Consumerism & Sustainable Consumption


To consume means to satisfy needs and desires.  The activity of consumption involves various areas of daily life and is affected by socialization, economy, communication, and personality.  There are two types of products to be consumed. First, basic or staple products – products that people cannot or do not want to eliminate from their budget by any means, such as food, beverages, household goods, feminine hygiene products. Second, consumer discretionary and consumer cyclical consumption are those that produce goods and services that are not essential, such as clothing, automobiles, entertainment, and leisure. 

The consumption of non-essential goods and services is often considered as "unnecessary". This categorization may seem to only concern people with higher incomes, but mass consumption today is no longer only focused on higher socioeconomic groups.   

Consumption has three social functions: social class differentiator, symbolic identifier (signs and meanings of products), and means of social interaction. The main characteristics of post-industrial societies in the 21st century are as follows (Bravo, 2021, p. 53-60):  

  • Experiences and sensations are more important than the products themselves 
  • New narcissism: people seek to increase emotions, sensations and experiences in the marketplace 
  • Achieving more relevance and distinction through symbolic associations of product and brands 
  • Relevant media as creators of desires and needs 
  • Consumption based on pleasure and the power of style 
  • Shopping malls that favor hyper-consumption 
  • Consumption without spatial-temporal barriers thanks to technology 

Oxford dictionary (2020) defines consumerism as the buying and using of goods and services; the belief that it is good for a society or an individual person to buy and use a large quantity of goods and services.  

Colin Campbell (2018) explains that consumerism is established when consuming becomes particularly important or central in the lives of individuals and, on many occasions, is a central purpose of existence. Therefore, people find themselves performing constant consumption actions, which generate new products, styles, and trends. This is what Bauman (2007) calls the "consumer revolution". Lipovetsky (2007) explains it as the "hyperconsumption society", where society revolves around the great protagonist: the consumer. Companies focus on improving the actions of consumption, generating a flexible, independent, mobile consumer looking for experiences and immediate things, without waiting times (Bravo, 2021). The requirement of this hyper-consumption society is to market all experiences anywhere and at any time. 

We are in an era of a consumer-world in which cultural discrepancies are erased and consumerism reorganizes behaviors, even those that do not depend on commercial exchange. For Lipovetsky (2007), contemporary society communicates, expresses, and speaks through consumption. The globalization of consumption produces a homogenized world consumerism. More and more consumers around the world eat the same food, listen to the same music, wear the same fashion, watch the same television programs and movies, drive the same cars, dine in the same restaurants, and stay in the same hotels (Bravo, 2021).  

Consumerism has been enhanced by various communication, marketing and advertising techniques. Most of the advertising plans aim to provoke in the consumer new consumption needs that imply the achievement of happiness due to the benefits produced by the acquisition of the products. People are often influenced to purchase a myriad of products that they mostly don't need for their mental or physical well-being. 

As opposed to consumerism, the concept of Sustainable Consumption was developed. Sustainable consumption is a compromise between environmental, social, and economic aims; the acquisition and utilization of products contemplates global welfare for the present and future generations. The main aim of sustainable consumption is to reach the harmony between the satisfaction of consumer needs and preservation of the environment (Piligrimienė et al., 2020, p. 4) 

In 1994 Oslo Symposium on Sustainable Consumption, defines sustainable consumption as “the use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimizing the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardies the needs of future generations”. 

Rapid population growth together with improving living standards is causing bigger and more rapid consumption (…). Unsustainable consumption patterns are negatively affecting our surroundings. In order to promote sustainable consumption, it is important to engage consumers in active and mutual dialogue. The factors influencing consumer engagement in sustainable consumption can be divided into two groups, internal and external, each comprising three determinants: environmental attitude, perceived responsibility, and perceived behavioral efficiency. In addition to the listed determinants, there are also certain conditions for sustainable consumption, social environment, and promotion of sustainable consumption. All of the aforementioned points were identified as having direct positive impact on consumer engagement in sustainable consumption (…). The application of the engagement construct in the context of sustainable consumption would allow a deeper understanding of actual consumer behavior in relation to different contexts of sustainable consumption (Piligrimienė et al., 2020, p. 1). 

Some of the effects of consumerism are:  

  • Ecological imbalance and serious environmental damage due to the excessive consumption of natural resources 
  • Irregular distribution of economic resources in societies 
  • High levels of pollution 
  • Negative effects on the physical health and mental health of consumers 

For a long time, consumerism in food has been associated with fast food or junk food, which has been linked to negative effects on both planetary and people’s health. Consequently, there has been a change in the consumption trend, as consumers demand for organic, ethically produced, and healthily processed food products. We have thus transitioned from Fast Food to Slow Food. 

