19 February 2014

Consumerism, Consumption & Materialism

Personal Picture // Mylène Pratt's Atelier Boutique

I have been pondering the definition of consumerism lately. We read that our growth-based economy is based on a consumerist model, simplicity & minimalism advocates argue that we should fight consumerism and be more mindful with our consumption. But what is consumerism really? How is it different from consumption, or materialism?

I think the best way to "fight" our consumerist tendencies is to first understand what this is and what it comes from. After reading a few things and watching a few videos on the subject (TED talk inside), here are first leads of thought on the subject.

  • Consumption vs Consumerism

Consumerism is about consuming material objects. In that sense, how is it different from consumption? Amitai Etzioni has a theory about this: the difference between consumption and consumerism resides in the reasons, the motivations for the purchase. In other words, the question is: why are you buying this?

Remember the Maslow pyramid of needs? Bascially, human needs are organized by priority, and only when the most basic needs are met (food, shelter, security) can we look to fulfill "higher" needs (social needs, self esteem...). It goes very simply like this:

  • Consumption is when you buy things to meet basic needs
  • Consumerism is when you  buy things to meet higher needs

In other words, if you buy a pair of sturdy shoes because you need to walk a lot in your daily life, it is consumption. If you buy a pair of Louboutin shoes because they have recognizable red soles and mean to improve your social status, it is consumerism.

The interesting part of it is that, in the end, it isn't the pair of Louboutin that matter, it is the social status it is supposed to imply. Think about it: how many people would still buy these if they were surrounded by people who had no idea that red soles = Louboutin = 500€ = high social status? When you think about all these 'higher needs", the consumerist reasons for buying items - social recognition, self esteem boost, being noticed & appreciated by others... - in these cases, the item itself matters less than what it means to the buyer and the people around them. We circle back to the idea of an emotional link to material possessions here.

  • Consumerism & Materialism

Speaking of which, are consumerist people materialists? You'd be tempted to say yes, we are, after all we accumulate objects, collect things, fill our homes with all kinds of tokens. Remember the Geek Shelf? It certainly sounds materialist, to have some sort of material altar to our taste - and identity, in a way - in our living room or bedroom.

However, as I mentioned before, consumerism is about filling a "higher" need, an emotional need, with items. What matters is not the item itself, but the emotions attached to it, and the reaction of other people we are expecting out of showing the objects off. So, in a way, consumerism isn't materialist, as it isn't the material itself that matters.

Yann Dall'Aglio explains this very well in this TEDxParis talk below, "Love - You're Doing it Wrong".

I think this quote sums it up very well:
It is said about this consumption that our age is materialistic. But it's not true! We only accumulate objects in order to communicate with other minds. We do it to make them love us, to seduce them. Nothing could be less materialistic, or more sentimental, than a teenager buying brand new jeans and tearing them at the knees, because he wants to please Jennifer.

Yann Dall'Aglio argues that in our consumerist society, we buy objects to replace more traditional social status representations that modern societies have removed. We surround ourselves with specific types of items to give a certain image to people around us - of success, confidence, or whatever else - but in the end, what we want isn't the collection of objects itself; we want to be admired, loved.

  • Open to Debate

Again, we are back to this idea that consumerism is about an emotional link to objects, not about the objects themselves; Then, what it the solution to turn away from consumerism? First, I'd say that counting objects and culling things for the sake of culling them is NOT a solution. If consumerism isn't materialism, then the cause of the problem isn't the collection of objects. Culling should be a consequence of a shift of mind, not a remedy to consumerism. Otherwise, you'll just replace what you culled with more items.

Why Am I Buying This?

I believe the question to ask ourselves when approaching our consumption habits is not "how many do I own" or "How much should I spend", but "Why am I buying this". I believe it to be useful for 2 reasons;

First, it helps understanding our consumption patterns better, uncover the emotional link with objects and slowly replace objects with something else to create that emotional link. For example, I want to be loved by my partner. I can do this by buying fancy clothes and gadgets to show my seductive potential within our consumerist society. Or maybe I can gather information on what he is interested in (say, music) and invite him to a concert instead. I'm assuming that on the long term, the second option will be more efficient than the first.

Then, it helps being smarter about how we consume items. Let's be realistic, the way our society works, we need to buy things to meet our needs. The time when we had both authorization and skill to do like Henri David Thoreau and just build a shed in the woods is long gone. One thing I'm uncomfortable with in some minimalist movements, is that they tend to demonize purchasing items as a whole, with no distinction between consumption and consumerism. Doesn't it make us feel guilty for buying stuff at all?

Other Sources of Self Esteem and Identity Defining

Yann Dall'Aglio suggests to remember that this is all a social screen of smoke, and that we are no better and no worse than any other human beings. I like the way he puts it:

"Je suis nul, mais ne vous inquiétez pas, vous aussi, vous êtes nuls". ("I'm useless. But rest assured: so are you.")

