Changing the Culture of Consumerism

Throughout the Global Financial Crisis and the Great Recession we’ve all heard it: Governments and economists telling us to get out and shop to save the economy. I’ve even seen Facebook friends ponder on their status update, “Should I go shopping to save the economy?”

Our Culture of Consumerism

Consumerism is about more than just the proliferation of advertising and spending countless hours at the mall, it’s a culture. Culture can be defined as the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another. That means that our culture comes from all the social interactions that take place in our lives; discussions with family, friends and work colleagues, the TV shows we watch, the magazines we read, Facebook updates we are exposed to. All these social processes add up to become our reality. They define what feels natural to us, what clothes we wear, what foods we eat. We take all this as a given, but it’s really our culture which is shaping our reality.

Unfortunately, consumerism is now the guiding force in our culture. It is so pervasive that literally our well-being, our self-worth and our social status are all intricately tied to our consumption patterns. Obviously this is not a sustainable or viable system to base a culture on.

Why do we Consume so Much?

An interesting (but disturbing) statistic I came across recently, states that the average American lifestyle requires the extraction of 88kg (194lbs) of materials every day. Because we live in a culture that reinforces high consumption patterns, we consume far too many materials. How can we possibly need to use up more than our own body-weight in materials every day? It’s because we associate our well-being with how large our homes are, how big our TV screen is or the size of the car we drive. Consumerism is undermining the ecological systems that allows us to thrive as a species. If we don’t start shifting our culture away from consumerism, this current recession is going to be a stroll in the park compared to the world we’ll walk into.

Attics, basements and garages are loaded with the plunder of our shopping. I see people leave their cars on the street because their garages are so full that there is no room left for a vehicle. Some people even rent storage space to hold their extra stuff. Dumps are filling up with items that have never been used, just tossed out. More and more people are making a living off the perfectly good trash that’s thrown away every day. There is even a TV show called Hoarders which documents the lives of people at the extreme end of what has become a national preoccupation. Does all this stuff even make us happier? Research would suggest that the answer is No.

Consumption Does Not Make us Happier

One of the biggest side effects of the consumer lifestyle, is having less time to enjoy life. We are too busy working more hours, to make more money, to buy more stuff. We spend more hours commuting to work because we want larger houses, which are usually found out in the suburbs. We live in one community, but work in another so we spend so much time rushing around in our cars that we are exhausted by the time we get home. We are so tired that instead of going out to engage with our community and enjoy time with friends we end up watching on average 4 hours of TV per day. The TV shows us lavish lifestyles to which we should aspire and the advertisements tell us that without X or Y we are just not good enough. So, on the weekend we spend too much time at the shops trying to buy our happiness. We become obese and socially isolated. Consumption is undermining our future and our long-term ability to be happy.

How Can our Culture Shift From Consumerism to Sustainability?

So what can we do to combat the culture of consumerism? For a start, we have to work intentionally to shift cultural patterns away from valuing ‘things’ and instead valuing living sustainably or even better, living as a restorative force for the environment.

There are a number of institutions that can be used to move our culture towards sustainability: Business, Media, Education, Government, Traditions and Social Movements. Our culture currently says that the only mission of business is to maximise profits, but there are many great initiatives where small businesses, non-profits and co-ops are operating for the greater good of the community. Many schools are now adding school gardens to act as outdoor classrooms and to give children some much-needed exposure to nature. In recent years we’ve also started to see how the media can shift our culture. The movie Avatar is a good example because it reinforces the idea that we are dependent on and connected to a broader planetary system. In the movie Wall-E, Earth was governed by the Buy n Large corporation which caused mass consumerism and covered the planet in trash. The only life that was left were some obese humans living in space. We need more stories like these to reinforce that consumerism is not a good choice. The more exposure to this cultural story, the more it will start infecting people and begin to spread virally.

Social movements (Grassroots movements) are where I see we need to spend much of our effort to change our culture. Social Movements are often driven by a ‘tipping point’ which unites the majority of the populace in an effort to create change. A tipping point is a moment of ‘critical mass,’ when a trend, idea, or concept becomes a juggernaut. A small event can create a ripple effect, but in order to create one contagious movement, many smaller movements need to be created first.

What Can We Do to Create Social Change?

In the book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, the first key concept is that there are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them. With an epidemic, a tiny majority of the people do the work. If you are reading this blog, that probably means you! The movement has started, we just need to keep the momentum going until it reaches critical mass.

The second key point is that there is a simple way to package information that can make it irresistible/sticky and will compel a person into action. In order to be capable of sparking epidemics, ideas have to be memorable and move us into action. Personally I’ve found my approach to be different with different individuals. If you can find an issue that someone feels passionate about, it is much easier to tailor the message for that person. If someone is worried about their finances, I show them the fantastic outfits I’ve put together from the thrift store (op shop). If someone is concerned about toxins that their kids are exposed to, I explain how most cleaning products can be made with simple, non-toxic household ingredients like vinegar and baking soda. If someone is worried about health issues, I talk about my organic vegetable garden and the delicious foods I can buy in season at the farmers market. If someone has a new baby, I crochet cute baby hats as gifts and explain how enjoyable the process was to make it.

