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Consumer Culture

Evolution of U.S.
consumer culture

1900

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)

1913

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)

1929

Over half of U.S. homes gain electric power for appliances like radios, refrigerators, and washers, which help manage more food and clothing (1)

Late 1800s

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)

1920s

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)

1928

“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

1929

The Great Depression acts as a speed bump for mass consumption but fuels desires to have more than plenty (1)

1930

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)

1941

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)

1945

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)

2004

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)

1944

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is adopted as the main measure of a country's economy at the Bretton Woods conference

1950s

Popularization of concept “planned obsolescence,” or intentionally manufacturing things people do not need, that will not last long (1)

1970

The earth is still able to produce resources each year at the pace humanity consumes them (7)

2006

Per-person consumption of raw materials peaks at 13 metric tons

2022

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.

What perpetuates
unconscious 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.

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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?

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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 anchor

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.

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