Maybe one solution is indeed to work on a different kind of self esteem and image. One that isn't linked to what we own, but who we are. If you realize having a pair of Louboutin doesn't make you special, then chances are you'll suddenly question the motives for spending 500€ on a pair of shoes.

I believe this shift of mind is tough, because, when one is used to define their worth by what they own, and worked toward earning more money to own more, once you take it away, what will define their worth? This can shatter self esteem, at least at the beginning. And maybe that's why a lot of people prefer to avoid these questions in today's society.

But on the long term, I think this realization is what helps people define more meaningful goals, ask themselves what they really want to accomplish in life, beyond curating their collection of items. I believe this is the first step of growing as a human being.

What do you think of all this? What is "consumerism" to you, and what is your take on it?


  1. Wow! I really like your distinction between consumerism and consumption - and I think your "why am I buying this?" question is an excellent way of distinguishing the two.

    In your experience with cultivating a wardrobe that is more "you", would you consider that the initial stages of the culling and slowly rebuilding process blur the lines between consumption and consumerism? I realize that this process is not just about purchasing goods and more about understanding yourself on a deeper level... but overlaying that sentiment remains the fact that you are buying new goods because you "want" them, not because you "need" them. (by want versus need I mean that you can still get by in life with the wrong colored shirt or one that doesn't flatter your body 100%)

    I suppose it could have to do with the rate at which you cull and replace.. say you do it slowly overtime and buy "better" clothes once the previous versions have worn out with holes or are discolored. Maybe this could be considered consumption? Whereas if you were of the mindset that you needed to have the perfect wardrobe instantly, and opted to do a massive shopping spree to replace everything all at once it would be considered consumerism?

    I guess it really does come back to that "why am I buying this?" question!

    1. My wardrobe editing process was certainly a consumerist approach, since the goal of my style overhaul was identity-searching and self esteem improvement, which are "higher needs". Whereas I did cull some unwearable items (holed, worn out...), I also culled items which were perfectly wearable but didn't feel "me" anymore. Besides, I bought more clothes in 2011 and 2012 than ever before (or after so far).

      That being said, as I mentioned in the post, I think it's quite harsh to suddenly remove all consumerist/emotional links to items, and it can leave us with a shattered self esteem, especially when we grew up in a consumerist world where our worth is defined by our appearance and possessions.

      When I started wardrobe editing, it was a way to start tackling my self esteem issues with something tangible, that I could control (the content of my closet). I don't regret it now, because it helped me ask myself the real questions about who I am, what I want to do with my life, with an already improved self esteem thanks to my style changes, if it makes any sense. I think I needed to feel more self confident first, and then felt able to try to distance myself from the emotional links to objects.

      To answer your question, I believe it is indeed the reasons for wardrobe editing that define whether it is "consumerist" or "consumption". To take 2 extremes, if the wardrobe editing comes from just a wish to change style (as it was my case at the beginning), it is consumerist. If the reason is to remove unwearable items, create a more functional wardrobe that works with your lifestyle better etc. - i.e. more functional reasons, then it is more of a "consumption" mindset. I'm guessing that in real life, anyone starting a wardrobe editing process will have a mix of consumerist and consumption mindsets depending on the timeframe and item considered.

      I think what's important is how you consider your clothes consumption AFTER the initial wardrobe editing is done. Is the consumerist cycle going to continue by culling, buying again, culling again etc. Or is your newly functional/adapted to your style wardrobe going to be more stable and reduce your clothes purchases?

  2. To me consumerism is relying more on the brand's cultural cache and status rather than the value/function of the item involved. I'll take Nike for example. My partiality for that specific brand (even though their running shoes aren't the best!) is my being consumerist. Now that I've owned several of their shoes--the quality and comfort varies from one year's model to another--I think I might have to consign Nike as a lifestyle/hang-out shoe rather than rely on them for true sports performance. I still like their jackets and I'll wear those because so far they blend function and style.

    1. Exactly. Brands are playing with the "higher needs" in their image, identity, DNA etc. They are definitely pushing consumers to buy their products for consumerist reasons. It's like Apple, you know. Today, iPhones are probably more expensive and less powerful than Samsung phones, but Apple consumers buy iPhones anyway, for the image/status of Apple as a brand.

      Also, it's a purchase of comfort, you tend to stay loyal to brands you've purchased from for years - in a consumerist world, you even tend to define yourself according to what brands you buy. Just like the "marketing targets" post I wrote some time ago, I think the important is to be conscious/aware of that, so that our choices can be more objective.

  3. i agree with your distinction between consumption and consumerism, reading 'consum is bad' articles elsewhere have annoyed me before. i was never one for extremes. your key question is a good solution i think, but not always an easy one. because it asks for an honest answer that goes deeper than 'because it will make me feel better'. it then asks 'why does it make you feel better?' and goes on to find the source of the urge. i belive it takes practice to realise where some impulses come from and to be honest with oneself.
    being critical is key and i enjoy your posts because they are. it makes me reflect on my behavior and think further.

