The rise of consumerism Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption now a global phenomenon

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By 2017-10-20

By M Rishar M Saleem

With the advent of consumerism began the era of mass consumption. Consumerism came into effect after the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century. This denotes that consumerism is a by-product of the Industrial Revolution, which brought about many changes to the economy. Consumerism too, in its own right, has brought significant change to the economic sphere, demonstrated in people's way of life.

The Industrial Revolution focused on overcoming prevalent problems, such as scarcity of resources. Significantly, many products were made available in large quantities for each and every one to purchase for the first time. There were no visible class barriers in consumption and purchase. All could buy whatever they so chose; lower prices made it easier for all to own a product of their choice. The luxury goods of yesteryear became common commodities, like smartphones. Mass consumption and mass production delivered a momentum surge to consumerism.

With this backdrop, consumerism has become the hallmark of many world economies. This became a common phenomenon in developing countries. Nations like India have become obsessed with consumerism, which has both positive and negative effects.
Historical perspective of consumerism
When the word consumerism is used, we tend to picture a consumer category we all belong to. In analysing consumerism, however, two different definitions could be given to denote different meanings.
The first definition, which dates back to 1950, denotes consumerism as 'Production or interests of buyers or consumers of goods and services against dangerous and defective goods'.

The second definition, completely different to the first, calls for more focus and emphasis. It refers to the phenomena of people purchasing in excess of their basic needs. This speculates the aim of the people is to possess more and more goods, irrespective of their capacity to do so. The first theory is a concept that focuses mainly on production on the interest of buyer. The second definition came to light in 1960, put forward by the famous economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, who highlighted this in his book, 'The Theory of the Leisure Class'.

He coined the term conspicuous consumption. Thorstein wrote a treatise on economics and a detailed, social critique of conspicuous consumption, as a function of social class and of consumerism, derived from the social stratification of people and the division of labour, which are the social institutions of the feudal period (9th–15th centuries) that have continued to the modern era. (Google)
Conspicuous consumption is very much associated with consumerism. It refers to status symbols associated with instant purchase or owning of goods that give the consumer some prestige or status; for example, buying expensive jewellery. The second meaning of consumerism is very much associated to this concept. This concept of consumerism began to spread in USA and gained momentum as consumerism, beginning in 1960.

Vance Packard, in his book 'Waste makers' (1960), featured consumerism as an excess of materialism and waste, showing that consumerism has both positive and negative aspects. Chasing behind goods without considering needs amounts to waste, he noted.
The book was reportedly a best-seller on release. The book argues that people in the United States consume a lot more than they should and are harmed by their consumption.

There were also domestic theorists who defined consumerism and expressed their own views. In 1929, Frederick Schlink said that consumerism is "literally, a way to break the vicious deadlock of low living standards; that is to spend freely. Even resource waste is accepted, as long as you keep on spending". However some raised eyebrows as to why one should spend so.

In India, consumerism began after 1992, with the adoption of the Liberalization, Privatization, and Globalization (LPG) model. 1990-1991 was a period of great drawback to India, where they faced great imbalance in foreign trade. Government borrowings went up, inflation was in double digits (12%), and the Government was forced to mortgage gold for a short period to bail out economic debacles. The aim of LPG was to transform the economy into a fast growing, globally-competitive one. With the rise of consumerism, many multi-national corporations (MNC) sprung up in India.

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