books consumerism

Four forces of consumerism

I’ve been reading What’s mine is yours by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers recently. It’s all about new forms of consumption and how the internet is changing attitudes to ownership. It’s also full of insights into consumerism, and in one chapter they describe four forces that drive it. I’ve not used the same names as they do, but it’s a thoughtful list and I thought I’d pass it on. With a book title like that, I’m sure they won’t mind.

  1. Advertising
    The first driving force of consumerism is advertising, a vast industry dedicated to the ‘power of persuasion’. It is through advertisers that we are tempted, coaxed or shamed into buying or upgrading. We have had advertising in one form or another for centuries, but it was in the 1950s that it was elevated to a science. Essentially propaganda put to the service of industry rather than government, advertising creates the disatisfaction necessary to keep us shopping.
  2. Debt
    Our hyper-consumerist, growth-addicted society would never have developed to its current extremes if we all had to carefully save up before we bought anything. Credit cards, store cards, payday loans and ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes all bring forward our expenditure. Roll one form of debt into another as many of us do, and our spending can run a long way ahead of our earnings.
  3. Obsolescence
    Everything wears out eventually, but in the post-war boom years, industrialists realised that the life cycles of products could be planned and managed. If you sell a customer a fridge that last fifty years, you’ll only ever sell them that one fridge. Make a fridge that will last ten years, and you can sell five over the same time period. Obsolescence can also be perceived rather than actual – who’ll want an iPhone 5 when the iPhone 6 comes out, regardless of whether it’s still working or not?
  4. More
    What do you do when everyone has what they need? Convince people that they need another one. Yes, you have a TV, but don’t you wish you could lie in bed and watch saturday morning cartoons? Get one for the bedroom. And what about when you’re cooking in the kitchen? The average British home now has more TV sets than people. Likewise, two cars are better than one, and two bathrooms. And it’s not just the big things. Most of us buy clothes that we never wear, or food that we never eat.

There are probably more factors that drive consumerism, but that’s a pretty good summary. I expect I’ll post more from What’s mine is yours, and I’ll review it when I’m done, but go and check out the rather good Collaborative Consumption website in the meantime.


  1. Hmm, 50 year old fridges and cars would be nowhere near as efficient as today’s models. So perhaps this planned obsolescence isn’t so bad (and the mechanics of fridges are pretty reliable, the thing that breaks is the plastic internal trim which is never going to last since it is subjected to cold, not good for plastics).

    Anti-consumerist ideas seem to be based around the idea that people don’t want the stuff they are buying, that they have been fooled in to wanting it. They are brain-washed by advertising. That they have a false consciousness and if only they woke up they would stop buying stuff and would be happier. The trouble is that people who can’t buy stuff don’t seem to be happier than those who can and do. It is only those people who make a conscious decision NOT to buy stuff who are happier, and that can be put down them feeling they are in control of their lives and an air of superiority over those who are still on the consumerist treadmill. Suggesting that they are smarter than the brain-washed drones because they have seen through the ‘propaganda’ just adds to that sense of superiority.

    We live in a free society, and people choose to consume or not. Revealed preference suggests most people want to consume because they do. Another TV in the bedroom does make them happier, if it didn’t they wouldn’t buy one (certainly not replace it when it breaks down). Give people the chance to consume more and they will, they don’t need advertising to make them do it, just to decide whose cars/fridges etc they will consume.

    1. Obsolescence depends on the technology. Some things are advancing fast, particularly in the digital field. A ten year old mobile is going to lack a lot of functionality. Other things are much more settled – a thirty year old toaster will be no worse than a new one, I should think. It’s the idea of planned obsolescence that I object to, the end of the product being built in so that’s essentially designed to break. As the owner of the product, it ought to be up to me when I replace my stuff.

      You also have to weigh energy use against materials use and embedded emissions. A new car may be more fuel efficient, but it takes years to work off the embedded emissions of a new car. Replacing it every year wouldn’t be environmentally positive overall, even if you were using less petrol. So it’s just not as simple as that.

