When “wants” became “needs” in American consumerist culture
In a country of iPhones, fancy cars and designer clothes, it’s difficult to deny Americans’ obsession with consumer goods. One could even argue consumerism has joined “freedom” and “opportunity” as a definitive American characteristic. But this hasn’t always been the case.
According to Ithaca College associate professor of history Vivian Conger, consumerism can be traced back to 17th-century England. Beginning at this time, technological advancements allowed manufacturers to profit from producing large quantities of goods that wealthy people could afford.
“It began as a way for elites to mark their status,” Conger said. “In the 17th century, they didn’t have classes—they had status. Elites would have this stuff on display in their homes, which suggested they had money and could buy things.”
Consumerism was a way of marking people’s status in society based on the goods they owned and the clothes they wore. People’s images became determined by their accumulation of material items.
“We tend to buy things, do things, acquire things that define who we are,” Michael McCall, professor of marketing and law at Ithaca College, said. “You dress in a particular way because you wish to communicate something about yourself. You might go to certain restaurants, shop at certain places, buy a home in a certain neighborhood to reflect your lifestyle and socioeconomic status. You are constantly attempting to manage your self-image and how you want others to see you, and the way you do that is by buying stuff.”
When the British colonized America, they brought with them this consumer culture. Colonial newspapers advertised the latest goods, just arrived from England—glassware, furniture, clothing. The purchases of these goods elevated one’s position in society.
“Status is power,” Conger said. “You are perceived as being better than others. You are listened to. You’re respected. There is a presumption that you have the skills and knowledge that go with acquiring goods.”
As elites obtained more and more goods, the middle class aimed to catch up. Merchandise became increasingly affordable, allowing the bourgeois to partake in consumerism.
“People in the middle class buy into consumer culture,” Conger said. “It’s a sense of marking you out. Before the American Revolution, it was about elites marking themselves. After the Revolution, the middle class began marking themselves out from the lower class.”
In the 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression, consumer culture was put on hold. As businesses closed down, families shifted their focus from status to survival. While World War II served as a catalyst for economic recovery, and manufacturing companies were producing at record rates, they were not producing consumer goods.
“During World War II, basically all of our nation’s manufacturing efforts and production efforts were geared to supporting WWII,” McCall said.
Facing the challenge of converting an overheated war economy into a peacetime economy, economist Victor Lebow proposed a solution in his paper, “Price Competition in 1955.” He wrote, “Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. … We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”
And that’s exactly what happened. According to The Story of Stuff, a 20-minute animation that illustrates the life cycle of material goods in our consumerist society, 99 percent of the stuff we harvest, mine, process and transport is trashed within six months. The average U.S. citizen now consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago.
“Once the technology gets out and you start providing these sorts of options, you can’t really close it down,” McCall said. “It’s like the advance of cable. Once cable came out and you experienced it, it was hard to go back to the three channels that you already had.”
Wants become needs over time as marketers work to create an obscure line between the two. In addition, companies deliberately design products with limited useful time, a technique known as “planned obsolescence.” This forces consumers to regularly replace their belongings.
Under these circumstances, it seems as though we are in a perpetual spiral of production. People will continue to demand new goods, and businesses with happily provide them. However, a resistance movement parallels a rise of consumer culture.
“There was an anti-consumerism culture right after the Revolution,” Conger said. “Americans saw ourselves as better than the British, and part of our identity was not to consume what Britain was consuming. Britain was the land of the aristocracy, and the U.S. was the land of the common folk or agrarian folk. Luxury took on a very negative tone.”
Now, amid rising concern about dependence on foreign energy and resource depletion, political motivations for anti-consumerism have been replaced by environmental motivations.
“Anti-consumerism becomes almost as big a mark as consumerism,” Conger said. “People take a lot of pride in not buying into the consumer culture.”
While many Americans demonstrate their concern for the environment by recycling and buying “green” products, most people are unwilling to make substantial changes to consumption habits.
According to The Story of Stuff, the United States makes up only 5 percent of the world’s population, but we’re consuming 30 percent of the world’s resources and creating 30 percent of the world’s waste. If everybody consumed at U.S. rates, we would need three to five planets.
Clearly, this pattern cannot continue without serious environmental consequences. But after acknowledging the problem, what can we do? Yes, one can forgo buying a new car, designer jeans and the latest Apple product, but even this does not address the root of the problem.
Consumer culture, the idea that material goods are equivalent to status, has become seemingly inherent in our country. With the current mindset, people are not willing to sacrifice their goods and therefore their position in society. However, what if the accumulation of goods were no longer equivalent to status? What if simplicity was given more worth?
Lebow proposed that we seek satisfaction in consumption. I propose that we find satisfaction in simplicity and collectively changing our consumer mentality.
Abby Sophir is a freshman TV-R major who refuses to buy a Longchamp bag. Email her at [email protected]