People often think why is consumerism such a bad thing?
In many ways, consumerism has improved our lives and made them more comfortable than in the past. But at some point, those improvements have diminishing returns, and for most of us, buying stuff seems to lead towards a void rather than fulfillment.
When we look at the world around us, we have more material goods than any people ever before. Yet, at the same time, all this stuff is making our lives feel empty and meaningless.
Let’s look at some of the reasons why this appears to be happening.
1) We Focus on Stuff Rather Than Meaning
When I think about consumerism, all that comes to mind is buying more stuff, so it seems that consumerism is about things rather than the meaning they hold. You could say I am being hard on the idea of materialism and forgetting about how much it has improved our lives.
There is no doubt that all the stuff we have these days makes our lives easier. However, at the same time, it is almost like we have forgotten about the meaning of the things we do with all that stuff we have.
My dad once told me, “he with the most toys at the end wins,” I’m not sure if he still believes this. But I always had trouble with this idea because, for me, being free to do what I wanted was always more important than the stuff I had.
I’m not going to pretend the laptop I am typing this on or the house I am living in doesn’t matter, but there is a lot stuff that doesn’t have meaning.
For me, reading books, writing out my thoughts and spending time with my family are more important than the toys that we have or the things that we own. No doubt, living a middle-class lifestyle in Canada gives me lots of privilege, but it doesn’t give me meaning; because meaning is something that we must seek out ourselves and is found beyond the things that we have.
Where we find meaning is up to us, but I can say that it appears to come from within. What I mean, is that meaning isn’t something we can buy; instead, it is something that we can give. A cliche, I know, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Consumerism is bad because it makes us focus on what we can buy rather than what we can create and give to the world.
2) We do Things We Don’t Want to so That we Can Impress People We Don’t Like
A lot of people I knew while living in the city seemed to have bought things like expensive jackets because everyone else had them. What seemed to matter more was having a Canadian Goose jacket rather than keeping warm. If this was the case, then having a fashionable coat was more about impressing people than anything else.
Simultaneously, a lot of people in the city seem to be angry and critical of the people around them. It seems that this has something to do with population density, but that is a topic for another time. In the city, the fact remains that there is an invisible competition for fitting in and having the latest things.
People don’t talk to strangers or care about what the people around them are experience, but they do seem to care about all the extra stuff those same people have.
For me, I’m kind of frugal; I don’t like to spend lots of money because I prioritize saving for freedom in the future. For that reason also, I keep the job I have rather than taking another job that would pay more money but also make me more miserable.
Most people will take a job that pays more, rather than a job that is satisfying, obviously, there is more nuisance to this, but for the most part, it seems true. And I can say this because I’ve been tempted in the past.
My point here is that lots of people seem to complain about their jobs, while at the same time spending all the money they have. Many people also seem to be in a situation that they can’t get out of because they want to buy stuff so they can continue to fit in with the people around them.
Consumerism is a bad thing because it creates messed up incentive structures that define modern life.
3) We Are Destroying the Planet
One of the most significant issues for young people these days appears to be the environment and the effect we are having on it. Any time we buy something, we can easily think about the environmental impact it is having. There are a lot of things that we ‘need’, but there are also many things we don’t, however, both have the same effects on the world around us.
Consider a cellphone, it is made up of pieces that are created all over the world using rare materials that need to be dug out of the ground.
If you look at the ships that transport our stuff around the world and strip mining, it’s difficult to imagine that making and shipping a cellphone isn’t horrible for the planet. The thing is, we all have tons of stuff that goes through these cycles, and there are billions of people, so the effects must be massive.
We can all do our part to cut down on the effects we have on the world around us. But as long as we live in a society driven by consumerism, it’s hard to imagine that these sorts of problems are going to go away.
4) We Have Lost the Connection With Our Stuff
I remember as a kid; I was so excited about the things I got for Christmas. I’d get a couple of toys and would still play with them months later, so they’d still matter to me as I didn’t have a lot. Now when I look at my daughter’s Christmas, even when we ask her grandparents not to give her too many gifts, she still gets too much. Now, it’s a month after Christmas, and she doesn’t play with any of it.
In the past people had less stuff, so the things they did have were more important to them.
Just imagine you have a set amount of attention you can give to things, so if you have one thing, all your attention goes to it. But if you have ten things, or a 100, you don’t have much attention left. For this reason, it seems that the more we have, the less we care about each individual thing.
In some ways, this is a good thing, we don’t want to be too attached to one item, but at the same time, when we don’t care about what we have, then it becomes clear that consumerism is a bad thing.
5) Our Benefit Come at Other’s Expense
Our ability to get lots of cheap stuff makes our lives extremely more convenient. A hundred years ago, if something that you needed broke, you’d have to fix it fast our you’d be out of luck. But at the same time, with all this cheap disposable stuff we buy, someone has to make it, and their lives must undoubtedly be improved now that they have a job when they didn’t in the past.
But even though people in faraway lands have jobs that they didn’t have before, many of them live lives that we couldn’t even imagine. We have all heard stories on the news about sweatshops and collapsing factories in poor countries.
We know that in a way, these people have better lives because they can work, but at the same time, we could never imagine ourselves in the same situation, because by our standards it sucks.
This isn’t an all or nothing proposition; we can’t disregard the benefits that consumerism brings to the world. But at the same time, we can’t pretend that some of the people who make it possible are living tough and unrewarding lives.
We can’t have one without the other, but we also can’t forget how much trouble consumerism brings to some people’s lives.
