Living in the Now: Consumerism and Its History

The Speed of NowFeatures

Consumerism today is an endless cycle of purchasing and repurchasing goods dependent upon current styles or fashions. Whenever I go to a chain retail store to buy clothes, I find myself overwhelmed by just how many styles and options there are.

I always leave with more items then I intended to buy, partially because everything is less expensive than I expected it to be. Prices seem to be dropping at a precipitous pace, even within my relatively short lifetime, and people are buying more clothing than ever. The average American buys at least one clothing item a month. While that may not sound like a lot, each piece of clothing goes through a long and complicated process to reach that person’s home, a process that even 50 years ago would be impossible.

For example, take a simple printed cotton T-shirt. The cotton fiber from the shirt was most likely made in the United States, but because the U.S. has higher wages and less institutionalized industry, the fiber was probably shipped internationally to a lower-wage country to be spun and woven. The finished shirts are then sent back to Europe or the U.S. to be printed and sold. This process is cheaper, faster, and more productive than any other previous system, and has made access to consumable goods (like a T-shirt) easy for most residents of developed nations. The historical economic shifts that have allowed mass global industry to blossom are a precursor to understanding how consumer culture is able to exist, and an examination of the current state of consumption reveals the nuanced and potentially unsustainable nature of our current world.

The roots of mass production and modern capitalism began in Western Europe. In the 16th century, mercantilism was thriving. Nation states and governments had a strong grip on their countries’ economies, awarding and revoking monopolies and unilaterally mediating trade agreements with other regional entities. Mercantile capitalism was the most limited form of capitalism because governments controlled the growth of industry and oftentimes were quite isolationist in their international trade policies. Though trade occurred between nations, it was limited and often regulated by the government.

Despite this, the beginnings of institutionalized cross-national trade were starting to appear at the insistence of joint stock companies, the most notable of which was the East India Trading Company. This British company was a coalition of wealthy merchants who made their money by exporting raw goods from East Asia, most importantly India, back to Western Europe. At the company's height in the early to mid 1600s, it controlled half of the world’s trade. Despite its success, the company still had to gain government approval, and was only allowed to venture east because Queen Elizabeth I granted it a charter.

Domestic trade was equally regulated. The predominant form of infrastructure was the cottage system, in which rural workers produced goods in their own homes, which were then purchased by urban merchants and resold at a higher price. Governments awarded monopolies to certain merchants, giving them access to more cottage laborers and effectively stifling competition.

The repressive nature of mercantile capitalism meant that it could not persist in the growing world of trade, and the first country to abandon it and adopt a more progressive economic model was England. In the early 19th century, England was ripe for economic change. It was the wealthiest nation in all of Europe, largely due to its Indian colonies. The British had access to raw goods, specifically coal, from the colonies, which allowed them to advance into steam powered technology. They were also embroiled in a variety of civil and international wars, which meant the government had less time to regulate its peoples. The most important factor that pushed England into the industrial revolution was new technologies and the advent of commercial industry. Soon after, the cottage system was set aside in favor of centralized factories that employed the population at a higher rate and produced previously unheard of amounts of goods. This transformation pushed England into the age of Industrial Capitalism, which historian Joyce Applebee defines as “an economic system that relies on investment in machines and technology that are used to increase production of marketable goods.”

The United States would soon follow England into the industrial model of capitalism with the Market Revolution in the early 1800s, which entailed a shift from the production of goods for individuals to the production of goods for sale. A major piece of technology that contributed to this shift was Eli Whitney's cotton gin, which was invented in 1794. The success of the gin led Southern farmers to abandon the production of almost every other kind of good in order to focus their efforts on cotton. Soon, other nations with the capacity to adopt the factory model followed Britain and the United States, leaving behind less productive systems. Ultimately, the greatest impact of the international shift to industrial capitalism was a surplus in consumable goods.

