. Still, humans are constantly finding things that they believe they need and these items usually come in the form of material goods. With the limited number of legitimate needs for survival and the large — although dwindling — amount of extra resources being used, it is hardly a surprise that consumerism is such a huge part of the modern human experience.
Consumerism is something many people engage in every day without even realizing it. Businesses often play off of it by using intrusive advertising strategies on television, billboards, in magazines and the like to convince people to spend money on their products. People are exposed to over 5,000 of these advertisements every day on television alone, a striking increase since the 1970s when people only encountered 500 per day, according to a CBS News story from 2006 titled, “Cutting Through Advertising Clutter.”
This obsession with material items is somewhat built into society through capitalism. But there is an important distinction between capitalism and consumerism, according to Amitai Etzioni, the University Professor of Sociology of The George Washington University.
“What needs to be eradicated, or at least greatly tempered, is consumerism: the obsession with acquisition that has become the organizing principle of American life. This is not the same thing as capitalism, nor is it the same thing as consumption,” Etzioni wrote in a 2012 Huffington Post piece titled, “The Crisis of American Consumerism.”
He expanded on the distinction between buying items in a capitalistic society and consumerism. “Consumption can be good, because true needs need to be taken care of. But consumerism is an addiction,” Etzioni said in an interview with Buzzsaw.
It should be pointed out that the U.S. system of capitalism could be a valid explanation for why consumerism is such a huge part of society. Capitalism is dependent on the buying and selling of goods; without this give-and-take there is no economy. Consuming is necessary to keep these economic processes going. But consumerism is doing more than what’s actually needed — buying unnecessary things just because the resources to do so are there.
The problem, according to Etzioni’s Huffington Post article, is not with the structure of capitalism in the United States but with the behavior of the American people themselves.
Etzioni referred to consumerism as a “social disease” in his article. In the piece he explored how consumerism dictates many individual’s day-to-day actions.“Working slavish hours, behaving rapaciously in their business pursuits, and even bending the rules” are all examples of the sacrifices people make in order to have enough money to buy items they think they need.
Etzioni believes that the only way to begin to rid society of consumerism is by self-regulation, which he said comes from awareness of the problem.
“People need to understand how they are being affected by the things they see on television,” Etzioni said. “Knowing the difference between one’s real needs and their mere desires is a form of regulation that separates consumption from consumerism,” he added.
Psychologically speaking, consumerism can be explained by the school of thought known as “existential psychology,” which strives to find meaning in life. Humans can find meaning through their possessions, but there will always be an “empty hole” that they will try to fill, Steven Schlozman — an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School — said.
“The problem with consumerism is that people don’t know how much is enough,” Schlozman said. “People feel empty, so they buy stuff. But that doesn’t fill their existential void.”
Schlozman noted that not all consumerism is harmful. He said it can actually be beneficial as long as people are consuming for the right reasons.
“I would like people to not consume mindlessly. I want people to want things because it feeds into who they are, into their identity,” Schlozman said.
Finding this happy medium can be difficult, especially with the number of choices we are faced with on a daily basis in our consumerist society. These choices lead people to fall into one of two categories, as explored in Carlin Flora’s Psychology Today article, “Consumerism: One Choice Too Many.” These categories, coined by Barry Schwartz, author of the book The Paradox of Choice, are “maximizers” versus “satisficers.”
Maximizers are constantly looking at what other, better options are available to them while satisficers are content if something is “good enough.” It is thought that while maximizers may do better in the long run, satisficers are happier because they aren’t feeding into consumerism by wasting their resources on unnecessary, seemingly “better” items. By not continually seeking out the most novel items, satisficers rid themselves of the anxiety that maximizers feel from consuming.
Flora spoke of the strategies popular brands use to try and manipulate maximizers.
“They [big companies] introduce new products with not too many benefits, but just enough to make people think they have to have the latest one,” Flora said. “Comfort with the latest technologies conveys status in our tech-obsessed and youth-obsessed culture, so people aren’t just buying things to have things, they are also trying to achieve more status and perceived power in the world.”
Flora’s idea is supported in activist Annie Leonard’s 2007 project, “The Story of Stuff.” In the 20 minute video, Leonard describes the true processes behind how Americans, as a culture, consume. The video explains the ideas of planned and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is the term used to explain the way items are made not to last. These products are made to eventually stop working in order to get consumers to buy a newer version and, as a result, encourage consumerism.
In contrast, perceived obsolescence is the term for what Flora expressed: it’s the way that consumers convince themselves to throw away things that are still serving their purpose but are not the newest version of the item.
Since its origin in 2007, Leonard’s project has grown into a series of over 20 videos and short films that outline the problems with consumerism as a whole and focus on specific items and their direct harm to the environment. In a 2013 video, Leonard and her team offered some solutions to the consumerism problem they had been discussing in previous videos.
Like Etzioni, Leonard talked about the need for self-regulation, but she put a bigger emphasis on opening up community conversations about the systemic way consumerism is taking over the lives of the American people. She called such solutions, “game-changing solutions” and uses a set of four criteria to identify them.
If a solution to consumerism can give people more power rather than big corporations, open people’s eyes to the real needs for happiness, account for all the costs (including environmental) and lessen the wealth gap between the lower and upper classes, it is likely to be considered a game-changing solution. According to Leonard, these solutions are the only real way to break down the cycle of consumerism in modern American society.
However, while it is clear that consumerism in high doses is a serious issue, it is unlikely that it can be completely eradicated since it has become such an integral part of the human experience. Instead, it must be acknowledged by those who are affected by consumerist culture so they become aware of how they may be mindlessly consuming. The way that individuals are subconsciously taking in consumerist messages through advertisements and their peers is the first thing that consumers have to understand in order to not be so heavily influenced.
And at the end of the day, while material items will always be sought out, genuine human-to-human interaction is of more value to living a meaningful life.
“We’re always going to choose hanging out with each other over hanging out with our stuff because there are hundreds of years of human evolution backing that up,” Schlozman said. “But we still miss some important developmental milestones due to our preoccupation [with consumerism].”
Alexis Morillo is a second-year journalism major who was consumerism for Halloween. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.