Many of us might recall from our childhood days that buying new stuff was not as easy as it is now. When I tore my pants, my first response was not to immediately log into Amazon and order a new pair; my mom would get a needle from her arsenal of domestic tools and fix the tear. When I needed a new toy, my grandmother would cut a little branch from a tree and make a nice stick for me so that I could pretend I was a policeman. These are just a couple among countless examples of situations that call for a trip to the supermarket nowadays but were fixed differently while many of us were growing up. This difference is very sharp to me because I grew up in an underdeveloped country before moving to the US. While it is true that most of our families make more money than they used to, the rapid rise of consumerism has played a more significant role to alleviate our psychological barrier for buying new stuff. The compulsion for shopping has become obsessive.
In most of our minds today, accumulating new and expensive possessions is set as the standard of prosperity and ultimate happiness. However, this is far from reality. Obsessive consumption is not only naturally and financially unsustainable, but also obtrusive to mindfulness and contentment.
Consumerism has become a universal centerpiece of the modern lifestyle in the age of globalization. For most of our time in the earth as Homo Sapiens, human settlements have remained fairly isolated. For example, America was unknown to the Europeans until about 500 years ago. Although connected by landmass, large empires like Aztec (in southern North America) and Inca (in South America) were completely oblivious to each other’s existence. In contrast, an idea can easily reach billions of people within a matter of seconds today. This has brought forth numerous positive changes including a wave of democracy. The hegemony of dictators and monarchs fell in the manner of dominos, and democracy, along with capitalism, has taken over. Capitalism prospers when the products produced by private corporations are consumed at a high rate by the free market. Thriving capitalism aspires to make profits by increasing sales. It thus exercises its economic power to grow demand for its products in society, creating a vicious cycle that consolidates consumerism. Our current society seems to have fallen prey to this vicious cycle of capitalism-consumerism with the support of newly achieved global connectivity.
There has been an increasingly large number of products in today’s supermarket shelves whose existence raises our eyebrows. Some examples are “cocoa dyno bites with marshmallows” from the cereal aisle, or “sliced mangoes” from the fruits section. When I see them, questions like these arise in my mind- “When did humans start eating chocolate-flavored sugar balls with marshmallows for breakfast instead of some tasty bread, pastry or regular cereals?”. “Since when did we lose our ability to slice our fruits or eat them whole that we have to buy them sliced packaged in a plastic box?”. These might be valid questions; surprisingly, even the most ridiculous of the products find their customers because we are obsessed with purchasing. That’s the entire reason they are being manufactured.
Since the corporations benefit by maximizing the consumption of their goods, it’s in their best interest to create more demand to stay on top of the market. Nowadays, they do so by utilizing technology to reach the homes and hearts of people. A hundred years ago, Coca Cola did not exist. Today, coke has been advertised so much that people find a meal incomplete without coke. We did not wander in the plains of Africa smoking cigarettes or JUUL. A large number of people are addicted to these nowadays. Quite frequently, the corporations invent entirely new products with highly questionable utility to penetrate the market. They come up with a solution to our every little problem or the ones that don’t even exist. Although the national economy and consequently the citizens are also benefited by the growth in consumption, only a few owners and shareholders enjoy most of the profits. The limited benefits of consumerism often cloud the harms it is causing to both people and the environment.
When we buy a new product, even if it is degradable, it usually comes in plastic packaging with a crisp usual manual. So, it automatically adds to the amount of degradable and non-degradable waste produced by an individual. To put it into perspective, imagine 1 billion people buy a new product and on average produce 0.25 pounds, then it would contribute 250 million pounds to the waste we are already dumping into the earth, a lot of which is non-degradable. Although at an individual level, we are not making that much of a difference to the environment, the difference accumulated over the world population will be quite significant.
In addition to being environmentally unsustainable, the modern-day consumerism is not financially sustainable to a large group of people. With the growth of a free-market economy, there is naturally a greater trust in the future, so people enjoy an increase in their credit capacity. We are then systematically influenced by the greedy, capitalistic system into buying more and more things. Most of us are spending the money that we don’t have for the things that we don’t need. We bound to spend the rest of our lives stressing about paying the huge debts that we’ve acquired over the years.
Once obsessive consumption sneaks into our lives, the hunger for buying only keeps on growing. This can be satiated only by buying more. The psychological barrier for even simple activities such as dicing fruits, sewing a torn cloth, or walking to the grocery store without our fancy car escalates. Rather than enjoying the process of preparing a meal ourselves, we start buying readymade, packaged food and eat hastily so that we can free up some time to go mindlessly consume something else. It leaves us no time and opportunity for contemplation and mindfulness, which are integral to a content life.
We are living in an age when minimalism is seen as austerity and obsessive consumption is considered a sign of prosperity. The capitalistic economic system, built on the pillars of consumerism, has us fully convinced that there’s a void in life that can be filled only by consuming. It has gone so out of control that it has succeeded in creating impossible standards. Men are supposed to buy the diet and exercise products so that they can have the body of Zac Efron, and women are mandated to look white by using the beauty cream called Fair and Lovely (If you look up the ads on YouTube, you’ll immediately see what’s wrong). This certainly means the void created in our minds through aggressive advertisement impossible to fill.
It’s time we made it a point to distinguish between the necessary things and the excessive ones. That way, we do not spend our valuable time and resources buying and consuming things that do not significantly contribute to our goals. If we feel the need to obtain something for the short term, we can look for more sustainable options such as borrowing, renting, or buying used products. Resisting obsessive consumerism and embracing minimalism, in my experience, is incredibly conducive to mindfulness. It breaks the cycle of greed and purchase and allows us to enjoy little things in life such as a walk to the grocery store, fixing torn clothes, or drinking unadulterated water.