The same phenomenon took place in the fashion industry. For a long time, fashion consumption has been associated with the purchase of lower quality products stemming from Fast Fashion businesses. This fast fashion model increased consumption in quantity and frequency, leading to a hyper consumption of clothing. Therefore, there has also been a change in consumption trends. Consumers now demand better quality, sustainably produced clothing, and organic fibers. We have thus also moved away from Fast Fashion and towards Slow Fashion. 

Given the importance of sustainability today, more conscious consumption is being promoted across all industries, including fashion and food. When people are aware of their acts of consumption they can make better decisions, based on reason rather than emotions, and, in a way, they can stop their own hyper-consumerism. To describe that kind of consumer commitment, Micheletti has developed the concept of political consumerism (Micheletti 2003).  

For this reason, some fashion and food companies are already carrying out communication campaigns with the aim of educating the consumer in a more responsible and conscious consumption. Consumerism especially affects fast fashion or fast food models, since the success of these companies and brands is based, in many cases, on a continuous consumption of their products, benefiting from quick and unconscious purchases, increasingly frequent and with a greater number of products per purchase.  

All in all, we can identify five types or styles of consumption (Solomon, 2014; Bravo, 2021, Piligrimienė et al., 2020, p. 5): 

  1. Conspicuous consumption: consumption or use of expensive goods, services or leisure activities for the conscious or unconscious motive of showing or improving one's social status, to indicate one's ability to pay and thus show one's wealth, despite the possibility of consuming cheaper alternatives that offer the same functionality.  
  2.  Symbolic consumption: spending money on goods and services, through which, when people acquire them, they wish to communicate or transmit certain aspects of themselves by benefiting from their symbolic characteristics or what they can represent.  
  3. Compulsive consumption: repetitive and excessive consumption that occurs due to anxiety, depression, and boredom of consumers. This behavior is not done by choice, pleasure occurs due to the short duration of the behavior and people experience a feeling of regret or guilt after consuming. 
  4. Experience consumption: consumption in which people focus on interactions with brands and companies and seek to obtain other types of links with products and services. This refers to spending money on goods and services in which buyers value the experiences more than the product or service itself.  
  5. Consumer engagement: level of consumers’ physical, cognitive and emotional relationship with an organization, product, brand, etc. The interpretation of the concept usually depends on the object of engagement (company, product, brand, advertisement, virtual community, value creation, etc.). In other words, engagement reflects an interactive consumer relationship with a specific object that is context specific  
  • Fast vs. Slow consumption models: differences and similarities between fashion and food 
  • How do brands promote more conscious consumption? 
  • Which consumer profiles are more susceptible to consumerism? What are the similarities and differences of fashion and food consumer profiles? 

McDonald’s – Primark (Fast Food and Fashion) 

Starbucks – Zara (Fast Food and Fashion) 

Small restaurants or organic supermarkets - Small businesses and sustainable clothing brands (Slow Food and Fashion) 

Academic/peer reviewed 

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Bravo, S (2021). Moda liquida. University of Navarra. 

Campbell, C. (2018). The puzzle of modern consumerism. In The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (pp. 77-105). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. 

Cavusoglu, L., & Dakhli, M. (2016). The impact of ethical concerns on fashion consumerism: A review. Markets, Globalization & Development Review, 1(2). 

Delieva, D., & Eom, H. J. (2019). Consumers’ attitude toward socially responsible consumerism in the sustainable fashion market. Business and Management Studies, 5(1), 59-67. 

Dielemans, E., & Zanni, M. (2012). Ethical Fashion Consumerism: A Segmentation and Understanding of Young Swedish Consumers. 

Durán, S. B. (2021). Moda líquida: una integración conceptual entre la sociología, la física y la innovación (Doctoral dissertation, Universidad de Navarra). 

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Lipovetsky, G. (2007). Paradoxical happiness: essay on the hyperconsumption society. Companhia das Letras, São Paulo

Micheletti M. (2003), Political Virtue and Shopping, London, Palgrave MacMillan 

Piligrimienė, Ž., Žukauskaitė, A., Korzilius, H., Banytė, J., & Dovalienė, A. (2020). Internal and external determinants of consumer engagement in sustainable consumption. Sustainability, 12(4), 1349. 

Tanner, C., Kaiser, F. G., & WÖfing Kast, S. (2004). Contextual conditions of ecological consumerism: A food-purchasing survey. Environment and Behavior, 36(1), 94-111. 

Solomon, M. R., Dahl, D. W., White, K., Zaichkowsky, J. L., & Polegato, R. (2014). Consumer behavior: Buying, having, and being (Vol. 10). Toronto, Canada: Pearson. 

Solomon, M. R. (2010). Consumer behaviour: A European perspective. Pearson education. 

Tariq, A., Wang, C., Tanveer, Y., Akram, U., & Akram, Z. (2019). Organic food consumerism through social commerce in China. Asia Pacific Journal of Marketing and Logistics

Usui, K. (2021). Consumerism in Early Modern Japan: Food, Fashion, and Publishing. In Consumer Culture Theory in Asia (pp. 33-59). Routledge.