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Consumerism and Materialism: A World Culture Based on Consumption

Materialism is the mark of this era, with the last century closing with the famous song “Material Girl” by Madonna which portrays peoples' rising obsession with wealth, possessions and showing off. A materialist is someone who believes that increased consumption leads to higher life satisfaction.

Consumerism is the idea that purchasing material possessions results in happiness. “Consumer Societies” are Societies where leisure time is dedicated to spending money on goods, thinking about spending money on goods, showing off goods purchased and where goods serve a purpose beyond basic needs, such as giving prestige or identity to owner. An example of that would be spending money on items such as an expensive watch with the purpose of satisfying the individual's need for positive appraisal, self-esteem and identity so it is no longer purchased solely to perform its original purpose which is to tell time. This is sometimes referred to as “conspicuous consumption”.

This “Consumer Society” is not only a disease of the today's culture, but is one that has existed from the very dawn of civilization. It has been noted that ancient empires such as the Egyptians and the Romans have suffered from consumerism; this is evident in their clothing which typically depicts their social class and status within the community.

Consumerism is potentially harmful because it drives excessive consumption. This puts a strain on the environment as it leads to depletions of the natural resources. Furthermore, it may be a cause of inequity between nations, for example the affluence in western countries can only be maintained if the developing countries remain hungry.

'The pursuit of luxury or positional goods while others go hungry is unjust' – Karl Marx. 

It could also lead to inequity between different generations; this is because the high consumption levels of current generations may deprive future generations from resources. But most importantly consumerism affects social values. It affects our society and culture. Which raises an important question: Are individuals happier with more material possessions?

Economic Theory and Consumption

The first concept taught in most principles of economic courses is that of scarcity which is the notion that resources are limited and must therefore be used efficiently. This implies that maximization of value of production should be achieved. In most economic models increased consumption is encouraged as it promotes profit and increases the utility of the individual i.e. high consumption is equated with happiness.

According to the economists consumption is seen as the driving force of the economy, providing people with the incentive to use their time and energy to obtain more and better things. They also believe that consumption not only provides return on investment as illustrated by the “multiplier effect”, but it also supplies job opportunities.

Economic theory tends to advocate utilitarian views. Competitiveness and profit maximization are valued because they lead to efficiency. However, competitiveness and profit maximization can also lead to unemployment and deterioration of the work experience. This is verified because it promotes efficiency, which ultimately provides happiness i.e. the means justify the end.

So, in the name of efficiency, profit maximization is justified, leading to consumption maximization, yet the real effects of this system may not be maximizing the well-being of humans, neither in terms of their happiness nor in terms of the sustainability of the ecosystem.

Based on that it can be concluded that economist, and especially capitalist highly encourage consumerism. This provides marketers with the motivation to use their tools (such advertising) to promote consumption in order to generate profit. It could be argued that this is good for the economy and that it is in the best interest of the individuals to consume more.

Does more consumption mean more happiness?

Seeking wealth and material possessions is a natural part of human needs. In Maslows hierarchy, The lower needs such as physical needs and security needs could be easily satisfied by consumption of goods. This consumption is only harmful when it crosses a certain limit whereby the acquisitions of more products and services becomes an obsession and deters the individual or societies from other important goals. Heady, Muffels and Wooden (2004) found that consumption does have a positive impact on happiness but it is relatively small compared to other factors such as employment status.

Richins and Dawson (1992) conceptualized materialism as a consumer value with three components: centrality (acquisition centrality), happiness (acquisition as the pursuit of happiness), and success (possession-defined success). Meaning that the value of possession for the materialistic person is in its ability to confer status and project a desired self-image.

The findings of that study show that blue-collars have the highest level of materialism and that religious individuals show low levels. It also shows that the individuals who scored high on materiality exhibit low level of happiness. This was suggested to be due to their unwillingness to share their wealth or possessions even with family and friends.

In their study Muncy and Eastman (1998) discovered a relationship between materialism and consumer ethics. They propose that this is because materialistic individuals become obsessed with acquiring material possessions at the expense of other pursuits such as religion, family or friends. So their need to consume is more important than ethical values. Those individuals need to acquire more and more but due to the limitation of time, they may take short-cuts in order to gain wealth faster. This leads to a general deterioration of their ethical standards, especially because they have less spiritual outlooks. If this is applied to Maslow's Hierarchy, it is implies that the higher needs are harder to achieve by consumption, for example self-actualization, which the highest sense of fulfillment is not attainable by material possessions.

Is encouraging materialism socially irresponsible?

If materialism leads to deterioration of cultural values and ethics and is not proved to provide sustainable happiness, then this implies that marketers promoting consumption are being unethical. This challenges the validity of using highly persuasive advertising and questions marketers' efforts to induce more needs and wants in consumers.

Fashion

Fashion is at the heart of all “Consumer Societies”. It is an endless quest for the latest trends and fads. In today's society socially conscious individuals have to keep consuming in order to meet the expectations of their peers. This is fueled by marketers' efforts to create a constant demand for products and services. It has become like an addiction for some people and is unfortunately, highly encouraged by advertising and promotion.

In todays culture it is common to find an individual who does not have enough money to feed his family spending exaggerated sums of money on an expensive mobile phone with unnecessary added features. And with the spread of satellite dish and the internet it has become even easier for marketers to reach consumers with their persuasive advertising in addition to the increased exposure of developing countries to western culture. As result a more destructive kind of consumerism has evolved since developing countries are incapable of supporting the aspirations of their populations to imitate the affluent countries.

The question remains, is it ethical for marketers to take advantage of individual's and nation's false believe that acquiring more possessions will improve their life and improve their image in front of other people or nation?

It is obvious how marketing could be dangerous if used to induce this “consumption addiction”. While not all marketing efforts are harmful, but the constant bombardment of people's minds with more and more items to consume could lead to a distracted population which exhibits lower altruism and more greed and definitely higher debts.
   

References:

Heady, Bruce, Muffels, Ruud and Wooden, Mark (2004). “Money doesn't buy happiness … or does it? A reconsideration based on the combined effects of wealth, income and consumption”, Bonn : Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) Discussion Paper, July.

Muncy J. A. and Eastman J. K. (1998) “Materialism and Consumer Ethics: An Exploratory Study” Journal of Business Ethics 17: 137–145.

Richins, M. L. and S. Dawson (1992) “A Consumer Values Orientation for Materialism and its Measurement: Scale Development and Validation”, Journal of Consumer Research 19 (3), 303–316.

     
   

Reem Magdy Hassan

This article was done as basis for class discussion by students. They can be reached at Reem.hassan@student.guc.edu.eg
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