6) It Doesn’t Always Make Us Happy
We talked a little before about consumerism’s diminishing returns, where getting one thing brings way more happiness than the hundredth new thing we get. However, we can’t forget that any little thing will make our lives better when we have nothing, which leads to more happiness. This seems to be true for some time, but not forever.
When I was younger, buying new stuff made me happy; at the end of every summer, I would spend a bunch of summer job money on new clothes before I went back to school. But now when I go to the store to buy pants, it feels more like a burden than something to look forward to.
Going out and buying stuff doesn’t bring the same joy it used to.
There is little doubt that when people don’t have a lot, getting a little more makes a huge difference in their lives. But as we get more stuff, the new stuff that we get stops making a difference to our happiness.
When we think about our happiness, it becomes clear that consumerism is a bad thing because it doesn’t make us happy once we have enough.
7) We Waste Money and Grow Debt
If you were to ask an economist if consumerism was good, they would likely say that it was necessary to keep things going. A healthy economy requires consumers to buy products and producers to sell them. The two groups are required and build a better economy for everyone involved. The economist might add, if people weren’t buying and selling, life would get pretty bad for everyone fast.
But when you look at this from the individual’s point of view, once they have enough stuff, there is little reason to keep buying, because they need to save for the things they will need in the future. This may be a simplistic view on things, but it does point to a problem. Once we are buying more than we need, we are wasting money.
It is always better to save or invest our money rather than purchase junk that we really don’t need.
We can say that consumerism is a bad thing because it encourages us to spend more than we have, which leads to waste. Simultaneously, when people keep on buying more stuff, and their wages can’t keep up, they use debt. Using debt in some cases can be responsible and advantageous, but that isn’t usually the case.
We all know that we will have to pay back those debts one day, we can’t avoid paying them forever.
8) It Creates More Jealousy
Social media influencers are hugely popular these days, and so much of what they show revolves around consumerism. Shopping and selling is the name of the game, and while this helps create business and pay people’s bills, it also creates jealousy. Before the internet, people could only be jealous of the people they saw on TV or in the newspaper, and maybe even their neighbours who had a nicer house.
With the internet, people are comparing themselves to strangers on the other side of the world that they will never meet or interact with.
Anytime someone has more than someone else, it creates an opportunity for jealousy and resentment. Consumerism contributes to this problem because it encourages us to buy more, which means we have more things to compare.
In the past, it might have been easier to be ok with what we had because we had no one to compare to, but now that we can see into each other lives, it is easier to see when we have less.
Jealousy also contributes to crime as a large wealth gap makes people at the bottom feel worse. On top of this, being at the bottom and seeing what everyone else has makes some people feel like they need to do something about it. This, in turn, can lead to crime, which is another reason why consumerism is terrible.
9) It Creates Dissatisfaction
At an old job, I was ok with my salary, I realized it wasn’t great, and I couldn’t afford a house, but I accepted it. That all changed when I found out how much some of my coworkers were making. When that happened, I was overcome with dissatisfaction and had a horrible weekend. When we know that we have less than others, we feel bad about what we have even if we were ok with it before we knew the difference.
With this in mind, it isn’t always bad to see how the other half lives; for me, finding out that I was underpaid felt horrible, but it lead me to take action and ask for a raise. Luckily for me, kind of, my employer knew I was being underpaid and gave me the raise I was asking for.
Dissatisfaction isn’t always bad; in fact, it can force us to take action and change our lives.
But sometimes there isn’t anything we can do about our dissatisfaction, and so it does nothing but makes us feel worse about our lives and what we have. For this reason, consumerism is bad because it makes us dissatisfied with what we have.
10) It Disrupts Our Relationships
Related to dissatisfaction, jealousy and the impressions we make on other people, consumerism is terrible because it gets in the way of our relationships. For the most part, keeping up with the Joneses involves competition with people we don’t know, but those same problems can come up into our personal relationships.
When friends or family have more stuff, it can create tension or resentment.
No matter the relationship we have with someone, if there is a feeling of having less, we will feel bad. Because consumerism encourages us to buy more stuff no matter what, the gap between those who have and don’t get larger and more visible. Sometimes, it is easy to get past this if we have strong, healthy relationships, but it can always make things worse.
Consumerism prioritizes things over people; whenever that happens, it is terrible for the people involved and gets in the way of healthy relationships.
11) It Creates a Spiritual Void in Our Lives
At the beginning of this article, we talked about how consumerism gets us to concern ourselves with our stuff rather than its meaning. This is most likely one of the more critical problems that stem from consumerism.
When our lives revolve around the things we have, our sense of self becomes less internally focused.
There is no doubt that some concern for the outside world is essential; if we only care about ourselves, we wouldn’t care about or treat the people around us in a positive way. But at the same time, when we focus too much on the outside, which is always the case when we care about the things we have, we forget about what truly matters in our lives.
Spirituality means different things for different people, but let us assume that it touches all of us. If we seek approval and recognition from the outside, there is no reason to create value and purpose on the inside. As I said earlier, my most profound meaning comes from the things I create and the time I spend with the important people in my life.
If we let consumerism inform our decisions and guide our actions, we focus on the material world and forget about what comes from inside.
I know I am stretching a little here, as not everyone believes in the kinds of things that I am talking about. But it is important to remember that we can create meaning, but we can’t always buy it. However, if we only focus on what we can buy, we will create a void in our lives that can never be filled with more stuff.
In many ways, consumerism is bad, but it isn’t bad in all forms. Consumerism has played an essential role in improving people’s living standards across the world. However, once we have enough, we need to start looking at the problems that our actions are creating and pull back on what we can.
What are you doing in your life to free yourself from the consumerist trap?