The Religion Of Stuff

It occurred to me the other day that consumerism has reached a level of socially ingrained fanaticism. This isn’t by accident, marketers have gotten us here on purpose.  For many of us or those we know, we simply lust after ______ consumer good.  It pervades our country, politics, social interactions, and economics.

Here is the definition of consumerism:

A social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase goods and services in ever greater amounts.

The entire premise of consumerism is that we must consume, but more importantly we must do so at a constantly growing rate.  This seems to be at odds in a finite world, but many people don’t concern themselves with it.  I wanted to break down this word a bit more, because the ending -ism struck me as interesting, it was something I never considered before really, what does -ism really mean?

Looking up the definition of the ending -ism I found these four possible meanings:

  • a political belief or religion based on a particular principle or the ideas
  • the action or process of doing something
  • illness caused by too much of something
  • the practice of treating people unfairly because of something

If you think about political issues or stances on religion you will quick notice they are really contentious issues.  They often define a line which many fight over.  You find that many people choose friends, business partners, and other large decisions on the parameters of their political and religious stances. One of the largest lines is to consume or not.  Think about it, essentially there is a hard line drawn that many don’t cross, but those who do are subject to great social pressure!  Essentially society discriminates against those who don’t consume.  Don’t buy lots of clothes, you don’t get a job or a date.  Don’t feel the need to buy things when what you have is working just fine or even, you don’t want a huge house; you are seen as cheap, lazy, poor, etc.

I had to simply laugh when I looked at the third bullet point, an illness cause by too much of something, the irony of that when considering consumerism is astounding.  What if we really could get people to treat this behavior like a disease?

It certainly is interesting the implication of this word, how it has such a tight hold on us and defends itself through strong social pressures.

  1. Just what I`ve been thinking for many years now…

    I just have to say: why should I spend my time with people that make fun of me only because I buy furniture end other stuff on fleamarkets?

  2. I am readings a book on Voluntary Simplicity and this entire concept is addressed by many authors. It is so refreshing to see you write on this topic.

  3. first, while marketeers certainly push in a particular direction, they can only nudge us in a certain direction. blaming it all on them takes away our own responsibility.

    also, the nudge can only be so far during any time period. eg, right after the great depression (the 1930’s one, not the current one!), many of today’s ads touting conspicuous consumption would not have been effective to a generation that had seen massive foreclosures on farms and houses over the preceeding decade. it takes a few generations for that attitude to slowly change. there’s a general social mood that changes over time. not specifically related to advertising and consumerism, but an interesting analysis and framework for society’s moods changing over time is the book “the fourth turning”. (see the website with lots of excerpts which give a good summary of their points: )

    second, much of “consumerism” is really about seeking social status and establishing a “pecking order.” if social mood changes and spending is looked down upon, then something else will be elevated, and some people will go overboard on that. eg, i’ve read of “i’m-more-humble-than-you-are” accounts among amish, mennonite, quaker, and other such groups. or perhaps “power” or “patriotism” or “religious fervour” will be the replacement hierarchical mechanism, each with there own excesses. you can already see such status-seeking in various subgroups, eg, i’m more green/activist/minimalist/etc.

    lastly, an observation my sister made, comparing her parents-in-law, and our parents. i assumed that her parents-in-law were wealthy based on how they spend money, but apparently that’s not true. they grew up in a small farming community, and the only way people know if you’re a successful farmer is if you spend money. so if you get a new barn, new tractor, or new car, you must be making money as a farmer. i asked a friend of mine who grew up on a farm, and he confirmed this. he said his father would put extra manure (fertilizer) on the ditch next to the road, so that passers-by would think “wow, that un-harvested part of the field is growing so well, he must have really good land and be a really productive farmer!”

    in comparison, my sister and i grew up in a small university town. spending money didn’t get you any status, because the university has it’s own hierarchy — assistant prof, associate prof, tenured prof, dept chair, dean, provost, etc. if you spent a lot of money but didn’t have a high title, you looked a little foolish. but if you had a high title, you could still be frugal and you’d just be viewed as an absent-minded professor, or too involved with intellectual matters to fuss with social fashions. so, my siblings and i unconsciously imbibed a different set of attitudes towards “consumerism” that folks that grew up in a different sort of community, and that has mostly stayed with us, even tho we’ve all moved away from that small town.

