There is no doubt that consumerism (mass production and mass consumption) played an important role in improving living standards for many people, but it has now outgrown its usefulness. Accelerated consumerism has actually become destructive in many ways. It has negative effects on the economy, the environment, resources and even health – in other words, it is reducing the quality of life not only of those who do not have enough, but also of those who do. However, slowing down that race to the bottom between supply and demand is not possible within the capitalist system. To pay interest on debt, producers need to sell more, which requires increasing demand. What scares those within the system more than anything else is a lack of demand. But is this race really necessary? Will a society in which everybody’s real needs are satisfied procure huge unemployment? Not necessarily – people would just have to work less, that’s all. In principle, nobody needs to be worse off from not engaging in the perpetual increase of supply and demand except those who are making profits from unproductive activities. And we would get, in return, a greater chance of survival for our species. To be clear, we do not advocate giving up mass production and mass consumption, only ending the pressure to run this gerbil wheel faster and faster to our own detriment. For this purpose, we will focus on two activities that play an important role in promoting unnecessary consumerism: advertising and fashion.


Justin Lewis, Professor of Communication at Cardiff University, makes a good point when he states that “Advertisements may be individually innocent; collectively they are the propaganda wing of a consumerist ideology” (Simms, 2013, p.298) – and for that matter, a far more ubiquitous form of propaganda than any state-led version has ever been. Largely through advertising, the capitalist system mesmerises and indoctrinates people in order to keep the consumerist mentality alive. Not everybody buys into it – a sizable proportion of the population is immune to this process – but it still works for the majority. It is estimated that advertising spending worldwide will surpass $700 billion by 2024. About $40 billion a year is spent just on car advertising; if the same amount was invested in forest conservation, it could halve deforestation, generate millions of jobs and combat climate change (Simms, 2013, p.283). But it is not only about wasting money on a largely unproductive activity. There are many other harmful economic consequences of advertising: it fuels excessive consumption; the cost of advertising drives up the prices of the goods advertised; advertising gives further unfair competitive advantage to companies that are already large, dominant, and can afford it; it promotes a proliferation of falsely differentiated goods (wasteful duplication of essentially identical products that differ only in packaging); it distorts the ‘perfect information’ and rationality that the market is said to rely on to operate efficiently; it is deliberately deceptive and manipulative (e.g. using sexually loaded images to sell cars). One could argue that it is more honourable to sell sex than to use sex to sell.

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And this is not all. Children, as well as adults, are bombarded by adverts on a daily basis without their consent. Our freedom should not be eroded in such a way – if the state did a small fraction of it, everybody would be up in arms (curiously, so-called ‘libertarians’ never complain about it). For example, adverts are deliberately inserted where it is difficult or impossible to avoid them (e.g. during TV programmes, not only in between programmes), which often ruins the experience – how can one really get into a deeply moving film when they are frequently interrupted by some grinning faces trying to sell them something?[1] The same applies to the printed press (such as magazines and newspapers), online advertising and spam. We all seem to be involved now in an ongoing cat and mouse game, where we try to escape being caught by advertising. This is especially pertinent with the rise of targeted advertising, based on the harvested users’ data. It invades websites that have nothing to do with the product as well as users’ privacy, and is a potentially sinister development. Obviously, TV programmes, websites and the press need to generate income, but advertising is so out of control that it is killing the purpose of advertising itself: most people have reached the point of saturation, so avoidance is now a default position. To minimise involuntary exposure and to save advertising from itself, advertising needs to be regulated better than it is now (such as in relation to where and when adverts can be placed). Also, an option to make a payment in return for advert-free content could be mandatory. There are other ways in which the power of advertising over our minds and lives can be curtailed.

  • Children should not be exposed to adverts that don’t have their well-being as priority (advertising fruit and vegetables or educational games may actually be beneficial). If we have an age of consent for sex, there is no reason why we cannot have an age of consent for potentially harmful advertising. The European Unionalready has framework legislation in place which sets down minimum provisions on advertising to children for all its member states. A good start.
  • Introducing advertising-free zones (e.g. around schools and nearby areas, which is already the case in Paris, or in parks and residential streets, as in London).
  • Banning some intrusive and obstructive forms of advertising such as billboards (as four US states – Maine, Vermont, Hawaii and Alaska – have already done). There is evidence that such bans could, in fact, have a positive effect on the economy; in some cases, local business have seen an increase in trade, and tourism has also risen. In the two years after the introduction of the ban in Vermont, revenue from tourism rose by 50%. Cause and effect are hard to prove, but the removals of billboards clearly did no harm to Vermont’s economy (Simms, 2013, p.305).
  • Taxing advertising and using the money raised to fund other forms of media such as regional newspapers, as in France and Sweden.

There are also grass-root initiatives that tackle this issue: Brandalism, an attempt by artists to reclaim the visual realm from corporate control, is the biggest anti-advertising campaign in world history and it’s getting bigger. Beginning in July 2012 with a small team in a van, Brandalism has grown tenfold to include teams in ten UK cities. The most famous graffiti artist, Banksy, has also made a short animated film against advertising.

