If you check in on the Postconsumers site very often, then you’ll notice that we often refer to society’s “addictive consumerism.” We believe that this is the overall illness and prism in which to view an individual’s consumer addiction. In fact, Peter Whybrow MD has diagnosed it in “American Mania: When More Is Not Enough,” as director of UCLA’s Semel Institute on Neuroscience and Human Behavior. However, today we’re giving out the Postconsumers’ definition of individual consumer addiction and why it is a problem – both environmentally and spiritually – for America and the world.

Consumer Addiction Defined

You won’t find a Merriam Webster entry for consumer addiction, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real and very damaging. Consumer addiction is when a person is, quite simply, addicted to having to acquire “stuff” just for the sake of acquiring “stuff.” It’s different from other types of addiction in that our entire culture is immersed in the malady (see society’s addictive consumerism above and below). The person with the consumer addiction can’t simply “stop” and probably doesn’t even realize that he or she has an addiction. Consumer addiction can manifest itself in a number of ways: hoarding, shopping addiction, an overwhelming need to always be “in-style” and “on-trend” (including the latest and greatest electronics upgrades as they happen), or even simply a sense of being “empty” if you haven’t purchased something in a certain amount of time. However, at its most simple base, consumer addiction is an inability to separate yourself from identifying your personhood and your value based on the “stuff” that you own.

How Does a Person Develop Consumer Addiction?

The bigger question might be, “How does a person avoid addictive consumerism?” On a mass scale, society is teaching you to define yourself by what you own and what you buy from the time you are a very small child. As early as toddler-age, Saturday morning cartoons teach consumerism. As children go to school, they are compared to other kids based on what they “have” and “don’t have.” This can mean toys, clothes and, these days, even electronics. The problem only worsens as we age and begin comparing bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger weddings and bigger storage facilities. Then, in a perpetuating cycle, we have children and the process begins again.

We also can’t overlook the role of the media and advertising in developing consumer addicts. There was a time when you only saw advertisements in newspapers. Then the radio. Eventually, the television was invented and suddenly advertisements were with you in your living room during family time. As the amount of television that people watched increased, so did the number of advertisements that they were exposed to. But when things really became overwhelming and when advertising began to truly saturate our brains was with the internet and digital revolution of the late nineties. Suddenly, people began spending the majority of their day (rather than the minority) in front of screens. And, of course, those screens were and are constantly presenting advertisements. Sometimes the advertisements are so well done that you don’t even realize they’re ads!

As if this wasn’t bad enough, shortly thereafter, the mobile revolution happened. Now, we carry our consumer media mechanisms with us every day!

Of course, it would be over-simplistic to simply say that the media and society cause consumer addiction. Like all addictions, consumer addiction is making up for or filling in the holes where something else is missing. In particular, shopping and hoarding often are signs of emotional or mental distress and our total culture has been diagnosed with American Mania above. The situation is similar to an eating disorder. Individuals who feel unfulfilled seek to feel “full” by purchasing “stuff.” Of course, ultimately, that never works.

Recognizing if You Have Consumer Addiction

Do you believe that you have consumer addiction? Like many things, there can be an entire sliding scale of what defines consumer addiction for you. It can range from simply indulging in “retail therapy” to needing to buy, buy, buy no matter what your budget or resources are. In both cases, while you may get a temporary “high,” you still ultimately feel unfulfilled.

The Destructive Nature of Society’s Addictive Consumerism

Consumer addiction may seem like it’s just “buying stuff,” but it’s actually quite destructive, financially, environmentally and spiritually.

Financially, addictive consumerism feeds the machine that has created such a vast discrepancy of wealth in America. Especially given the prevalence of big box stores owned by large corporations that keep worker wages low while encouraging mass buying, consumer addiction takes an already damaged society and worsens it daily. On a more individual level, consumer addiction is largely what’s led to the credit crisis in America, and, on micro levels, can keep individuals in debt and without savings for their entire lives.

Environmentally, at some point we just have to stop saying yes to a glut of stuff. The overall addictive consumerism phenomenon not only means that we’re creating more and more and more “stuff,” it also means that we’re frequently discarding “stuff” into landfills at unprecedented rates. For most consumers, the items that they purchase weren’t made using environmentally friendly standards, and they aren’t particularly careful about recycling or upcycling. Even if they were, we can’t consume our way to a sustainable human future with green products. Eventually, all of that “stuff” that we’re addicted to takes its toll on the planet and on our mental, physical and spiritual health. Shopping malls have often replaced the role of churches in our society.

Reducing Consumer Addiction

In time, economic and environmental realities may force a reduction in consumer addiction regardless, but it’s certainly a risk to wait for (or hope for) that coercion to happen. How much better to take the reins ourselves! Reducing consumer addiction isn’t easy. You’re exposed to messages that support and promote addictive consumer behavior almost hourly. However, it is possible to make a change and we would like to help.

Photo Credit: Rob Boudon via Flickr