What’s So Bad About Consumerism?

by Nelson Harvey

Among social critics, the practice of railing against consumerism is as old as wealth itself. In the last 40 years, as the United States has become increasingly richer in material terms, it has been a common arrow in the quiver of environmentalists as well. But like the words “green” or “sustainability,” consumerism is now referenced so widely that it’s easy to forget exactly what is refers to, or why it matters in the first place. Here’s a definition from the Merriam Webster Dictionary:

“the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable; also : a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods.”

At first glance, this seems pretty straightforward. After all, some level of consumption is a basic requisite for staying alive, since food, shelter, medical care and other necessities all require it. So what’s the problem? I like to think about this in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, represented visually in the pyramid below.

Graphic Source: Wikipedia

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who theorized that the development of each individual can be expressed as a progression from satisfying basic material needs like food, shelter and sex to more complex needs like friendship, self esteem, and self-actualization. Viewed in this light, consumerism is a need from the bottom level masquerading as one from near the top, in the realm of “Esteem.” Consumption becomes problematic, from a social and environmental standpoint, when it becomes conspicuous, motivated more by a need for belonging, social acceptance and status then survival.

If I had any doubts that this sort of thing was on display in American society, my trip into Bloomingdale’s department store with my family last Friday evening was more than enough to assuage them. I sat in an armchair inside the nine-floor labyrinth of high fashion, watching well groomed couples stride by weighed down with their purchases. It was payday, and they were there to convert their cash into social currency. Scores of thin women browsed blue jeans with price tags that could be found on plane tickets. Clearly, there was much more than just “basic needs” on display.

From an environmental perspective, shopping is not the soundest path to a strong sense of self-worth. Friendships, marriages, clubs, sports teams and churches are much better. But the moment you begin to talk about regulating consumption, you are treading on thin ice. Our ability to consume so much of so many things is inextricably tied to the idea of freedom, the idea that each individual should decide for themselves when enough is enough.

Laws regulating the consumption of luxury goods have been highly ineffective throughout history, and they will likely continue to be so. The key is to make such goods irrelevant by strengthening the very thing for which they are a substitute: the social fabric. How we do this is a huge and baffling question, but one thing is certain: it will have very little to do with getting that new pair of jeans.


7 thoughts on “What’s So Bad About Consumerism?

  1. lamarguerite says:


    If you search for Maslow in my blog, you will find a post I wrote quoting Maslow’s work, that might be of interest to you.

    Anyway, Happy Blog Action Day! In honor of Blog Action Day, I just started this new section in my blog, called Blogacts, for blogging + activism. I would like to invite you to be a guest blogger on my blog, and write about one of your blog acts, something you did or are planning to do, involving both writing in your blog, and following up with some kind of activist gesture in your community. Of course, I would link the post back to your site!

    let me know if that is something you would like to do, I would certainly feel honored if you did.


  2. Magic says:

    Interesting idea relating consumerism to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maybe the people you describe are stuck on the fourth level and cannot move past “esteem” to the fifth level “acceptance of facts”. Specifically that their conspicuous consumption is not environmentally responsible. The question is how do you influence them to move up to the fifth level. You are at a great disadvantage relying on intellectual arguements as the purveyors of “consumerism” are both well funded and have based their very effective advertising campaigns on addressing the consumer’s need to fullfill the fourth level, while at the same time fullfilling their own 1st and 2nd level needs; arguably a much more powerful motivator than idealistic meddling. Good luck coming up with a plan of attack.

  3. Ken Akiyama says:

    “The key to invoking change is to present a superior model.”

    There are lots of people highlighting the treachery of our overconsuming ways but the key will be to SELL it to the average joe rather than try to RAM it down his throat.

    Check out my website.

  4. John Broomfield says:

    Maslow taught us of the abundance and power of needs associated with self-actualization.

    When will our environmental leaders tap into these higher order needs instead of guilt-tripping consumers?

    “Inconvenient Truth” on what we must stop doing needs updating to “Wonderful Truth”.

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