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consumerism

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

Consumerism is a cultural model that promotes the aquisition of goods, and especially the purchase of goods, as a vehicle for personal satisfaction and economic stimulation.

Consumerism is often confused with capitalism but the latter is an economic system, while the former is a pervasive cultural attitude. A model combining the two is sometimes referred to as consumer capitalism, a system in which consumer demand for goods is deliberately increased through manipulation as a means of increasing sales. The model relies on stimulating consumer desire for goods far in excess of satisfying needs. Mechanisms to do so include promotion of luxury items, new technologies and new models of existing technologies.

Built-in obsolesence is another method of increasing the sale of goods. Planned obsolescence (as it is also known) is an approach to the conception, design and production of a product, such as hardware or software, involving the intent that it should be useful, functional or popular for only a limited length of time. For many in a consumer culture, a functioning smartphone is not adequate: If a new iPhone model is released they feel compelled to purchase it.

Financial mechanisms have also encouraged consumerism. The advent of credit cards allowed people to spend money that they did not have; debit cards gave people quick access to more money than they were currently carrying and often the option of overdraft, as well.

Although consumer culture is still prevalent, critics believe that environmental issues render it unsustainable. Alternative models that have arisen, which include collaborative consumption and the circular economy, emphasize maximizing the efficient use of materials and having access to products and services over private ownership.

See "The story of stuff: Consumerism, capitalism and environment in America."

This was last updated in December 2015

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