by Oreoluwa D. Babatope.

Economist Review[1] – 16/11/2019.

Internet shopping frenzies: One for the money.

Since 2009, Alibaba, China’s e-commerce giant, has turned Singles’ Day into a very real shopping frenzy. It has long since eclipsed America’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday online sales combined. Within 24 hours on the 11th November, Alibaba sold $38.4bn-worth of merchandise. Some people worry that what began as a lighthearted excuse to treat oneself (single’s day) has turned into a high-pressure version of Valentine’s Day. Others decry the harsh conditions workers face in order to meet demand and the holiday’s environmental impact. Notwithstanding, shoppers certainly seem to like it.

To buy or not to buy.  

The modern capitalist economy must constantly increase production if it is to survive, like a shark that must swim or suffocate. Yet it’s not enough just to produce. Somebody must also buy the products, or industrialists and investors alike will go bust. To prevent this catastrophe and to make sure that people will always buy whatever new stuff industry produces, a new kind of ethic appeared: consumerism.”                                                     – Harari (Sapiens)[2]

Investopedia defines consumerism as “the idea that increasing consumption of goods and services purchased in the market is always a desirable goal and that a person’s wellbeing and happiness depends fundamentally on obtaining consumer goods and material possessions.”[3] The economic interpretation of the term is related to the idea that consumer spending would benefit the economy and that policies should be aimed at encouraging consumers to spend. The history of consumerism has been traced to the onset of capitalism in the 16th century Europe, before intensifying in the 18th century due to a growing middle class that embraced luxury consumption.[4] Consumerism portrays the consumption of ever more products and services in a positive light. People are encouraged that, in order to be happy, they have to ‘treat themselves’ and ‘spoil themselves’ by consuming as many products and services as possible. In Empire of Things, Frank Trentmann contends that the rise of consumerism is a global phenomenon in which people express themselves through a passionate attachment to things.[5] According to Harari, “It wasn’t very hard to convince individuals to want more. Greed comes easily to humans… Modernity accordingly inspired people to want more and dismantled the age-old disciplines that curbed greed.” [6]

Is consumerism really a positive phenomenon that fuels economic growth or merely a form of excessive materialism revolving around conspicuous overconsumption? Or is it both? According to Dr. Seshan Ramaswami of the Singapore Management University (SMU), buying goods and services in excess of one’s needs could create a cycle of demand leading to greater production and to greater employment, which leads to even more consumption.[7] In Keynesian macroeconomics, boosting consumer spending through fiscal and monetary policy is considered a primary target for economic policy makers; as a result of increased consumption spending, a rise in GDP can occur.[8] It is also believed that for countries to thrive politically and economically, capitalist competition for profits and markets has to be at the core of every country’s agenda.[9] As an important component of the concept of supply and demand, consumerism could be said to increase economic output in addition to creating jobs; increasing wealth for companies; promoting competition between companies; and allowing for a large variety of goods and services.[10] Conversely, however, consumerism has been criticized on economic, environmental, cultural and psychological grounds. The rise of consumerism could have a detrimental impact on the planet. As consumption increases, production increases. Accordingly, negative impacts of the production, such as industrial waste to the environment would persist. In addition to causing more pollution; it is also a major contributor to resource depletion; leads companies to develop low quality products; and promotes poor labor standards and pay for workers.[11] Furthermore, psychologists have also drawn a causal relationship between consumerism and depression. According to a study in the peer-reviewed monthly journal Psychological Science in 2012, consumerism may also lead to depression.[12] Prof. Calvert (Director for Research, Asian Consumer Insight), reports that people are incurring punitive levels of debt and working longer hours to pay for their high-consumption lifestyle, which results in them spending less time with family, friends, and community organisations.

There is nothing necessarily wrong in buying and selling things, nor even in promoting them, to a certain extent. The issue is with the extreme form which can be attributed to the manipulation caused by excessive and intrusive advertising. These advertisements are everywhere, and they all seem to point to the same thing, that consuming some product or service will make life better. “We are all born into it and raised with it; therefore, it is difficult to blame those who are delivering what the norms of the system say is desirable.”[13] Following on this path would involve weighing alternatives and constructing trade-offs. Are the economic benefits worth the adverse effect to health and the environment? Without adequate study of the variables and how much impact they would have, it would be impossible to make practical policy recommendations. Nevertheless, it is not out of place to push for changes to be made in the interim. According to Gary Gardner, (director of research for Worldwatch), “we need to change the way we produce goods and the way we consume them. Excess consumption can be counterproductive.”[14] But how can this be achieved? Can advertising also be used to push the counter-campaign. How can we prepare for the expected pushback from businesses and consumers alike? How can we tell ‘diehard’ iPhone users, for example, that they do not need to get every iPhone model released, that two cameras are as good as three, or three are as good as four, and so on? “Whether the world is capable of such a counter-revolution is doubtful, both because of our state of personal denial and because of the huge power of industry to continue seducing us.”[15]

Biologists have shown that it’s a natural tendency of living creatures to fill up all available habitat and use up all available resources. That is what underlies Darwinian evolution, and species that do it best are the ones that survive. But we do it better than any other species.”  – William Rees (University of British Columbia).

Are we doing it better or worse?

 

[1] Economist Article. Culled from https://www.economist.com/business/2019/11/16/one-for-the-money. Date accessed: 20/11/2019

[2] Yuval Noah Harari. (2014). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. McClelland & Stewart. P. 295

[3] Chappelow J. (2019, August 11). Consumerism. Investopedia. Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/consumerism.asp. Accessed: 20/11/2019.

[4] Scott M. (2017, April 24). What You Need To Know About Consumerism. SwiftMoney. Retrieved from https://swiftmoney.com/blog/what-you-need-to-know-about-consumerism/. Accessed: 20/11/2019.

[5] Thomson I. (2016, February 9). Empire of Things Review. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/09/empire-of-things-frank-trentmann-review.

[6] Yuval Noah Harari (2016). Homo Deus: A Brief History of tomorrow. HarperCollins Publishers. P. 129.

[7] Abu Baker J. (2016, July 11). The good and bad sides of consumerism. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/the-good-and-bad-sides-of-consumerism. Accessed: 20/11/2019.

[8] Op cit, Chappelow J. Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/consumerism.asp.

[9] Op cit, Scott M. Retrieved from https://swiftmoney.com/blog/what-you-need-to-know-about-consumerism/.

[10] History Crunch (2019). Positives of Consumerism. https://www.historycrunch.com/consumerism-positives.html#/. Date accessed: 20/11/2019.

[11] History Crunch (2019). Negatives of Consumerism. https://www.historycrunch.com/consumerism-negatives.html#/. Date accessed: 20/11/2019.

[12] Op cit, Abu Baker J. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/the-good-and-bad-sides-of-consumerism.

[13] Life Squared (2009). The problem with consumerism. Retrieved from: https://www.lifesquared.org.uk/problem-consumerism. Date accessed: 20/11/2019.

[14] Mayell H. (2004, January 12). As Consumerism Spreads, Earth Suffers, Study Says. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2004/01/consumerism-earth-suffers/. Accessed: 20/11/2019.

[15] Coghlan A. (2009, August 7). Consumerism is ‘eating the future.’ NewScientist. Retrieved from https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17569-consumerism-is-eating-the-future/. Accessed: 20/11/2019.