The current state of mass production is the dream of any 19th century industrial capitalist. Multinational corporations dominate global trade, and is relatively unregulated by governing bodies. The increased safety and dramatic drop in cost of transportation means raw goods can be produced in one place and whisked across several continents to be processed at the cheapest possible price. Many governments subsidize specific industries, allowing for exponential growth. All of these things are symptoms of economic globalization, which the UN defines as “the increasing interdependence of world economies as a result of the growing scale of cross-border trade of commodities and services, flow of international capital, and wide and rapid spread of technologies.”

However, this phenomenon is not universal; trade globalization impacts developing nations very differently than it does massive superpowers. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs found three main issues with globalization in developing nations, the first of which is an increased wealth disparity. The difference of income per capita between the richest and poorest countries has enlarged from 30 times in 1960 to 70 times in 2000. The second is that due to the massive amount of floating international capital, bubble economies are created in pockets of certain nations, as well as disorderly fluctuation of currency exchange rates globally. Bubble economies are unstable, which can lead to financial crises. Examples of this include Mexico and East Asia in the 1990s, when floating international capital unsettled nations’ standing economic policies. The third reason is that globalization, specifically through multinational corporations, creates outsiders to trade. The international economic order always privileges larger industrial nations, but globalization creates impermeable relationships between certain countries at the exclusion of others. By that same token, the rush to enter into trade agreements in order to get a piece of the metaphorical cake causes developing countries to agree to less than fair situations at the danger of becoming outsiders. Ultimately, globalism does spread economic opportunity, but it is important to acknowledge the circumstances that may leave certain nations behind.

The globalization of trade and mass production have sponsored the massive growth of consumer culture in the U.S. This is evidenced by the shifting definition of the word “consumerism.” Before 1970, “consumerism” meant the interest of the consumer, but quickly afterwards it transformed into meaning extremely high levels of consumption. This shift shows the growth of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman defines as “consumerist culture.” He describes this phenomena as a “culture that values transience and mobility, rather than duration and stability, and the newness of things and reinvention of oneself over endurance.” This is a departure from productivist culture, which valued individual creation and delayed gratification. Consumerist culture is about living in the now, staying up to date on trends because goods are cheap enough to purchase and repurchase depending on the current fad. This culture is made possible because of the international free market, and only exists in privileged countries, such as the United States, where the per capita income is extremely high.

On an even larger scale, mass production and capitalism have driven the earth towards climate change and eventual ruin. CO2 emissions are at their highest rates ever largely due to factory production, and smog in China from smokestacks has taken a toll on the health of the Chinese population. While it is easy to paint mass production and consumerism as purely destructive, there are many overall good effects. The exportation of labor has had an arguably positive impact on the global community. The number of people living under the UN poverty line has dropped exponentially, and the service job market in the United States, which provides more opportunities for health care and adequate compensation, has also grown.

While the morality of mass consumption is questionable, the truth is that the progress is inevitable. As humanity looks to the future, it's almost impossible to imagine that we will return to material asceticism. Nevertheless, holding industry accountable for actively ruining the environment and mistreating workers does not contradict humanity’s drive to expand. If anything, it brings us closer to a truly progressive future. On a more personal level, making conscious choices about when and what you purchase can prevent you from spiraling into a mindset of materialism and wastefulness. While the consumerist culture we live in today is made possible by awe-inspiring global connectivity, it still has social and environmental impacts that must be examined.


"The Market Revolution: 1793-1860." SparkNotes.

Bythell, Duncan. "Cottage Industry and the Factory System." History Today, April: 17-23 (1983).

Cole, Nicki Lisa. "Definition of Consumerist Culture." ThoughtCo. April 11, 2017.

Shangquan, Gao. "Economic Globalization: Trends, Risks and Risk Prevention." United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2000.

Time, Forest. "What Is the Difference Between a Cottage and a Commerical Industry?" Houston Chronicle.

Grace Luckett is in the 11th grade at Packer Collegiate in Brooklyn, New York. Grace is an avid reader, skier, baker, and singer.