Consumer culture is a human design. Let’s take a look at the psychological factors, worldviews, mindsets, and systemic structures that influence us—often without our noticing.
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 (7)
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 get here?
While modern-day consumerism has already greatly impacted our planet, people, and animals, it is a relatively recent construct. What we perceive as normal in today's "consumer culture" was shaped mainly over the last century as technology advanced, production increased, advertising influenced, and economic growth became the key metric for measuring a country's prosperity.
This evolving culture had a massive effect on how much we consume individually and collectively. 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.
Think about how this model leads us to:
Use up more raw materials than we require to lead healthy lives
Create unnecessary waste, upgrading from usable items to the newest model
Produce more emissions than the earth can absorb in making/moving/disposing of goods
Treat animals as commodities rather than beings, sometimes despite our love for them
See mass corporations push out small and local businesses that cannot compete
Work longer hours to feed production lines and earn more to consume more
Internalize constant messaging that we are incomplete without product x, y, or z
Search for our own identity and meaning in the collection of things
Consumer culture as a system
As consumers, we're part of a system, or an interconnected network of structures and concepts. Systems that encourage consumption include societal structures—like our credits and debits infrastructure—and more personal, psychological concepts—like our fear of missing out (FOMO).
When we map the systems that influence why and how we consume, we can get a fuller perspective on what informs modern consumer culture (and, perhaps, what informs our own actions as a consumer).
What's influencing you?
Create a consumer systems map with you, the consumer, in the center. What interconnected systems, industries, and psychological factors influence why and how you consume?
Advertising, media, and marketing
The advent of advertising to help sell goods has had a major impact on our culture and behaviors. The role of advertising is to convince consumers that we are incomplete without product xyz. Advertising tells us that external, material goods can solve our internal woes.
Play on our sense of self vs. our ideal self
Use gender norms to suggest what we should want as a man or woman
Use socio-economic class to suggest what we should desire or possess
Ask us to compare themselves to standardized beauty norms
Appeal directly to the "lizard brain" by leveraging fear of isolation, aging, death
Appeal directly to children's desires
Offer a product as the solution to an immaterial problem
Is the answer really a product?
Pay attention to the ads you see today. What basic need or intrinsic desire does each ad claim a product will fulfill? Are there ways to meet that need or desire without the product?
The attitude-behavior gap
The attitude-behavior gap is the difference between our reported beliefs and values (attitudes) and the actions we take (behaviors). We may believe fair labor conditions are important, but we don’t factor this into which brands we buy. We may believe waste reduction is important, but we don’t compost or buy biodegradable packaging. We may believe in animal wellbeing, but we don't avoid products that require animal suffering.
Why our behaviors don't align with our attitudes
We're unaware that our behaviors are misaligned with our attitudes and values
We're not aware of convenient options that match our attitudes and values
Cultural norms and pressures are stronger than our attitudes and values
We're overwhelmed with information and give up finding behaviors aligned with our attitudes and values
We do not believe our behaviors will make a difference
But our behaviors do make a difference. Our behaviors provide a feedback loop to maintain or change systems.
You're the type of person who...
List your core values. Do your consumer behaviors reflect them? Acting in accordance with our beliefs and values helps reduce cognitive dissonance and strengthens our sense of self.
Sources and inspirations
(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. (11)"How to SHIFT Consumer Behaviors to be More Sustainable: A Literature Review and Guiding Framework." Katherine White, Rishad Habib, David J. Hardisty, SAGE Journals, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0022242919825649, Published 14 Feb. 2019.