Excessive Consumption: Who’s to Blame?


For decades, the line between what we need and what we want has been blurring, leading to overconsumption and a range of environmental issues. Who’s to blame, and what can be done?

I Need, I Want…

A need is something that you have to have to survive: food, water, shelter, clothes and medical care. The basic essentials, which are practical and objective. No, it doesn’t include a Hugo Boss suit, an iPhone 4 or that Skinny Vanilla Latte at your local Starbucks (as groggy as you might feel before your daily caffeine fix).

These items tend to fall into the want section. They’re nice to have, but you won’t die without them. For the most part, they are luxuries. And they’re often irrational and subjective.

However, modern consumers consider lavish treats to be core essentials. “My five-year lease is up! I can’t be seen driving this old clunker. I need a new car.” And with that sort of justification, Mr. Jones goes deeper in debt as he rolls off the lot with a shiny, new BMW.

Many blame marketers for these chronic material desires ingrained in our societies. Indeed, copywriters, designers, graphic artists, photographers — and all others in marketing — have done a remarkable job convincing customers that they need what they want. Never before have so many products and services been labeled and deemed ‘indispensable’.

Marketing gets consumers to spend more than $300 on designer jeans, when a product made from similar material sells for under $30.

Marketing convinces people drive that six-digit BMW or Mercedes instead of a reliable, perfectly suitable, eco-friendly Honda Civic Hybrid.

And marketing fools people into believing that a drink loaded with chemicals, 33 grams (two heaping tablespoons) of sugar and a trace of synthetic vitamins is good for you. Hello Vitamin Water.

If you took marketing out of the equation, everyone would be decked out in generic shoes, sunglasses and watches. We’d be living in commodityville, where the price rules and profit margins are minuscule. Nike, Prada and Rolex would be S.O.L. But thanks to our material-based society, that’s likely not going to happen anytime soon. Consumers will continue to seek status, looks and instant gratification, mentally framing these wants as needs.

The Blame Game

Should we blame businesses for giving into demanding consumers, and satisfying false needs? Or point fingers exclusively at marketers for fueling these desires? Or, are consumers ultimately responsible for buying things that are made and marketed ethically? As citizens, we complain about Wal-mart killing small businesses and communities with massive outlets and China-made imports. However, as consumers, we drop hundreds of billions of dollars at their 8,500 stores in 15 countries annually.

Becoming ‘Citizens of the World’

Perhaps we could all strive to make better decisions, and practice good discipline. In fact, we could take a page from Adam Smith, a moral philosopher who suggested self-interest alone should not be the guiding force that rules business.

In Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759, he wrote: “Man ought to regard himself, not as something separated and detached, but as a citizen of the world, a member of the vast commonwealth of nature and to the interest of this great community, he ought at all times to be willing that his own little interest should be sacrificed.”

That seems to make good business sense, for all parties involved.

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