The number of advertisements in my promotions tab of my Gmail does not, as the Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo would say, “spark joy.” Every day I am bombarded by advertisements from a variety of stories clamoring about this sale or that— buy quickly, lest the deals expire! Keep consuming to improve your life! Don’t you want to be cool and adhere to the latest trends?
Where did these advertisements even come from? I hardly remember subscribing to some of these services. The truth of the matter is that our society has become saturated with advertisements that promote a culture of consumerism. Consumerism is defined as the belief that spending copious amounts of money on goods and services beyond what is necessary to meet one’s needs is good because it promotes human happiness. This sentiment has been aggressively promoted by corporations that frequently flaunt their products as improving people’s lives or their reputations. We, as Americans, have come to value a measure of the good focused on popularity and easy-living.
But how did we get here? Why are we buying things that we don’t need? Why do we think that we need them?
Before the Industrial Revolution, the production of goods was significantly more time-consuming and expensive. Let’s say, for example, that you need a new pair of socks. In the twenty-first century, we get in our cars and drive for about 10 minutes to the nearest Target to purchase some funky dolphin knee-highs. If; however, you happened to live in Aberdeen, a sea-faring community in the northeast coast of Scotland, in 1933, and you needed socks, you would have to make them yourself. A knitting expert, Norman Kennedy, who in fact grew up in Aberdeen, acknowledges the fact that knitting was done out of necessity in those times. “You couldn’t buy socks during the wartime,” says Kennedy. “If they did sell them, they were very poor quality, so people just knitted.”
As someone who knits recreationally, I can tell you that the funky knee-highs we have so come to adore are hellish concoctions that take months to complete. A single, regular-sized sock equates to about a full day of non-stop knitting for the expert knitter. That’s not accounting for the amount of time or money necessary for the acquisition of yarn (Ever sheared sheep, and then cleaned, carded, and spun wool? Me neither. Nowadays I can just walk into the nearest Michael’s, thankfully). Because of the fact that the production of everyday items was so time-consuming, most people had one or two staples that they took care of religiously. Only the rich could afford to have spectacular wardrobes of carefully tailored evening clothes, or fancy mirrors, or an army of uncomfortable decorative cushions.
The Industrial Revolution, what with its standardization of parts, the assembly line, and subsequent mass production of goods, drastically reduce the labor and actual cost of goods. Thus, the aforementioned frivolities were now accessible to a greater number of people, not just the rich. People could now accumulate things like socks. But why stop there? Why not get a pair of spanking new converse with those knee-highs? Damn it, now you need a new pair of shorts to complete the look. Suddenly, the average consumer has accumulated piles and piles of things we never really needed in the first place.This spiraling purchasing obsession is called the Diderot Effect. Essentially, when we acquire new things, our previously owned possessions no longer seem to fit in with this new purchase. For Denis Diderot, the French philosopher that gave the Diderot Effect its name, this obsession manifested itself when he bought a brand new robe. Compared to his other possessions, his robe didn’t seem to fit in— it made every other part of his life look drab in comparison. This new good changed part of Diderot’s identity and now all his other goods were no longer cohesive with his conception of himself. Thus, Diderot went on a reactive spending spree.
Corporations are quite aware of this, and in fact, aggressively capitalize on this. Excessive consumerism is promoted everywhere by such phrases as “retail therapy,” “treat yo’ self,” or “shopping is my cardio.” Entire holidays have been invented to feed into this shopping mania— Black Friday, for example. There’s nothing wrong with buying things. The Industrial Revolution was wonderful in the sense that we became increasingly liberated and could now pursue other tasks that would otherwise be impossible if we were busy making our own clothes, food, or shelter. I’m not at all suggesting that you shirk consumerism all together and adopt the ascetic life of a monk (as some minimalist philosophies would have you do), but it’s important that we become conscious of the negative effects of our unmeasured desires for new things: debt, environmental degradation, depression, to name a few.
If you want to go out and buy something, take into consideration the general theme of your other possessions so that you can avoid the Diderot Effect. Buy things that you need, not just things you want. A good way to gauge whether or not you need a product is to wait a month before you purchase it. If after a month you still think that you would benefit from the product in your life, then this whim is not a passing fancy. You can also follow a policy of buy one, give one back. Every time you buy a new product, you should try to donate another product that you no longer use to try to give back to the community. Try to go a month without shopping: unsubscribe to advertising magazines or emails and uninstall that online shopping app. You’ll be surprised at how much additional time you’ll have to explore meaningful relationships with others, and yourself.