HISTORY OF CONSUMERISM
Consumerism is an economic and societal way of viewing and understanding the economy, which focuses on the idea of the consumption of a steady supply of goods and services by the citizens of a given country. The consumption of goods and services by individual consumers helps drive the economic engine of a consumerist society in that it creates jobs for workers and wealth for businesses owners. While consumerism as an ideology can be present in several different types of economic systems, it is most often associated with capitalism. In particular, consumerism plays an important role in modern democratic countries with mixed economies such as: the United States, England, France, Canada, etc. Furthermore, consumerism is an important component of the concept of supply and demand because it involves the supply of goods and services and the demand (consumption) of goods and services by individual consumers. To fully understand the significance of consumerism as an ideology it’s also important to understand its development throughout history.
While people across many different civilizations and time periods have always purchased and consumed goods, the modern concept of consumerism is best understood to have begun in the late 1600s in Europe. From that point, consumerism intensified throughout the 1700s and 1800s and became a major societal phenomenon in which the consumption of products became a vitally important task for most people in society. As stated above, consumerism is generally associated with the economic system of capitalism. As such, consumerism as an ideology emerged alongside capitalism and spread throughout Europe, North America and the rest of the world as capitalism became the dominant economic system on the planet. During the early years of the development of consumerism, two major historical events came to play an important role, which included: Industrial Revolution and the Age of Imperialism.
During the Age of Exploration, which occurred from the 15th to the 18th century, European explorers ‘discovered’ large sections of previously unknown (to Europeans) land, such as: the Americas, Africa, Australia, and parts of Asia to the far east. This exploration by the main European nations of the time eventually led to widespread colonialism throughout the newly explored regions. The European nations (especially England, France, Spain and Portugal) established colonies throughout these regions, which is often referred to as the Age of Imperialism. This process fed the European nations with huge amounts of raw materials from all over the world and helped increase the rate of consumerism in several ways. First, the raw materials fed the industrial factories in Europe and were used to create countless numbers of consumer goods that were then distributed throughout the world. Second, the vast colonies allowed the European nations access to large markets of people in which they could then sell their products. For example, several of the European nations established sugar or tobacco plantations throughout the New World. These sugar and tobacco plantations then produced sugar and tobacco (often with slaves from the Atlantic Slave Trade) for transport back to Europe, where the resources would be used to produce other products. The products would then be sold around the world in the many colonies controlled by the European nations, as well as in Europe itself.
The Industrial Revolution also played a major role in the spread of consumerism. It first began in the 1700s in England and soon spread to many other countries in Europe and North America. At its heart, industrialization centered on the use of capitalist economic policies that led to the emergence of many different factories and mines. As a result of the economic freedom of the time period, these factories were able to produce countless number of inventions and products on a mass-scale. Before the start of the Industrial Revolution, goods were produced in a system referred to as the ‘cottage industry’. This means that the goods were created on a small scale often in people’s homes. As a result of this method, goods were often unique in nature and were not produced in large numbers. The Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed this and instead caused factories to be located in cities and towns where goods could instead be produced on a mass scale. This abundance of new and cheap goods meant that there were many different and affordable products for people to buy. This led to consumerism because it created the system in which people could reasonably afford a variety of goods. As well, the wealth accumulated by the business owners of the time period allowed them the ability to afford many more goods and helped intensify the consumerist societies of the time.
Before the start of the Industrial Revolution, and during the Industrial Revolution, societies in Europe and the North America were divided by large income gaps. This means that some people, such as the business owners, were making large sums of money while other people, such as the working class, struggled to make ends meet. As a result, many people in industrial societies were poor and struggled to afford the basic necessities of life. However, as time passed and socialist values emerged to support the working class, a strong middle class of people emerged. These middle class people were able to afford better houses, education, and consumer goods. As a result, many historians consider the emergence of the middle class in Europe and North America as a major contribution to the intensification of consumerism. Because they had higher incomes, they could afford to buy more luxury items and therefore consumed more goods.
Consumerism further developed in the 20th century. For example, some people consider the 1950s and 1960s as the ‘golden age of consumerism’. During this time period, goods became much less expensive and some products were able to sell on a very large scale due to effective marketing campaigns. In general, marketing refers to the advertisements that companies produce to sell their products to a large audience. Marketing had always been a popular method of selling a good but the marketing campaigns of the 20th century became much more sophisticated. For example, many of these campaigns promoted a sense of identity in relation to their products and caused people to associate their social standing in society with their level and quality of consumption. This caused an explosion in modern consumption rates, as marketing is still an important consumerist tool in the 21st century.
Another important aspect of consumerism in recent years has been the concept of outsourcing. In general, outsourcing is when companies in western countries such as the United States and Canada send their manufacturing to other countries such as Mexico and China. Companies do this to lower the overall cost of wages when developing a product because workers in countries like China and Mexico will work for much smaller wages than similar workers in the United States and Canada. Outsourcing as a concept became popular throughout North America and Europe throughout the 1980s and continues still today. It is a very controversial process because some people view it as positive while others view it as negative. Those that view outsourcing in a positive light think that it keeps the cost of goods low and helps companies remain prosperous in a competitive economy. Whereas those that view it negatively think that outsourcing has caused a loss of manufacturing jobs throughout North America and Europe. Regardless, outsourcing helped to intensify consumerism throughout the world. First, it kept the cost of many goods low which allowed more mass production and distribution of consumer goods. Second, it caused other countries, such as China and Mexico, to develop their own consumerist societies which furthered the rate of consumerism on a global scale.
Today, consumerism continues to intensify with influential marketing campaigns, outsourcing, and a cheap and steady supply of both resources and goods.