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Consumerism is the tendency of people to identify strongly with products or services they consume, especially those with commercial brand names and obvious status-enhancing appeal, e.g. an expensive automobile, rich jewellery. It is a pejorative term which most people deny, having some more specific excuse or rationale for consumption than the idea that they're "compelled to consume".

To those who accept the idea of consumerism, these products are not seen as valuable in themselves, but rather as social signals or a reducer of anxiety about belonging. The older term "conspicuous consumption" spread to describe this in the United States in the 1960s, but was soon linked to larger debates about media theory[?], culture jamming, and its corollary productivism.

Gandhi's ideal of voluntary simplicity was seen as an alternative to consumerism, and movements towards Green anarchism and eco-anarchism often focused on rejecting consumer products as such, rather than the means by which they were made (the usual focus of moral purchasing efforts or the Green parties).

These movements were difficult to separate from others that stated opposition to capitalism. Left-wing critics tended to see consumerism as a symptom of capitalism, and argued that it would not occur under socialism. Critics of these critics noted that socialist economies rarely had the capacity to produce consumer products, or figure out how to ration them fairly, and that the idolatry of symbols (like the hammer and sickle universally used to represent communism -- see photo) was merely another variant of a consumer branding exercise. This debate continues to this day as the "flag, name and label" debate, one of many views of what is called "intellectual capital".

The less controversial theory of instructional capital and social capital had a simpler explanation for consumer behavior: a known global brand name represented a known quality of service due to its consistency of production instructions and infrastructure. It also could protect this 'good name' with the emergence of global intellectual property law. Thus, the traveller or mobile individual who needed reliable service at a good price would be drawn naturally towards trusted names that represented organizations that could reliably produce identical results across many diverse cultures, e.g. McDonald's. In this view, travel and the anxiety of travel to new places had a major impact on the emergence of global brands recognized everywhere.

But some brands, e.g. Nike, were also recognized everywhere as status symbols, due to their association with major sports figures and advertising. So this conventional analysis did not obviate the need to explore consumption as such.

Debates over consumerism tend to focus on one of three important areas:

  • measuring well-being as opposed to measuring what is used or consumed - an attempt to remove consumerist bias from economics of money supply., and challenge productivism
  • moral purchasing by those who consume, ensuring that their money does not support activities they find abhorrent - challenging commodity markets and product markets[?] and redefining consumption of products as consumption of more complex global services, e.g. coffee is the services of protecting the land it grows on, growing the coffee, harvesting it, transporting it, grinding it, etc., and each step is the moral responsibility of consumer not producer
  • culture jamming focusing on the rightful extent of intellectual property rights, and the ability of brands to a global monopoly on use of a name that has come to be recognized as meaning something in larger culture.

There is a vast literature on consumerism and consumer behavior, mostly by its critics. Promoters of consumerism as such are few, but certainly include those politicians who call for more shopping, more tourism, more travel, etc., as G. W. Bush did after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had inhibited these activities.

See also: productivism, culture jamming, moral purchasing, measuring well-being, commodity markets.

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