    just a few (hopefully interesting) tangents about the role of consumerism…


    • “blaming it all on them takes away our own responsibility” I disagree. there is a multi- billion dollar industry that has as it’s raison d’être your purchasing power. To deny them you need to have, and exercise, an iron will. Their pressure is immense. Plus, being corporations they are morals and ethics free.
      Good luck to us

      • As is the freedom of our country and our person (still) we have a choice of whether to Buy or NOT to Buy. To say Every choice we make becomes or is someone else’s problem 1) Isn’t American (patriotic) 2) and lacking of personal or social ephisis is not a disease its lack of effort and fortitude, which one learns(self). No one person can form another’s compass. Pick you head up from the “boob Tube” is what they used to call tv in the 80’s, it’ll ruin your mind. Well some good, mostly not, but everyone’s head is now into all these things they don’t talk, they text, they don’t shop, they “surf” everyone is into everything now and at their convenience but to everyone else’s inconvenience. WE LIVE IN AN INSTANT SOCIETY now, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to join in. It is not someone else’s problem because I make a bad junk purchase at Walmart, garage sale etc. today and regret it 60 days from now, it’s mine to deal with. Don’t take my right to make a bad decision and turn it into an illness, with every purchase also comes a right not to purchase (and learn from my mistakes). Idiocratic delinquency (stupidity)is not a condition rather a frame of mind!! If I can pack it in I can take it out (like camping)…thoughts to ponder…

  4. What I see as the crux of the issue is there really is no such thing as self sufficient. In order for the frugal shopper to find that “great deal” someone is consuming a good to replace the other. Those who make and sell crafty items are banking on the consumerism of others. When it all comes down to it who really needs a photograph, a painting, or another work of art.
    Those who grow food to barter or sell are banking on the same thing. By no means am I diminishing the lives of those who choose to live in a self sufficient manner. What I am attempting to convey is unfortunitly we are all tied to consumerism in one way or another.
    If you own land, you pay taxes. Even if you don’t own the land you ard on , someone has to pay the taxes on it. It is illegal to squat on public or private lands. Every job is tied to commercialism somehow. Someone is paying for a good or service or donating to an organization.

  5. This makes sense, I can’t see how one person, or family can privide everything that they will ever need. Life wan’t meant to be lived on an island, as it were.
    We are meant to work as a community. It’s when the community turns crazy with consumerism, and shopping just for the high one gets from it that we begin to have trouble. Let’s blame the advertising community, and Wall Street.

  6. I find the discrimination all too real. My husband and I have made a conscious decision to make do with less. Additionally, we have made it a priority for me to be at home with our children. At nearly every family get together I get passive aggressive statements (mostly from female family members) about ‘lazy people who won’t work’. I really wish I were the type of person to tell people off directly because then I could unload about how they value stuff more than their families and how ‘lazy’ I consider it to be when a parent CHOOSES to put their children in daycare so they can work.
    All too often people don’t see any other option. They think they HAVE to have cable TV, cell phones, two cars, X number of pets,vacations, etc. In order to have all that they HAVE to work. They don’t see an option to NOT participate in all that. Actually, they consider anyone who sees it as optional CRAZY or LAZY. How sad.

    • Just want to say that I love your sentiment and attitude. I couldn’t agree more.

    • Wow! I love your courage! I used to get the same attitude from some people who I thought were my very best friends. I was anti-consumerist, and they were, let’s buy everything we can and do it now. I gave into their hype, and even though many of those people later were found struggling financially, I still let it happen to me. I was afraid of their disapproval. And now I am in a financial struggle for my very life. It’s sad how we let others dictate our future all because we don’t stand up for what we believe.

    • Amber, hope you are still at home if your kids not in school yet! Best decision you could ever make is NOT putting children in daycare! Don’t ever
      Apologize for being there for the kids and your husband!

    • Love this! I think it is GREAT that you can stay at home with your kids. Don’t let the turkeys get you down!

  7. The Bible calls it coveting. Wanting more and more and more. It is treated as a sin and the cure is the same as for all sin….repenting. But as our Pastor noted the other week, we may become rather quick to confess but unless we take the time to trace out the roots and address them, we find that we may not be so good at surrendering or abandoning the very thing we have confessed. I guess that’s why David prayed, “Search me, Oh Lord….” He’s better at it than we are!

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