    1. I've never been one for extremes either, so I agree with you on this! It is true that asking ourselves 'Why do I buy this?' is a difficult question. Since there is an emotional link with objects, it comes to asking questions about ourselves, our emotions, how we cope with difficulties etc. Besides, sometimes we use objects to fill a gap in our lives, or to artificially improve our self esteem, so when you start to question that, it can be hard. Maybe the answer is to do it gradually, and give time to understand one link before questioning the next... Gradual changes is better than no change at all, I think.

  4. Loved this post, Kali! It's like the Alain de Botton talk, where he says that a man buying a Ferrari is really just asking you to please like him.

    It's interesting to study history, and to realize that this is no new phenomena for the human species. Whether we're talking about sumptuary laws in the Middle Ages in Europe, where it was outlawed that certain classes could purchase or wear more expensive types of cloth and jewels, for fear of muddying social class distinctions, or similar laws throughout Asia and the Middle East dating back to times BCE, we've always used clothes to communicate wordlessly with others around us. Is this a good thing, that can empower us if we master the social codes and conform a bit, as the U.S. TV show "What Not To Wear" would tell us? Or is it a bad thing, as Thoreau would say about distrusting any endeavor that requires a set of new clothing? Or perhaps the question is a matter of extremes vs. moderation - extreme consumerism on one end, or complete inattention to social codes of dress on the other end of the spectrum are inadvisable, and a middle path is the best choice? Food for thought!

    1. Very good point about social norms and traditions. I remember learning that in some Eastern Asian cultures, colour codes were very important, and some colours could only be worn by warriors or nobility for example. However, this touches more on the social hierarchy and structure side of things, the etiquette of object and appearance, rather than the emotional link to objects as we have in the consumerist society.

      I'm wondering where social norms/culture stops and where pure consumerism starts. As Yann Dall'Aglio states in his talk, it is the destruction of our social norms and symbols that created a void which consumerism is trying to fill. Are we worshipping brands because religion is less important in our lives than it used to be? Are we clinging to material social status symbols because the notion of social class seems more blurry now than at the time of nobility and bourgeoisie?

      I don't have the answer to these questions but this is definitely food for thought - not only regarding consumerism and objects, but also regarding self esteem, the definition of our identities as individuals, and the evolution of our social structure.

  5. I love that quote: "Je suis nul, mais ne vous inquiétez pas, vous aussi, vous êtes nuls".
    It's absolutely true. At least in my social circles we usually just say, "I'm sure that you think you're special, just like everyone else"

    I do think that their is a place for consumerism in our society, just not at the level it is now. As long as you are conscious of it, and realize that what you are buying is a "want" not a "need" then I think it's fine.

    1. I remember being told that a lot too - "you are unique, but so is everyone else".

      I wonder about consumerism in general though, is it justified in a small amount and just got out of hand lately? Or should we try not to have any emotional links to objects at all and redirect our energy toward more meaningful things like growth and relationships? I'm a rather moderate person so I'd tend to think it is OK to sometimes indulge in material rewards, so long as it doesn't become the main goal of life that eats out our energy, time, money and relationships. If it makes any sense.

  6. I often wait until I need something to buy something but I do choose what I buy with a somewhat "consumerist" approach - I don't just pick the best thing that meets my basic needs but I have to buy something from a brand I don't mind identifying with, because for some reason (usually shallow ones) I have developed some kind of attachment to it.

    But whatever it is, I think with both consumerism and consumption, both should be done so in moderation and they shouldn't dominate our lives.

    1. Yes, I think the main point is not to let our lives be dominated by objects and wishlists indeed. That made me wonder about the limit betwen consumption and consumerism though.

      I mean, if you do need something, is it really "consumerist" to try to look for the best option, not only in terms of quality and practicality but also other subjective criteria like aesthetics or specfic attachement? still wondering :)

  7. Hi, I found this read really interesting, as I have spend the last few years throwing these ideas and questions around too. I just wanted to add another dimension to it, and that is to look at the idea of buying a thing verse and experience. I few years ago I had come to think that an experience was a better choice than a thing (and I still do sometimes). But when I think about the amount of money I have spent on experiences like music festivals which were great at the time but I now can't remember anything of, I think well maybe I would have been better having spent the money on a thing, the band's album. Experiences are fun in the moment, but things can bring back memories for a life time.

    1. The question of things versus experiences is very interesting indeed. These past few years, by spending habits have shifted from expanding material collections (mainly cultural, books, DVD...) to spending more in experiences (week-ends away, restaurants...). I agree though, that some items can bring back memories, I often bring back souvenirs from my travels for example. I think it's all about balance in the end - would you deprive yourself from the festival experience completely? In my case, I usually spend money on items which will help enhance my future experiences - something I'll use very often, or that creates a link with specific memories.