Providing tools and support to families, citizens, and activists to counter our consumerist culture and to create new social norms about how to have a high quality of life and a reduced ecological footprint.

Why We Buy

Everyone knows that people buy things they don’t need. Advertisers capitalize on it, and economists make wagers on it. But we may be less aware of the reasons for our sometimes irrational consumption patterns.

Psychological advertising

Ad-men revel in the fact that people consume for often irrational reasons. Advertising has capitalized on our psychology and our irrationality as a way to increase sales. The perceived need for constant economic growth has justified this attitude in advertising, with the idea that we need to keep producing and consuming to keep society thriving. As early as 1955, retail analyst Victor Lebow wrote that, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption…. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace.”

man with barcode on foreheadA 2004 book titled Why People Buy Things They Don’t Need explains how to create demand in consumers through psychological manipulation. Sellers and advertisers will link a product with a deeper need or desire, creating the feeling that the product will actually satisfy this deeper need. Or they will appeal to an idea such as being hip and stylish—by suggesting, for example, that the whole kitchen should be remodeled if one appliance is replaced.

Another marketing trick is extremely low prices, so low that you “just have to have it.” Low prices appeal to the idea of thrift (you’re saving money by buying flip-flops for a dollar at the big box store, for example). But far from promoting thrift, this low-price tactic encourages overconsumption.

Evidence suggests that once basic needs are met, further consumption doesn’t do much to increase happiness. It may even decrease it. Psychology professor Tim Kasser explains in his book The High Price of Materialism that excessive concern for material wealth actually decreases overall well-being by increasing the risk of anxiety and depression—even inhibiting intimacy. (See New Dream’s clever video animation on this topic.)

Legitimizing debt

There used to be a certain shame associated with going into debt. Sometimes it meant that you were genuinely poor; other times it meant you couldn’t hold on to your money. Until the post-WWII period, American society as a whole valued the ethic of thrift, which encompasses more than just saving money. Thrift implied a frugal, balanced lifestyle in general. Illustrating how overarching this ethic was, savings banks were commonly called “thrift institutions.” American society still remembers these values in our glorification of the “greatest generation,” but we no longer practice them as we once did.

With the rise of credit cards, banks now encourage debt. The American personal savings rate has been generally declining for 30 years, with a slight uptick following the 2008 financial crisis. The post-WWII glorification of consumerism encouraged this shift: in 1947, industrial designer and advertiser J. Gordon Lippincott wrote, “Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out…must be further nurtured even though it is contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity – the law of thrift.” Debt is now acceptable because ever-increasing consumption is seen not only as beneficial, but as necessary for material prosperity.

TAKE-HOME MESSAGE: Material consumption is only one part of well-being, but the rise of psychological advertising coupled with the dismantling of the ethic of thrift and the embrace of the economic model of ever-increasing growth have redefined consumption as the primary measure of well-being.