The term “consumerism” is used in several different ways. In economics, it usually refers to a movement which promotes the right and safety of the consumer which arose in the early 1900s as people grew increasingly concerned about consumer safety and manufacturing methods. In philosophy, consumerism refers to a way of life in which people place a high value on material possessions, and in which people tend to consume more than they need. Critics of this way of life espouse anti-consumerism or productionism.
The practice of consuming beyond basic needs is ancient; one need only look at the lavish tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs for an example. However, consumerism in the modern sense really came into its own with the advent of mass production, and an increasing separation between producers and consumers. Historically, people produced many of their own goods, or lived and worked in close proximity to their producers, and production was primarily limited to basic needs, except in the case of goods aimed at the upper classes.
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With the Industrial Revolution came several radical changes in consumption patterns. The first was an increase in consumption among all socioeconomic classes, driven by producers who were making an excess of goods and needed to create a market for it. The second was a radical rift between producers and consumers, as goods could be shipped anywhere in the world and people rarely met or interacted with the people who made their goods. The Industrial Revolution also made it possible to shift from a production oriented society to a consumption oriented society, because fewer producers could make more goods.
In the sense of consumer protection, the rumblings of consumerism arose in response to issues like contaminated foods, faulty mechanical products, and other issues. Advocates for consumers started to argue that safety standards needed to be put in place, and companies needed to be held accountable for their faulty products, for the protection of consumers. Consumerism in this sense also expands to disputes about false advertising claims, lobbying for disclosure, and a variety of other topics.
In the sense of a way of life in which the consumption of consumer goods is placed at a high priority, consumerism has been an age-old topic of criticism, and the criticism only becomes more severe over time. Consumerism is closely related to materialism, and both trends tend to emerge in capitalist systems, in which consumerism may be encouraged for a variety of reasons. Consumerism tends to underscore class differences and widen socioeconomic gaps, as people use consumer goods as a display of class status. Worldwide, consumption of resources occurs disproportionately among the rich, with the world's poor consuming a fraction of the world's resources. Status symbols such as large houses, fancy cars, and designer clothing are sometimes viewed and attacked as symbols of consumerist lifestyles.