      As for a free society, of course we’re free to buy what we want, but we shouldn’t be naive. The pioneers of consumerism knew exactly what they were doing and weren’t shy about saying it. Here’s Edward Bernays, the man who coined the term ‘public relations’ in 1917: “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?” Or Charles Kettering, writing in 1929: “the key to economic prosperity is the organized creation of dissatisfaction.”

      This isn’t some weird conspiracy, just the application of psychology to selling stuff, and it’s very pervasive. We shouldn’t be complacent about it, or we’ll be easy to manipulate.

      1. You are making the mistake of taking PR claims at face value. That the answer to Bernays’ question may be ‘no’ isn’t considered. I don’t believe we are sheep. Why would we support democracy if this were true? Of course people are trying to persuade us to do what they want, but ultimately we do pretty much what we want. Ask any hypnotist and they will tell you you can not make people do things that are totally out of character.

        The view that most people sheep controlled into wanting things is held by those who self exclude themselves from consumerism as it validates their own choices and give themselves a sense of superiority.

        Things that are made to last are more heavily engineered and therefore more expensive than lighter items with a shorter life. So it takes longer to afford them so fewer people can have them, especially if we stop debt (fridges as the toys of the rich).

        1. I don’t take the PR claims at face value, but that’s their stated aim. And if advertising didn’t work, companies wouldn’t spend money on it. It clearly does work, and an estimated half a trillion dollars is being spent on advertising this year. Of course people aren’t sheep, but we are open to suggestion. Advertising isn’t sinister mind control, it’s just applied psychology.

          I’m not sure why you’re so keen to defend planned obsolescence. It seems rather perverse to me. You appear to be arguing that shoddy goods are better because we can have more of them.

          1. Shoddy goods are better than no goods, which for many people is what only producing durable items would mean.

            I’ve said before I believe the problems with resource depletion are over blown, apart from helium everything is still on Earth and so reusable. Therefore the only issue with planned obsolescence is the carbon cost, and we have only really known about that for 25-30 years. So to deride those who introduced an economic concept 90 years ago suggests you think there should have been some kind of time machine. The pace of modern technological development now is such that goods really do become obsolete quicker. A land line phone made in 1960 was perfectly serviceable in 2000. A mobile phone made in 1990 would not work today. So when planned obsolescence was created, its global warming impact was not known, now it itself is obsolete since technological change is removing the possibility of keeping these things longer.

            Advertising is very good at getting people to choose BETWEEN products. I can see the utility of a smart-phone without applied psychology, but why would I want an Apple one over a Samsung? That is where advertising and marketing makes the difference.

            The idea that the consumerist society is created by advertising is beguiling because it suggests that a) you are clever than most people for seeing through it, and b) Consumerism can be reversed by removing advertising, or using applied psychology to make people not want to consume. If the desire to consume more is innate in humanity, advertising just channels it, then you have a much thornier problem, and makes you the ones outside the norm. Just because an idea works for you, doesn’t make it right, in fact given confirmation bias, you should be warier of it than one that challenges your ideals.

          2. I’m not arguing for no advertising, you’re pushing my views to an extreme in order to rubbish them. But I think you’re just being complacent if you think it’s benign.

            On obsolescence, resource depletion is one of several reasons why it’s a problem. The most obvious is that it treats your customers like suckers, which you don’t seem to mind. I find myself paying increasing attention to guarantees and aftercare when buying anything now, along with repairability – a lot of products are now designed to be opened with special tools, so that they have to be replaced when they break. The flow of stuff through the waste stream is a major problem, and the WEEE legislation hasn’t stopped the export of toxic electronic waste to poorer countries. Then there’s the energy of mining, refining, producing and shipping new items. And yes, the resource depletion angle too, which is more relevant than just helium. Many products can’t be recycled, so while the materials still technically exist on the planet, they’re no longer useable. (My dinner didn’t cease to exist when I just ate it, but that doesn’t mean it can be endless re-eaten)

          3. I think you will find that your dinner has been endlessly re-eaten, your dinner becomes poo goes on to fertilize fields that grow your future dinners and that cycle has been going on for billions of years.

  2. I knew as soon as I posted it that you’d say that. What I’m referring to is entropy, that energy and quality is lost in the transformation. The fact that things don’t cease to exist doesn’t justify our systems of production and waste.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: