Is consumerism really that bad?
We are all consumers. We need to consume to survive. If we weren’t consumers, our global economic systems might collapse and Hollywood-type apocalyptic scenarios would likely start to play out.
From the beginning of time, exchanging goods to fulfill needs has been fundamental to any healthy economic system. Over the last several centuries, those systems have become much larger and more sophisticated—but they essentially fulfill the same purpose.
Or do they?
In our increasingly complex economic systems, needs are being met, but how many of our exchanges involve products we don’t need—even products that are absurdly frivolous in the eyes of someone whose basic needs go unmet?
It is fair to say that 21st century America has become dominated by consumerism: not consumption of goods as a part of life, but consumption of goods as an activity that fills much of our unstructured time, and as a major life priority for many.
Typically, we acknowledge on some level that much of the attention we give consumer goods could be better spent elsewhere. But because consumerist attitudes and habits are so normal in our culture, and so reinforced by constant marketing messages, it can be difficult to step back and assess where the problem actually begins—let alone think about how we might “swim upstream” and build a lifestyle that doesn’t revolve so much around “stuff.”
Consumerism: Side effects may include…
One reality that can begin to sober us is to acknowledge how much we already have compared to the rest of the world:
Basically, 56% of us are among the world’s richest 7% of people. Another 32% of us are in the next 9%—meaning 88% of Americans have more wealth than at least 84% of people in the world. As the Pew Report summarizes: “…given the much higher standard of living in the U.S., what is considered poor here is a level of income still not available to most people globally.”
What’s more, it’s often the low cost of labor in many other countries that allows us to have so many consumer goods available to us at prices we can afford. Is our comfort—and our consumerist habit—built on the backs of others who are struggling?
It is easy to ignore this question, or never even ask it, because the people who make many of our goods are so far away from us, geographically and culturally. We don’t meet them and we don’t relate to them. And that makes it harder to care—at least care enough to do something about it.
When we don’t know the people and processes involved in creating our goods, it also makes our goods seem more disposable. So we throw away more and demand the use of more natural resources at lower prices to replace what we throw away. Not only does this amass an incredible volume of waste on our planet, but one place we get affordable replacement resources is from poor countries. As School of Life explains, this often puts the wealth in the hands of a few rich clans and helps keep most of a country in poverty.
But our buying habits typically revolve around us alone. They have nothing to do with the people who make what we buy, or the resources that go into those products. Slick marketing has legitimized our self-centered mindset: “We must have what we want, the way we want it, at the price we want it…now.” Veruca Salt, anyone?
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
As consumers in a consumerist culture that’s tethered to a global economy, we are part of a system. Not all the negative effects of consumerism are our fault, but as the holders of so much wealth, neither are we entirely innocent. The sustainability and fair trade movements are admirable and are certainly having an impact, but their impact is small compared to the size of the consumerist engine—which is simultaneously harming people on the other side of the globe, and some very intimate parts of our own selves.
Untangling the web and rediscovering what’s important
At its very core, consumerism is powered by our desire to have happiness, contentment, fulfillment, peace, or self-actualization in our lives. These are almost universal human quests.
We typically believe we can achieve these states by obtaining other things like community, status, time, security, money, power, respect, love, sex, or acceptance. In some cases we might be correct or partially correct, but this is where brands sweep in to convince you their products are the first step in the chain to bring you what you really want…
- Cologne attracts woman, woman brings sex, sex brings fulfillment.
- Branded coffee brings community among coffee drinkers who share brand values, community brings self-actualization.
- Safe car brings security, security brings peace.
- Kitchen gadget saves time, extra time brings peaceful mornings, peaceful mornings bring happy days.
Nobody has to spell this out for us; we believe things like this every day through a few images in a few seconds. But when we do spell it out like this, we can see that the connection between the object and the end state is typically very weak and almost always short-lived.
The Bible also shows us that happiness through consumption is a delusion. Jesus himself counters this notion in several ways.
You really, truly can’t keep it.
One parable (a story as an illustration) Jesus tells is about a rich man who stores up all his surplus grain and goods to made sure he has plenty for the future only to die before he can spend his wealth (Luke 12:16-21). Jesus’ point is that you cannot rely on your possessions to be the main stay of your life. They can be lost at any time, and even when you consume them, the beneficial impact is short-lived.
Stuff is for using, not hoarding.
Jesus also explains that status in the version of the world he had originally planned works the opposite of the way status works in our culture. He is continuously calling his people to be ‘humble’ (Luke 14:8-11, James 4:10) and to seek to be ‘least’ (Luke 9:48, John 13:14). According to Jesus, being influential and powerful—in the ways that matter—comes from being productive and doing good with what we have, no matter how big or small our ‘pile of stuff’ looks to our peers (Matthew 25:14-30).
Furthermore, God shakes up our traditional understanding of economics when he calls us to be generous—whether we have a lot (1 Timothy 6:17-19) or a little (Luke 21:1-4). Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38). There is a special joy to be had in life for people with generous hearts—God calls it “life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19).
This isn’t just a Christian concept; it is also confirmed in cultural experiments:
Do his comments about spending money on yourself vs. other people match your own experience too?
So, when will it be enough? (What if it already is?)
The Bible tells us that the truth is, we have very limited real needs (1 Timothy 6:6-8). Whatever we have, especially in our modern times, is enough. Paul, an important figure in the early Christian church, amplifies this mindset in his letter to people of the city of Philippi:
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me…Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him [Jesus] who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:10-14)
Paul is saying ‘I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be content under any circumstance. And my connection to Jesus helps me do that.’
Please don’t misunderstand this statement. Christians do not believe that God has any desire for any person, anywhere, to not have their basic needs met. On the contrary, we know that God does care about our physical and emotional needs (Luke 4:18) and the Bible explicitly calls all of us to be the ones that ensure that every person has their basic needs (Matthew 25:35).
What Paul is saying is that even if my perceived need is different, I am going to learn to be OK with whatever I have. I am going to trust that my God thinks that’s enough for me.
What if you made a conscious choice to adopt the attitude, “what I have is enough for me”? Seriously, think about that for a second. How would your life be different if you honestly looked at your possessions that way?
Anyone can choose to live with that attitude. But we believe Christians will have a little bit easier time hanging onto that attitude because we have a God who has promised to provide for us—so the fear of scarcity doesn’t have to crop up and make us start hoarding again. Does it often? Sure. But it wouldn’t have to. We believe God always provides what we actually need both materially and spiritually. We have enough. The belief that what you have is enough allows for the cycle of consumerism to be broken.
Give up—it’s not gonna happen.
That is, long-term contentment or happiness from material possessions. The Bible says that the only way we can find these things is by having a relationship with God (Matthew 6:33), along with focusing on healthy relationships with people and with nature. Many of us have discovered the joys of strong personal friendships, as well as a connection with nature, but without having a connection to Jesus you have missed out on a deeper level of purpose and fulfillment—even happiness.
Think about it—if the Christian God really did create and continues to run the universe, then a relationship with him is one of the most important things that you were made for. It’s at least worth a try.
Be an unselfish consumer.
Thankfully there are many cultural trends being promoted to combat the negative impact of consumerism. The encouragement to engage and be accountable to our local communities, to provide emergency humanitarian assistance, to create dignified work opportunities, etc. are all admirable examples of this.
Will this halt the human proclivity toward material possessions? Without Jesus, we don’t believe it will. We live in a world that has not been fully renewed and restored by God yet, so Christians also continue to struggle with this. But efforts to push back against the ‘ism’ in consumerism should be supported and applauded.
The Bible does encourage us to invest in the joys of simply living, creating things from scratch, engaging with people, protecting our environment, and giving generously. These activities will provide us with significantly more contentment than consumerism.
We’re not suggesting that monastic life or dropping out as a consumer are the solutions. The Bible supports economic participation for the good of our neighbor (Ephesians 4:28) and as something we should be expected to do in order to receive wages (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The human desire to create improved circumstances has stimulated incredible discoveries, better healthcare and living standards, and some amazing inventions.
What does this mean on a global scale? Addressing consumerism may start with the attitudes in our hearts, and extend to our communities, but it also requires us to consider the real circumstances of people around the world who are affected by our spending habits.
This isn’t easy. On the one hand, does our desire for consumer goods create jobs for people who would otherwise be in poverty? On the other hand, does it keep those people stuck in terrible jobs? We aren’t economists, and neither does the Bible give a lot of advice on addressing macroeconomic challenges. But we know we can’t do nothing. We can’t ignore the fact that real people are being impacted by our choices and our culture. The Bible tell us to, “in humility, count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Even the “others” we’ll never meet. They must be a consideration in our purchase decisions.
We can be healthy consumers. There is a tension—a fine line of give and take—in our behavior as consumers. We can consume goods, but sometimes personal sacrifice for the betterment of our local or global community is required. Christianity suggests a relationship with God, an investment in people, and the appreciation and protection of nature as the best antidotes to consumerism.