Point of View: Consumer nation

Editor’s note: This Point of View is part of a series of persuasive essays written by students in Sean Campbell’s AP Language and Composition class.

“Money doesn’t buy happiness.” How often we hear this phrase, this admonition, directed towards the “lower” classes who dare to turn their eyes toward the nation’s vast fields of affluence. Excess wealth does not provide fulfillment or satisfaction — this much is true. But research shows that, contrary to common conception, wealth is correlated with happiness, especially in poorer societies ( Conkle ). Apparently being able to afford the price it takes to live drastically improves people’s mental health and happiness. Who would’ve thought?

Marketing, however, ignores all of this. They promote the idea that happiness is a commodity to be bought and disregard lower classes’ need for frugality. Companies peddle the mentality that we should buy everything bright and shiny that catches our eye, because we deserve it. L’Oreal, “because you’re worth it.” “You deserve a break today – at McDonalds!” Advertisers have made great efforts to equate self care to consumption, and they have largely succeeded.

The cycle of buy, use and discard, the dissatisfaction that we have been conditioned to seek reprieve from in consuming, the system built around endless economic growth at any expense — all of this has created great profits for companies, but great strains on the minds and wallets of consumers, as well as the environment.

But before discussing the severe detriments of consumerism, let’s take a look at how it started. Historian William Leach traces the origins of consumerism to America at the turn of the 20th century. By 1920, production was 12 times greater than it was in 1860, while the population had only grown a quarter that amount in the same time period. The economy boomed, and the nation found itself at a turning point.

“It would be feasible to reduce hours of work and release workers for the pleasurable activities of free time… [but] the economic system’s orientation toward progress and its bias toward growth made such a trajectory unpalatable to most captains of industry and economists who theorized their successes” (Kerryn Higgs, historian).

After a short depression in 1921 that made corporations fear overproduction and economic ruin, a plan was devised. If the need for luxury items and frivolities wouldn’t come around naturally, then they would manufacture it, a Frankensteinian monster of greed and manipulation.

This plan was momentarily halted by World War II, but in the years after, it came about in full force. Aided by the proliferation of televisions and radios that gave advertisers unprecedented access to consumers’ homes, corporations unleashed a slew of propaganda and advertising. These ads presented previously unnecessary items as imperative for the elevation of one’s social status. Fancy cars and expensive watches were no longer luxuries; they were necessities. How else would your neighbor know what a pillar of the community you were?

These companies acted like they were selling status, but they were actually selling billions of dollars worth of goods. “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.… We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.” (Retail analyst Victor Lebowe, 1955).

Today, consumerism accounts for 60% of the global GDP as well as $16 trillion of the United States’ spending annually (EcoResolution). Some argue that consumerism is so intertwined with our current economic model that any change to it will result in financial ruin. But there are other options, options that we need to utilize before our current habits result in ruin of a more apocalyptic kind.

We are currently using the Earth’s natural resources 1.75 times faster than they can regenerate. An appalling 99% of products in North America are thrown away within 6 months of purchasing (Washington University ), and the billions of pounds of waste we generate yearly is only projected to increase. But anything for the sake of economic growth, right? When we’re living on a desertified planet with toxic air, the corporations and CEOs will be able to crow about their profits from behind their gas masks.

And as if the desecration of our planet wasn’t bad enough, consumerism also worsens inequality. The U.S. and Western Europe account for just 12% of the global population, but make up 50% of the world’s spending (EcoResolution ). The countries most responsible for climate change are the least at risk from its effects (Fournier), and the poorest countries that contribute the least are disproportionately endangered. This is also true on a smaller scale, such as how disadvantaged communities in the U.S. are affected by climate change at much higher rates. Wealthy consumers are creating unimaginable amounts of waste and pollution that will end up in marginalized communities, further contributing to systemic inequality.

So if consumerism is so awful, what can we do about it? Many people promote mindfulness and frugality, but realistically this isn’t enough. We all have a responsibility to do everything in our power to do what’s right, but some people don’t have the option to choose sustainability. The onus is on governments and corporations to create the change and undo the damage they have done.

The change starts with the economy. From the United Nations: “Decoupling economic growth from resource use is one of the most critical and complex challenges facing humanity today.” A circular economy is the key.

The current linear economy is a straight line of production, consumption and waste. In a circular economy, we would invest in recyclable and reusable resources, emphasize money going back into communities, and radically rethink our consumer society. A circular economy would have a massively positive impact on the planet and its people. A temporary rush of dopamine from buying a new pair of shoes is nothing in comparison to spending time on meaningful hobbies and relationships. It may seem idealistic, but with the right effort, it is possible.

To address a systemic problem, we need systemic change. It won’t be easy. But it will be worth it.