Consumerism in America

In America, more money is spent on fashion accessories than college tuition whilst there are over 300,000 items in the average household. Nearly half of American households don’t save any money, yet the average American woman owns 30 outfits. And in Britain, the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys but plays with just 12 daily. 89% of British teenage girls ranked shopping as their favourite pastime, and Britain spends nearly $400 billion on non-essential goods annually.
Chuck Palahniuk once questioned society’s endless desire for material gain when he said; “Are these things really better than the things I already have? Or am I just trained to be dissatisfied with what I have now?”

Palahniuk was referring to the consumerist mindset the world had developed, and restructured under. Business was now founded on the ideals of “bigger and better” and marketing quickly became a worldwide influential force. Consumerism has quickly become one of the worlds greatest potential crises. It is a social and economic order, and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts.

Whilst striving to acquire wealth is not necessarily a bad thing, the world’s finite quantity of resources are being used to fuel this demand for goods at an unsustainable rate. This means society is rapidly approaching a shortage of natural capital (Oil, Gas etc.) which may lead to outcomes such as heightened poverty or ownership dispute.

In Western developed countries, beyond just the economy, the culture is profoundly connected to and dependent on consumption. Without consumer goods, these countries would lose key instruments for the reproduction, representation and manipulation of their culture. Effectively these brands that are so essential to the consumerist model, are what define many of these cultures. Consumer processes are of such importance to the scaffolding of our present realities that without them, certain acts of self-definition and collective definition would be impossible. This ideal can be seen present throughout history and in different cultures. For example experts in Ancient Greek culture have said that people back then did not see their thoughts as belonging to them, but of them being an order from a god or goddess; Apollo was telling them to be brave, Athena was telling them to fall in love. This is not dissimilar to today’s world, where people hear a commercial for a new car and rush out to buy this, except they now call this free will.

Consumerism has been formed under the the influences of corporate politics, the commercialisation of culture and the recent introduction of mass media, interconnected through the foundations of human nature. People started to have more money, and they started to consume more. What is the real problem with this?

Russian author Anton Chekhov confronts the issues behind consumerism in his short-story, “A doctor’s visit” set in 19th century industrial Russia. Chekhov examines how the consumerist-mindset can actually have negative impacts on individuals’ social and emotional wellbeing, and how the reality society presents as the “ideal life” does not necessarily bring enjoyment to some, as other socio-cultural factors can have a larger impact on an individual’s psychology. A “one size fits all” notion is flawed in general and this societal value misleads individuals into adopting values that aren’t imperative for happiness, but are commonly marketed as being driving factors.

Chekhov attacks the “american dream” philosophy through the text, analysing the societal values that drive consumerism, and questioning material’s real value to an individual. Chekhov notes the attitude prevalent in society which displays a concentration towards material gain and measures people’s worth by their wealth. Chekhov achieves his aim through telling the story of a doctor visiting a sick girl’s residence to treat her. We quickly find out she is the daughter of a deceased wealthy businessman, who owns the factories surrounding their home. After spending the night with the girl, the doctor concludes that she is in fact perfectly happy but simply suffering from guilt. Guilt from the poor working conditions the factory workers must endure and guilty of her own wealth despite – The doctor also discovers that whilst she is wealthy, she lives a life with no fulfilment, and is not happy due to her lack of relationships and friends.

Chekhov’s story is important in highlighting one of society’s main issues, which is becoming increasingly problematic in its influence. Consumerism is having substantial impacts on different facets of people’s lives, and Chekhov’s criticism of the ideals which drive consumerism is effective in challenging our assumptions and questioning the information we are fed.

Thus In endeavouring to reach a conclusion over the moral debate that resides over consumerism, and determine the possible changes that are needed, we must look at the attraction of consumerism and how it is founded, the negative impacts it has on society and the development of consumerism throughout time. Therefore I will be answering the following three framing questions:

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