Consumers are responsible for consumerism

I’ve found, much to my shock, that this is a controversial statement. Most rebuttals I’ve heard are-- in my view-- ahistorical, ideologically driven, and the result of knee-jerk reactions against corporations. Someone explain to me in an intellectually honest way how we can blame Wal-Mart for consumerism.

I don’t think Walmart is responsible for consumerism. But that doesn’t mean consumers are either :wink:

There are a couple of dates I’ve seen associated with the onsetof consumerism. One is about 1870 or so with consumer based economic theory (absent in classical political economy from, say, Adam Smith till that point). Another is the postwar period, when the US shifted from a savings-oriented to a high-consumption economy. Both pre-date Walmart.

(Hope that’s historical enough?!)

That said, I truly dislike Walmart and almost never shop there. But that’s because of their low-wage labor policies which they indirectly encourage among their suppliers by demanding excessively low prices.

And pass the savings on to you, the consumer!

It sounds like what we’re saying is that Wal*mart isn’t to blame for low prices, the consumer is.

The Victorian Era with its fashionable mores is largely responsible. The fashions of high-society such as corsets trickled down with industrialization. Now that corsets were within people’s reach they ‘had’ to wear them. Conspicuous consumption which was once the purview of the upper classes became part of the common classes too. The expectation that people MUST buy things that they don’t NEED to adhere to a social convention is the root of consumerism.

mswas makes an excellent point. Look at cell phones, they weren’t around ten years ago, yet now nearly everyone believes they are a necessity and they can’t live without one.

Ten years ago my boss didn’t think I should be reachable 24/7. Now he does. So I need a cell phone.

Fifteen years ago there were payphones on every corner. Now there are whole cities without payphones. So I need a cell phone in case my train is late or I need to call 911.

Twenty years ago I felt perfectly safe driving around in a little Subaru, becuase it was only slightly smaller than the average car out there. Now I have a mid size SUV, because it is only slightly smaller than the average car out there.

Well since I don’t choose to shop there (for a variety of reasons) I’m not a direct beneficiary; though as a taxpayer I’m well aware of having the many costs of a low-paid workforce passed on to me through additional need for social services. Just one of the many externalities that the market often passes onto society in general while the producer/retailer/consumer relationship is supposedly innocent of this state of affairs.

A ton has been written on this subject–and I bet a load of SDMB threads as well.

Probably not strictly relevant to the OP though…

The basic premise of this thread, that we can split up consumers and producers and assign blame to one of them, is flawed. Almost everyone who participates in the economy is both a consumer and a producer. Hence if you blame one group, you’re blaming the other.

Who’s responsible for consumerism? People are. Certainly the super-rich/CEO class deserve more blame per capita, but nonetheless they rarely forced anything on ordinary people. People became focused on material goods because they chose to become focused on material goods.

If consumers alone are responsible, then advertisers are wasting a hell of a lot of money. Advertising does create perceived needs and builds demand. Sure, a totally rational person might be able to resist, but none of us are totally rational and advertisers are skilled at playing on these. Sometimes the needs created are actually useful. I can think of several cases where having a cellphone 12 years ago would have really been helpful.

I always considered the Sears Roebuck catalog the beginning of consumerism. Mail-Order. Something designed to inspire desire and accessable… just a little bit away.

In my opinion, it wasn’t just consumerism but false economy that got us in this mess; people buying things they couldn’t afford,charging them, living beyond their means. Even if one earns a million dollars a year and spends a million and $100.00 they will eventually go in to debt they cannot pay. One has to live under their salary in order to truly get ahead.

This country has a lot of waste,people buy new rather than repair; part of that is the fact that it costs almost as much to repair as to buy new. I drive through a subdivision and am amazed at the amount of garbage people throw out; one block will fill a truck!

Perhaps it is because My first paying job was $12.00 a week, My rent was $9,00 and I had all of $3.00 to use for what ever I wanted or needed. I lived on lettuce and blue cheese and my room mate bought peanut butter and bread and we shared. I then took a job as a Maid and earned $25.00 a week and room and board. I thought I was rich because I could now buy some clothes and gifts.

I also remember in the 50’s when my husband got a raise to $5.00 an hour the neighbors thought we were rich! Bread was home made, if bought it was 10 cents a loaf. I could fill the back of our station wagon with food and the cost was$30.00. Now a couple boxes of cereal,and one package of meat costs that!
We raised 7 children,we couldn’t do that now. The ratio of salary to necessities are way out of balance,even with 2 people working. If one gets laid off they take the chance of losing everything.

Wal-Mart is one of thousands of corporations that benefit by and are complicit in maintaining our consumer mentality.

Anyone who wants to understand the transformation of our society from “needs based” to “desire based” needs to see The Century of the Self, a 2005 BBC doc which details the career of Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the father of modern PR. (Popcorn time, it’s a four hour production):slight_smile:

From the WIKI.

Here’s an overview of TCOTC in Entertainment Weekly.

Have fun.

Not only is the premise flawed, it is nonsensical and I hate the term. What exactly is “consumerism” anyway? Everything created by the economy is ultimately destined to be consumed for use by someone.

What are people “blaming” WalMart for? Providing cheap products to people who would not otherwise be able to afford them?

Or is it a classist disdain of other people’s spending habits? Poor people buying junk in bulk because it’s cheap? Middle class people putting themselves in crushing debt so they can jocky for social standing and immitate the affectations of how they think the wealthy live?

No, for driving down wages so that in the wealthiest society in human history large swathes of the working population–not the unemployed population–rely on the social safety net to fulfill many basic needs. It’s a question of distribution.