Finally, what really underlies successful epidemics, is a strong belief that change is possible; that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus. Tipping Points are an affirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. The world as we currently know it may seem like an immovable place, but it is not. With the slightest push; just in the right place; it can be tipped.

So in the process of changing our culture away from rampant consumerism, who will you be?

An Innovator? The adventurous one? A visionary? Will you be the translator? Can you take ideas and information and translate them into a language the rest of the population can understand?

An Early Adopter? A part of the slightly larger group that is infected by the innovators?

A member of the Majority? A part of the deliberate and the skeptical mass, who would never try anything until the most respected try it first?

Or, a Laggard? A member of the most traditional group that sees no urgent reason to change?

By becoming aware of these different groups it is easy to see where best to expend our efforts. Inspiring Early Adopters and the Early Majority will create more momentum than trying to convince a Laggard. It is also a more enjoyable process than constantly bashing your head against a brick wall.

So for those of you already on board; the visionaries who are changing the culture at a grass-roots level: what have been your experiences? What works? What doesn’t?

Photo by: What What


  1. I have long eschewed consumerism, partly out of poverty, partly out of ideological conviction. I don’t buy new clothes because I can’t stand the thought of contributing to the sweatshop system. I don’t buy new furniture because I can’t stand contributing to the destruction of forests. I buy everything I can secondhand for a variety of reasons – to help prolong the useful life of materials, to support the charitable organizations that make their money off secondhand goods, to avoid supporting corporations I consider evil, and to – of course – save money.
    I’ve also long believed that my money is better spent on experiences – a trip to Europe, a play, a symphony, a visit to grandma – than it is on “durable goods” such as automobiles or bed linens. Sheets wear out, but memories are forever.

    In my personal life, I have decided to spend the bulk of my resources on land, in order to provide my children with a) the experience of growing up with nature, b) the experience of producing their own food, c) the security of owning property that might be able to provide for them and their own children. This means we have little left over for traditional consumer goods – although we do spend money on internet access and other “necessities.” My kids have simply had to accept that they will wear (quality) secondhand clothes and read secondhand books, sleep on secondhand beds and even, sometimes, eat discounted food. This, hiowever, ensures they will get a first-class education.

  2. Well said!

    There is perhaps one other thing that can be done. Find a really good ad agency to do the complete opposite of what is been shown in the media. It’s been used to brainwash us into consumerism, it should be used to brainwash us out of it. Plus we’ve already been primed to accept it without arguement.

    I’ve given up trying to talk to people about sustainable living, they aren’t interested, no matter the approach I take. Now I just go about my business and hope that anything I say or do might brush of on somebody…anybody. I even struggle to get people to take free eggs. Go figure! It’s frequently been said that this is a very strange city and I’m not inclined to argue.

  3. Hi Mia,

    Interesting and well written post. I came across your blog through Freedom Guerrilla. One of the most interesting books on the subject I’ve read is one called “American Mania” by Peter Whybrow. He puts forth some really fascinating ideas regarding the genetic/evolutionary/neuro-behavioral underpinnings of consumerism, with emphasis on the extreme variant practiced by Americans. One of his hypotheses is that most Americans, by virtue of our immigrant background, are a self-selected population with regard to a genetic background for risk acceptance. Some really thoughtful and interesting discussions of the science and psychology of consumerism if you are interested (and haven’t already read the book).


  4. As always…I enjoyed your post. My husband and I have always lived ‘simply’. We do buy second hand when possible and always good quality so that it isn’t always having to be replaced. I adopted a rule years ago that unless something is useful and or has a purpose it does not come into the house.
    I’ve seen the show Hoarders and I have met a few people myself that are so wrapped up in “STUFF”.
    The world is changing and people are going to have to have to change and I think it is going to be very difficult on some.

  5. There is a lot of theoretical talk, but the simplest answer is that we consume because we are only given half of the information when we purchase a product. Advertising (tax-deductible) only shows the benefits, not the costs (as is expected). We are left to find the real costs of products on our own, if we have time and the wherewithal to search for it. Even with diligent, motivated effort, we cannot compare what we find out about the costs of an automobile to the pounds of advertising in the Sunday paper or on the nightly news. Even National Geographic prints ads for Cadillac Escalades next to stories about peak oil.
    The simplest solution is one that the Corporfascists came up with themselves: a sales tax to replace the income taxes. This puts the costs of government (which we need mostly because we buy stuff) at the point where we make decisions: the checkout. The only real contention between environmentalists and conservatives should be on deciding what the rate should be. This is a simple negotiation between how soon we want to have a cleaner, simpler planet vs. how selfish we want to be with undeserved (and unpaid for) comforts and conveniences.
    Thanks for letting me rant. Sorry it’s long.
    “Shed your stuff, don’t stuff your shed.” -my latest bumper sticker idea…

  6. I find myself more and more unhappy, I truly dislike U.S Culture that puts more of a value on things, then it does people or the enviornment. I often find myself wondering what would the world look like if we worked not for money but the sustainablity of our enviornment. I wonder what the jobs would look like. I buy from second had stores or make things and I’m going to start trying to grow more food. But I feel like I was born in the wrong country!

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