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Fashion of sorts has always existed, but in the past, it would mostly rise spontaneously, shaped by natural and social conditions as well as by aesthetic criteria. Nowadays, fashion is generally a top-down endeavour, driven only by a commercial necessity to constantly produce something different from last season, so that people keep buying even if they don’t really need these new products. Lidewij Edelkoort, one of the world’s most influential fashion forecasters, used her annual presentation at Design Indaba in Cape Town to fire a broadside at the industry. She told design magazine Dezeen: “This is the end of fashion as we know it.” Edelkoort said her interest in fashion had now been replaced by an interest in clothes, since fashion has lost touch with what is going on in the world and what people want. “Fashion is insular and is placing itself outside society, which is a very dangerous step” added Edelkoort, listing a number of reasons for the crisis in fashion, starting with education, where young designers are taught to emulate famous names. “We still educate our young people to become catwalk designers, unique individuals,” she said, “whereas this society is now about exchange and the new economy and working together in teams and groups.” Furthermore, fast fashion is one of the major polluting industries in the world, it adds to water scarcity (cotton, in particular, uses huge amounts of water), and is implicated in labour/child labour exploitation.

~ What we can do now ~

In this case, a lot, as we are all consumers! Buying (or not buying) is probably the most powerful ‘weapon’ that people have against the tyranny of big businesses, as they ultimately depend on us via consumerism. To exercise this power, we first need to shift our mindset from ‘I want’ to ‘I need’. ‘I want’ may still remain valid in other spheres (such as which films to watch), but if you are thinking whether you should buy a new pair of shoes, rather than being guided by what you believe you want, ask yourself whether you really need them. Bear in mind that our resources are limited and if we all go on with trying to satisfy all our wants, we may end up not being able to satisfy our real needs. Here are more things we can do:

  • Ignore scaremongering claims that the economy with collapse if we don’t keep buying. Very few really benefit from excessive consumerism.
  • Avoid buying more than we need, even if ‘buy one, get one free’ is on offer. Saving a few pennies does not compensate for creating waste (as we often end up throwing food away because we’ve bought too much, or eating something in excess just because it is there).
  • Stop discarding things just because they are out of fashion. If in doubt, ask yourself if these items can still serve their purpose and if you still like them.
  • Abandon hording – things may be put to a better use if given away or recycled rather than just being left to collect dust.
  • Make steps to reduce our exposure to ads. For example, record your TV programmes so that you can fast-forward through the adverts, and use ad-blockers for browsing the internet (but do make contributions to worthwhile websites to keep them going without ads).
  • Resist peer pressure and teach our kids how to do it too. The long-term freedom that they will gain will offset any temporary upset at not having the same cell-phone model or trainers as some of their friends. This may sound easier said than done, but when peer pressure is openly discussed and we lead by example, most kids respond well. Engaging with other kids who are resisting peer pressure or cannot afford the latest items can also help. After all, children are not born consumers, they are conditioned by the world of commerce playing with their more basic drives. If these drives (such as the sense of belonging) can be satisfied in other ways, young people can be de-conditioned.
  • Instead of buying presents, make something or spend money on something worthwhile. For example, you can get a goat that is donated to a poor family in a developing country, as OXFAM and other charities offer. Your friend or relative gets a thank you card with the photo. They are likely to appreciate such a gift more than yet another toaster or jumper that they don’t know what to do with.
  • We don’t need to have a tree killed for Christmas/wedding cards. We can use e-cards instead, and not use a real tree for hanging decorations from (unless it is rooted so it can be replanted afterwards). There is something perverse about decorating and piling presents under a dying tree. This does not need to be a killjoy decision; you can be creative. Why not make a tree from wires and pieces of fabric? Get the kids involved too. This could be far more memorable and greater fun than buying a tree that has to be disposed of two weeks later.
  • Sales of ethical clothing – including organic cotton, fair trade clothes and garments made from recycled material – are on the rise. So, if we are going to have fashion, let’s make using those materials fashionable.

If you think that whatever you do is just a drop in an ocean, think again. In this case, our strength is in numbers. Many consumers have begun to demand that companies display real concern and commitment towards the issues that mean something to them – and have begun to shun companies that fail to show a sense of social responsibility. This trend has pushed businesses to respond in some positive ways. Many large companies now assess the social and environmental impact of their business practices and take measures to ameliorate them under a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy. Of course, this in itself is far from enough and we, as consumers, need to keep up the pressure. It seems that we are approaching a tipping point, but picking on rotten apples is not enough. To turn the tide, it may be even more important to advertise good practices and make them fashionable.

[1] The fact that we can avoid this by, for example, subscribing to ad-free streaming services, or recording programmes and fast-forwarding ads, doesn’t make it less coercive.

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