Evolution of U.S.
Per-person consumption of raw materials is less than 2 metric tons
Corporate profits are pumped into advertising, which becomes a principal driver of consumption and commercialization (2)
Henry Ford implements the first moving assembly line, other companies follow suit to produce more products more quickly (3)
1921 - 1922
Economists fear production outpaces purchasing and seek to further drive demand (1)
Over half of U.S. homes gain electric power for appliances like radios, refrigerators, and washers, which help manage more food and clothing (1)
Department stores expand and mail-order shopping surges with advancements in train systems, store design, and product production; small shopkeepers start getting pushed out by large corporations (2)
Demand increases for systems of consumer credit on large purchases (7)
The birth of commercial radio provides a direct line for advertising to consumers in their homes (1)
“Mass production is profitable only if its rhythm can be maintained—that is if it can continue to sell its product in steady or increasing quantity.… Today supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand … [and] cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product; it must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda...”
- Edward Bernays’ Propaganda
The Great Depression acts as a speed bump for mass consumption but fuels desires to have more than plenty (1)
Mechanized slaughter of pigs is introduced and serves as a model for factory farming to minimize cost and maximize production and profit in animal agriculture (4)
The U.S enters World War II and it's industrial productivity increases 96% with wartime factory output, job creation, overtime pay, and innovation (5)
World War II ends and a mass consumption boom follows as rationing ends and industrial resources are redirected from wartime production to consumer goods production (1)
1950 - 1990
Per capita consumption in the U.S. doubles. Tons of waste landfilled in the U.S. doubles (6)
76% of U.S. families are in a form of consumer debt, with a larger percent of high-income families carrying debt than low-income families (8)
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is adopted as the main measure of a country's economy at the Bretton Woods conference
Popularization of concept “planned obsolescence,” or intentionally manufacturing things people do not need, that will not last long (1)
The earth is still able to produce resources each year at the pace humanity consumes them (7)
Per-person consumption of raw materials peaks at 13 metric tons
The earth's capacity to produce resources is eclipsed by our demand in July, and then we go into a deficit or "earth overshoot" (7)
How did we come to be such a consumption-focused culture?
While modern-day consumerism has already significantly impacted our planet and the beings on it, it is a relatively recent construct. What we perceive as normal in today's consumer culture has been shaped mostly over the last century.
Our cultures became more consumer-focused as we humans:
made advancements in technology;
set economic growth as the key metric of national prosperity;
created the modern advertising industry;
institutionalized credit and debit;
and finally, made "momfluencers" a thing.
In the U.S. in 1900, the per-person consumption of raw materials was less than 2 metric tons. Over the next century, per-person consumption grew consistently before peaking in 2006 at 13 metric tons per person (9). While consumption decreased with the recession in 2008 and hasn't yet "recovered," we still consume well over what the planet can sustain.
The timeline to the left gives a look at just a few of the notable events that contributed to our explosive consumption.
We are each wrapped up in a web of systems, structures, and mindsets that help shape how we think and behave. Some of these influences are more structural—like economic systems—and some are more conceptual—like what we believe makes us loveable.
Many of the systems, structures, and mindsets in modern cultures encourage overconsumption. The qualities that make someone successful, useful, beautiful, or "normal" today are often packaged up as something that can be sold to us.
When we make ourselves aware of the systems and mindsets that influence why and how we consume, we gain a fuller perspective on what drives modern consumer culture...and what drives our own consumer behaviors.
Name that norm.
A norm is an expectation shared by a culture about how one should live. Norms are reinforced by families, in schools, and in the media. Some examples of cultural norms in the U.S. are "uncleanliness is impolite," "celebration requires material gifts," and "don't abuse dogs, just pigs." Think about how cultural norms lead us to:
Overconsume beauty products, appliances, electronics, foods, toys, clothes...
Create unnecessary waste, upgrading from usable items to the newest model to "keep up"
Feel guilty about our bodies, age, or sexuality, etc... and buy something to alleviate that guilt
Treat animals as commodities rather than beings, oftentimes despite a love for them
Believe that MORE, BIGGER, and FASTER are always better
Support convenient and flashy mass corporations over smaller, slower family businesses
Work longer hours to feed production lines and earn more to consume more
Search for our own identity and meaning in the collection of things
You are enough.
The advent of advertising to help sell goods has had a major impact on our culture and behaviors. Advertising tells us that external, material goods can solve our internal woes. Essentially, the goal of advertising is to convince us that we are incomplete without a particular product.
This can be accomplished through different strategies that advertisers employ, such as:
Playing on our sense of self vs. our ideal self
Using gender norms to suggest what we should want as a man or woman
Using socio-economic class to suggest what we should desire or strive for
Shaming us or asking us to compare ourselves to standardized beauty norms
Appealing directly to the "lizard brain" by leveraging fear of isolation, aging, boredom, death, and dirt
Appealing directly to children's desires
Offering a product as the solution to an immaterial problem
Consider: What problem are the ads you see claiming—or implying—they can solve for you? Is buying another product really the best way to address the need the ad is targeting?
What's the impact?
So we're a consumer-focused culture, what's the big deal? What's the harm if shoes make us happy and we love anti-wrinkle creams? We're stimulating the economy, after all...
Mass unconscious consumption is having a negative impact on our planet and other beings, and it's going to cost us sooner or later. Even if we didn't care about all that (and we do), excessive consumption appears to be having a nasty impact on us as individuals in search of purpose and happiness, too. Continue on to CONSUMER IMPACT to learn more about why it is important that we re-examine our actions as consumers ASAP.
Sources and inspiration
(1) "A Brief History of Consumer Culture," MIT Press, https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/a-brief-history-of-consumer-culture, Published 11 Jan. 2021. (2) "A New American Consumer Culture," OER Services, https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-ushistory2os2xmaster/chapter/a-new-american-consumer-culture (3) "The Moving Assembly Line and the Five-Dollar Work Day," Ford, https://corporate.ford.com/articles/history/moving-assembly-line.html, Accessed 30 Jun. 2022. (4) "When Did Factory Farming Start and Why Does It Still Exist?," Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, https://ffacoalition.org/articles/when-did-factory-farming-start-and-why-does-it-still-exist/ (5)"The Way We Won: America's Economic Breakthrough During World War II," The American Prospect, https://prospect.org/health/way-won-america-s-economic-breakthrough-world-war-ii/, Published December 19, 2001 (6) "National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling." EPA, https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials#Generation, Last Updated 29 Jun. 2022. (7) "Past Earth Overshoot Days," Earth Overshoot Day. https://www.overshootday.org/newsroom/past-earth-overshoot-days/, Published 2022 (8) "Report to the Congress on Practices of the Consumer Credit Industry in Soliciting and Extending Credit and their Effects on Consumer Debt and Insolvency." Federal Reserve, https://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/rptcongress/bankruptcy/bankruptcybillstudy200606.pdf, Published Jun. 2006 (9) "U.S. Environmental Footprint Factsheet" Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, https://css.umich.edu/publications/factsheets/sustainability-indicators/us-environmental-footprint-factsheet#:~:text=In%201900%2C%20raw%20material%20consumption,2%20metric%20tons%20per%20person, Updated 2022 (10)"3.1 Factors That Influence Consumers' Buying Behavior." Principles of Marketing by University of Minnesota, https://open.lib.umn.edu/principlesmarketing/chapter/3-1-factors-that-influence-consumers-buying-behavior/, Accessed 30 Jun. 2022.