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When the World Trade Centre was attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001, the government leaders of the US did not want people to cut back their spending in response to the disaster. They urged people to continue their consumer activities, because it was important to keep the economy strong. This was in direct contrast to the history, since whenever there has been a major calamity, people have been asked to cut down consumption and sacrifice for the greater good of the country. This indicates that consumerism has become a vital part of our lifestyles; and as a society, we cannot live without consumerist pleasures without feeling a sense of alienation (Stearns 7). This paper examines the meaning and definition of consumerism, how it emerged and its effect on the environment.

Consumerism is defined as the tendency to equate happiness and satisfaction with acquiring material possessions which are not required for basic needs or subsistence. A consumerist society defines itself by possession and exhibition of the new items purchased. Consumerism is a myth that offers short-lived gratification to people who can afford it, and resentment to those who cannot (Joshi 228).

Consumerism arose in Western Europe around 1900, but began gaining momentum only after the World War II. Financial prosperity, combined with greatly improved methods of mass manufacturing led to production and availability of the wide variety of consumer goods. It was further encouraged by evolution of electronic media and new methods of marketing and advertising. Additionally, new manufacturing practices, such as “throw-away” products and planned obsolescence were developed (Tammemagi 25). Planned obsolescence refers to a policy of designing the product in such a way that it has a limited life. “Throw-away” products are disposable products which are designed to be used once and thrown away. Both these policies were promoted as a way to faster economic growth and better employment opportunities. The faster a product wears out and is thrown away, the faster the economy prospers (Brown 121).

“Throw-away” products became especially popular from the second half of the twentieth century. The aspect of convenience and hygiene attached to disposable products made these very popular. Handkerchiefs were replaced with facial tissues where as kitchen cloth gave way to paper towels. The twentieth century saw the advent of disposable plastic plates, glasses and cutlery, disposable diapers, disposable razors, throwaway containers for beverages and plastic shopping bags. The emergence and growth of the fast food industry ensured the growing use of paper plates and cups, all of which are discarded after one use (Brown 121)

A major throwaway product in modern times is the computer. The rate of technological advancement makes current models obsolete in a very short time. Same is true for automobile industry and fashion in cloths and accessories (Brown 121).

Globalized consumerism produces a huge amount of pollution and waste. This is rapidly taking a toll on the environment, causing marine pollution, atmospheric pollution and filling up landfills. Toxic chemicals in the buried garbage leach into ground waters raising concerns about human health (Tammemagi 26). To counter the problem of growing amount of trash, people everywhere are being encouraged to reduce, renew, reuse and recycle (Sivashanmugam 189).


Economists believe that consumerism is necessary to keep the economy growing, but it seems prudent to take a long, hard look at the adverse effects of growing consumerism. Not only is it damaging the environment, but also breeding hostility and resentment among people in poor countries of the world who cannot even meet their basic needs of food and shelter, while their contemporaries in developed countries continue to waste food and natural resources.

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