Consumerism: The religion of the 21st century?


When discussing topics within global political economy it is almost unavoidable not to discuss the modern day phenomenon that is consumerism. As the title suggests consumerism has been described as the religion of the 21st century (Steven Miles), and it is integral that this topic be discussed further within the context of the global political economy and more widely the effect mass consumerism has on our earth’s resources. It appears that every aspect of contemporary life is dogged with consumerism and the need to accumulate more and more, through various media outlets such as advertising and clever marketing strategies the greatest fear being that “ It’s never enough”, or  “That I can never truly be happy until I have more than X or Y”. This entire phenomena is based entirely on the values of Capitalism (Espejo,2010) and to some extent, it preys on the perceived belief that humans are selfish and competitive and will always want more and that this is their natural inclination, this is the view projected by capitalism. (Cole,C,2010)

Consumerism has always existed throughout history in societies that are built on capitalist values; however it became truly a phenomenon as we know it following the industrial revolution which greatly expanded the economy and created surplus income for more citizens than ever before. They were referred to as the new ‘Middle class’ or as Veblen described them the new ‘Leisure class’ as now they had ‘Leisure’ money. (T, Veblen)  This naturally paved the way for the advent of consumerism as we know it, a channel to increase one’s satisfaction in life through the medium of accumulation of items because of surplus money. Money according to capitalism is the dictation of happiness and satisfaction. As a consumer our levels of satisfaction are measured by our ability to consume, in capitalism one is motivated to have a high income and capital for the sheer reason that capital allows you have the things you desire, simply put without capital you cannot consume and therefore you’ll remain dissatisfied, and your unhappiness will be exasperated by the amounts others around you appear to have.  The constant bombardment of advertising and marketing of products on the market only serves to reiterate this need to consume; it has become the West’s society’s essential urge. As the mass media has grown so too has the profit-based capitalist economy grown which owes a lot to media outlets which generate huge sales for capitalism, namely advertising. These include newspapers, TV adverts, Billboards constantly advertising the latest products, be it cars, make-up, and phones the list is endless, with this comes the compulsion to buy, buy and buy. (The problem with consumerism) Coupled with celebrity endorsements this strategy is highly effective, the consumer irrationally worships new products, thus reiterating the belief that consumerism is the religion of the 21st century.

This leads me on to my next point the constant desire to consume within our society never appears to identify the true need of these products, their durability for example which means we now more than ever live in ‘throw away society’. The understanding of why we feel need to keep consuming appears to be little more than it’s nice to have new products without giving much thought to the actual purpose of buying more and more.  Moreover little to no thought on a mass scale I hasten to add is given to the tremendously negative effect consumerism has on the environment.

Landfills across the globe are full with cheap discarded products that break easily as they are not long lasting. (Hetzel) There is also no incentive to fix items anymore seeing as it often far more costly now to repair items than it is to buy another one.  Over 220 billion cans, bottles and plastic cups are thrown away every year in the developed world, which only looks set to rise unless there are sustainability measures in place.

Is it really possible to unwire consumerism in our minds and change the whole mindset of our society? Yes is the short answer, in fact ultimately it is a necessity if we want to preserve our world for the future.  We need to learn to enjoy what we have and not continue to chase the impossible dream that consumerism promotes.  We need to address the situation thoughtfully with the rational usage of our resources and with consideration for our future we live in a very fast paced, touch- screen instantaneous society where everything appears centred on the ‘now’ but we need to think further ahead and what sort of a world we are leaving for the future generations, we owe it to them.  Our throw away mentality needs to completely diminish. We should instead focus on reusing, recycling and of course reducing what we have, its integral too that we understand that our small contribution does make a difference.


  • Miles, Steven.Consumerism. 1st ed. London: Sage Publications, 1998. Print.
  • Espejo, Roman. Consumerism. 1st ed. Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2010. Print.
  • Cole, Celia. “Overconsumption Is Costing Us The Earth And Human Happiness”.the Guardian. N.p., 2016. Web. 16 Dec. 2010.
  • Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory Of The Leisure Class. 1st ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. Print.
  • “The Problem With Consumerism | Life Squared”. N.p., 2016. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
  • Hetzel, Alterra. “Batteries And Choosing The Greener Option – Carbonfund.Org”.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.



Helen O’Neill – M00437799


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