Consumerism is an economic theory that states that the purchase of consumer goods and services correlates positively with happiness, life satisfaction, and a higher standard of living. In other words, the concept states that people who consume more commercial goods and services end up being ‘better off’ — happier, healthier, with greater living standards and greater overall life satisfaction.
Consumerism originated in Europe in the 1600s and its subsequent growth was aided by the Age of Imperialism, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of marketing in the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout history, consumerism played a key role in widening the gap between social classes; those who could afford to purchase more consumer goods were indeed ‘better off’ (could afford housing, sanitation, foods, medicine, clothing, leisure activities, etc.) than those who could not (unsafe working conditions, lack of proper sanitation and extreme poverty were threats to the lower working classes). Consumerism and the rise of accessible and diverse commercial goods have indeed aided a better life: the abundance of accessible, diverse foods meant less hunger, more nourishment for the young population, and, subsequently, more health. Accessible house appliances (such as fridges, microwaves, ovens, and washing machines) allowed individuals to spend less time on household duties, thus providing opportunities for leisure activities.
However, while the immediate benefits of consumerism are clear and obvious, the harms and downfalls of it are more obscure. Consumerism’s actual downfalls arise when it comes in excess - when we consume more than we actually need to satisfy our basic needs. We are more prone to excessive consumerism today than ever before: widespread availability of diverse and accessible goods and services, as well as the endless abundance of internet marketing, means that it is ridiculously easy to spend our money unnecessarily on things that we do not actually need.
This article is the first of a series in which I demonstrate how excessive consumerism has significant negative effects on our physical and mental health, as well as the health of the environment. In this specific article, I argue that consumerism is only beneficial up to a certain point, after which excessive consumerism will yield more harmful consequences than positive ones.
I believe that consumerism is beneficial when it is used to satisfy one’s basic life necessities and some ‘luxuries’ on top of that (items or experiences that are not required for survival but actually make us happier, such as a vacation or gift). However, once this threshold is surpassed and an individual’s needs for an objectively happy and healthy life have been met, additional consumerism can be considered ‘excessive.’ From this point, an increase in consumerism may actually prompt a decrease in the standard of living by having negative effects on our physical and mental health.
I believe that the relationship between consumerism and its consequences is similar to that of the Law of Diminishing Marginal Return. In economics, this law states that the more inputs we use to produce an outcome, the better the outcome will be at first; however, after a certain turning point, more inputs will actually yield less desired outcomes and more negative outcomes. For example, if a restaurant has four chefs and they employ another two, the amount of food the restaurant produces will increase at first, but if they keep employing more and more chefs without enlarging the kitchen’s space, it will reach a scenario when one additional chef employed will do more harm than good. The chefs may find themselves quarreling, struggling to remain productive due to spatial restrictions, and the lack of coherent coordination between them may inhibit progress. So the more chefs the restaurant employs after this breaking point, the less efficient the kitchen will function. Therefore, the restaurant only needs a specific and limited number of chefs to maximise its meal production. This “sweet spot” quantity is similar to the number of consumer goods that we need in order to live a happy and healthy life: enough goods to enable us to thrive in the twenty-first century, yet not too many, which can result in negative outcomes in regards to our physical and mental health.
The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility is also applicable to our consumption habits; the law states that the more units we have of a certain item, the less useful additional units of it are. Imagine that it is summer and you decide to purchase a straw hat to protect yourself from the sun; you buy one hat and find that its utility (the use it provides to you) is at its maximum - you wear it as much as you need and it drops shade on your face, preventing sunburn. However, assume that your friend gifts you with four of the exact same hats. The utility of the first hat will remain at its maximum, while the utility of the second one will be lower (you need the second one less since you already own the first one). This pattern continues, resulting in the fourth hat (fifth one overall) having the smallest utility. In other words, The Law of Marginal Utility states that the more we have of something, the less useful additional units of it become. The more consumer goods we purchase, the less we actually use and enjoy them.
The downfalls of ‘excessive’ consumerism are more applicable to individuals living in developed nations (even though its effects on the environment can be observed in virtually every corner of the planet). Citizens of developed countries are lucky enough to have the majority of their basic life necessities satisfied: they don’t have to worry about being killed by tigers or dying from a tiny, infected scratch, even though these two things were major threats to life throughout history. Underdeveloped or developing countries, however, have a different situation in regards to consumerism; large populations of people in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, do not have their fundamental needs met yet, so an increase in consumerism and accessibility to goods and services will be more beneficial than harmful (reducing hunger, illnesses associated with poor-quality water, providing clothing, sanitation, security, and life-enhancing entertainment). Therefore, underdeveloped nations, I believe, stand at a point before the ‘breaking point’ in the diminishing return/utility pattern: when an increase in consumerism equates to an increase in the standards of living. On the contrary, developed nations may fall into the scenario after this breaking point, when negative outcomes from an increase in consumerism are observed.
Now that we have discussed the system of diminishing returns that governs excessive consumerism, it is time to address specific ways in which it harms us. In my next article, I will demonstrate how plastic, one of the most commonly-consumed materials in the modern world, may have a direct detriment to our physical health, raising risks for life-threatening diseases, as well as increasing the frequency of health conditions that were previously considered to be rare.
Hayes, Adam. “Consumerism.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 1 Dec. 2021, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/consumerism.asp.
“History of Consumerism.” HISTORY CRUNCH - HISTORY ARTICLES, SUMMARIES, BIOGRAPHIES, RESOURCES AND MORE, https://www.historycrunch.com/history-of-consumerism.html#/.
Scott, Mark. “What You Need to Know about Consumerism.” Swift Money Blog , 12 Sept. 2017, https://swiftmoney.com/blog/what-you-need-to-know-about-consumerism/.
“Diminishing Marginal Utility 1.” Harper College, http://www2.harpercollege.edu/mhealy/eco212i/lectures/5es/Eco416.html.
“Point of Diminishing Returns.” Corporate Finance Institute, 26 Feb. 2021, https://corporatefinanceinstitute.com/resources/knowledge/economics/point-of-diminishing-returns/.
About the author:
I am a 19-year old girl living on the sunny island of Cyprus! I am currently on a gap year and work in digital marketing. I love everything that has to do with the social sciences and the environment; I organize community clean ups each week and will be studying economics and/or psychology in college!