But that’s got nothing to do with consumerism for which I don’t hold Walmart especially to blame.

If anything Walmart relies on people who are already programmed to consume as much as possible. The experience of shopping there is so unglamorous and demoralizing that if one weren’t already hyped up to by more stuff one would gag at the prospect of entering the store. By contrast, Target, though hardly Bloomingdale’s or Saks Fifth Avenue, makes one feel as though one has entered a consumer paradise.

Roger: You can’t sell a product without first making people feel bad.
Nick: Why not?
Roger: Because it’s a substitution game. You have to remind them that they’re missing something from their lives. Everyone’s missing something, right?
Nick: I guess.
Roger: Trust me. And when they’re feeling sufficiently incomplete, you convince them your product is the only thing that can fill the void. So instead of taking steps to deal with their lives, instead of working to root out the real reason for their misery, they go out and buy a stupid looking pair of cargo pants. [right]–Roger Dodger[/right]

The thing is, there is something in human nature that desires to be a consumer. Consumerism–the acquisition of gratuitous and fundamentally unnecessary possessions in response to cultural peer pressure–is a natural human trait and can be seen in every primitive human culture in the form of non-functional jewelry and artwork. Admittedly, in modern society this impulse is supplied and taken to an extreme, but the first thing that non-First World peoples latch onto when they come into contact with Western “consumerist” culture are the most base and often tasteless aspects of it; not medicine, fine art, and gustatory refinement, but instead cheap toys, Schwarzenegger movies, and McDonalds hamburgers.

Curiously enough, even the hyper-reactionary knee-jerk opposition to consumerism ends up resembling and using the advertising tools of comsumerist culture in pursuit of their goals. A few years ago I picked up the magazine Adbusters (an anti-consumerist rag) which, as I read through it, was in every way reminiscent of any Conde Nast publication, including a proliferation of advertisements for “anti-consumerist merchandise” including their own (vastly overpriced) brand of high top sneakers.

There are a lot of things I dislike about highly consumerist culture, including the stupid obsession with oversized and overpriced designer watches with functions that 98% of the owners aren’t even cognitively capable of learning to use, but I’d rather this than live in a sea of monotonous blue pyjama’d humanity chanting phrases from Mao’s Little Red Book and toiling away for a bowl of rice and fishheads in order to service the state.

Besides, even consumerist culture sometimes produces something of cultural and thematic significance, and it does provide sufficient excess (if fictitious) wealth that allows for sufficient “leisure” to develop novel technologies, craft new forms of art (a small portion of which isn’t crap), and advance the bounds of non-applied science to the ultimate benefit of us all.


I argue that consumers are not primarily to blame for consumerism, although the OP statement is so short that it hides various important issues.

We have innate judgement abilities that had probably mostly evolved by the stone age, and now competition between corporate vendors has favored various strategies that exploit these abilities. It is easiest perhaps to consider food in particular. Flavorings is a multibillion dollar industry with several huge chemical plants scattered along the New Jersey Turnpike. Our appetite system helped us allocate physical effort between feeding ourselves on what we could catch and pick versus other activities like building shelter, reproducing, and worshiping little stone figures. Now the flavorings industry spends millions and millions of person hours, year in and year out, on competing for the attention of that appetite system. There are plenty of species that will eat themselves sick and die obese and early, if you make this dedicated a project out of triggering their appetites.

I think the deck is stacked against individual consumers, who struggle and often fail to achieve a wise balance between all the external sources of influence (of which the entire flavorings and related food industries are just one category), and any really sustainable and egalitarian consumption pattern.

Interestingly enough, of all people, Adam Smith would have disagreed with you.

He didn’t believe that (what we would recognize as) overconsumption, consumption for consumption’s sake, or conspicuous consumption, were integral to the “Wealth of Nations” and said so quite explicitly. (I wish I had time to excerpt a few passages, but I just don’t right now–perhaps someone else can?)

Eighteenth-century Scottish capitalism was based on a savings/reinvestment/production capitalist economy: not on excess consumption–which Smith could not even imagine as a feature of the capitalism he was describing.

Consumption was associated with aristocrats and the old mercantile economy Smith criticized in The Wealth of Nations. Not a middle-class virtue that enhanced national wealth, but an outdated and decadent upper-class vice that squandered it.

I said in brief earlier in this thread, it’s around 1870, that consumerism becomes integral to theorizing the economy.

And in any case, in support of what Voyager has said, it’s been proved in many studies that the more advertising people are exposed to the more they buy.

Addendum to my last: I ought to have said that I said: it’s around 1870, that consumerism becomes integral to theorizing the capitalist economy. And, fwiw, the key figure is probably William Stanley Jevons.

Only just spotted adhay’s post which seems relevant to mine as well.

Sure you are.

“Independent research from Global Insight has shown that Walmart saves the average American family $3,100 each year, no matter where they shop.*”

So regardless of where you shop, Wal-Mart’s low prices have forced other retailers to adjust accordingly. Now I don’t care for Wal-Mart so I don’t shop there either, but the reason I don’t shop there is because I find the stores offer low-quality products and are generally unpleasant to shop in. I don’t avoid Wal-Mart because they pay their employees crap. I could care less if they pay their employees in seashells, if they’re able to find employees willing to work for that wage, good for them. Nobody forces anyone to work at Wal-Mart… Which is why I don’t get why employees picket the store and want unions. Don’t like your wage? Too bad. ** Find another job.**

Wal-Mart employees make crappy wages because anyone can do their job. It’s unreasonable for Wal-Mart to give higher and higher wages to unskilled workers that can easily be replaced with minimal effort and training.