The good and bad sides of consumerism

This is the ninth of 12 primers on various current affairs issues, published as part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

Singapore's many sales could benefit the economy by increasing production and in turn increasing employment, but excessive consumerism also puts a strain on the planet's natural resources.
Singapore's many sales could benefit the economy by increasing production and in turn increasing employment, but excessive consumerism also puts a strain on the planet's natural resources. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Walking around Singapore, it is hard to miss large signs that enticingly announce: "Sale of up to 70 per cent" or "Clearance sale. Everything must go!"

Online, these advertisements don't let up, with local and foreign sites promising discounts on first purchases, and the best look of the season on a bargain.

Product launches or giveaways are also a marketer's dream here, as people form queues overnight for everything from mobile phones to plush toys to doughnuts.

These events happen so often that they appear to have become part of Singapore's culture. In fact, they are all part of a bigger phenomenon called consumerism.

Consumerism, according to its textbook definition, is the human desire to own and obtain products and goods in excess of one's basic needs. Basic needs typically refer to having sufficient food, clothing and shelter.

Another less commonly discussed definition of consumerism involves buyers knowing their rights in seeking protection from being unfairly treated or being taken advantage of by merchants. However, many references to consumerism refer to people buying goods.

Singapore's many sales could benefit the economy by increasing production and in turn increasing employment, but excessive consumerism also puts a strain on the planet's natural resources.
Singapore's many sales could benefit the economy by increasing production and in turn increasing employment, but excessive consumerism also puts a strain on the planet's natural resources. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE


Consumerism has its roots in Britain's Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. During the revolution, the availability of consumer products substantially increased with the rise of the use of machines.

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Over the years, buying goods became a way of life and spread to other countries. In the 1950s, after World War II, the American consumer was even praised as a patriotic citizen for aiding the recovery of the country's battered economy.

The consumerist culture now involves people spending more on consumer items like cars, gadgets and clothes, instead of savings or investments. Consumers also buy these items often so as to keep up with trends, and are constantly looking to upgrade the quality of products and services.

Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) professor of marketing and international business Gemma Calvert said that although, historically, the United States has been held up as the "prototypical" example of a consumerist society, its position has been challenged by emerging markets like India, China, South Korea and Brazil.

However, consumerism is less prevalent in countries with poor economic growth. Communities bounded by religious beliefs may do more to decry consumerism too.


Consumerism is rife in many economically developed countries. The mass production of luxury goods, the saturation of media with advertisements and promotions for branded products and services, and even rising levels of personal debts signal that more people are buying goods excessively.

Other signs include a rise in product innovation, as well as developments that veer away from tradition, such as hawker food delivery and Western-inspired flavours of mooncakes, said Mr Hansen Yeong, an economics lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic's (TP) School of Business.

Growing consumerism can also be seen with people buying goods and services to publicly display economic power, buying them "just for fun and pleasure" and buying without a plan or a budget, said Dr Joicey Wei Jie, lecturer in the marketing programme at SIM University's (UniSIM) School of Business.

Culturally, a typical sign is "celebrity worship", she added. This includes following the social media accounts of favourite celebrities and purchasing the same brands or products that they use or endorse, she explained.


The only real benefit of consumerism is to improve the economy, said Dr Seshan Ramaswami, associate professor of marketing education at the Singapore Management University (SMU).

When a greater proportion of citizens buy goods and services in excess of their needs, they consume more, they spend more, and that can create a cycle of demand leading to greater production and to greater employment, which leads to even more consumption.

Consumerism creates a boom in the consumer goods and services industries, and for the retailers that serve these industries, said Dr Seshan. TP's Mr Yeong said rising consumerism may lead to market innovation and creativity too.

Said Prof Calvert, who is also director for research and development at NTU's Institute on Asian Consumer Insight: "The so-called free market economy has supposedly placed the consumer in the driving seat as far as market forces are concerned."

Firms that do not meet consumer demand and expectations risk global rejection at the hands of negative reviews, she added.


However, the rise of consumerism has had a detrimental impact on the planet. For example, clothes and apparel from the fashion and textiles industries are made using extensive amounts of water, energy, chemicals and raw materials , all of which place heavy demands on Earth's natural resources.

Increasing consumerism may also result in "a shift away from values of community, spirituality, and integrity, and toward competition, materialism and disconnection", said UniSIM's Dr Wei, quoting US psychologist Madeline Levine, who has close to 30 years of experience.

And according to a study in the peer-reviewed monthly journal Psychological Science in 2012, Dr Wei said that consumerism may also lead to depression.

Prof Calvert added that people are incurring punitive levels of debt and working longer hours to pay for their high-consumption lifestyle, which results in them spending less time with family, friends, and community organisations.

"Indeed, some believe consumerism as a culture is threatening the very fabric of our global society," she said.

SMU's Dr Seshan said that "perhaps the most serious cost is human well-being", adding that much research on the psychology of well-being shows that the most reliable predictor of long-term happiness is building and maintaining many positive long-term human relationships. "Consumerism often comes in the way of those relationships," he said.


As awareness on the impact that consumerism has on the environment grows, many companies have embarked on ways to decrease their carbon footprint and use of natural resources. Many of these moves have been prompted by conscious consumers who look for goods that do not cause harm to the environment during their making.

Environmental activists have also been trying to stave off growing consumerism.

For instance, to combat excessive buying, "anti-consumer" movements have sprung up, observing what supporters call "No Shop Day" or "Buy Nothing Day".

Brandalism, a British-originated guerilla art group, installed unauthorised artworks across France during the United Nations climate change conference held there last December.

In doing so, the group said it wanted to "highlight the links between advertising, consumerism, fossil fuel dependency and climate change".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2016, with the headline The good and bad sides of consumerism. Subscribe