This essay aims to address the claim that consumer society is always a ‘throw-away’ society by firstly defining what a consumer society is, who are considered members of it and their reasons for consuming. Following this it will give examples of the types of things that are consumed and thrown away, the reasons and methods used for doing so and the affect that this has on the environment, before finally examining the claim. Whilst there has always been a need to consume in order to provide for our basic needs such as food and clothing, recently consumption has moved away from being thought of as a necessity and towards defining a person’s lifestyle. In the past, society was divided by means of a class structure in which only the wealthy such as land owners or professional people were able to consume in order to be identified as a member of particular status. However during the 20th century the ability to do so became more widely available allowing more people to define who they were, not so much by what they did for a living as what they consumed. This is referred to as a consumer society.
This change in society can be attributed to a rise in affluence, a greater proportion of people having more disposable income due to better jobs and access to credit, enabling them to consume for reasons other than necessity. The causes for doing so vary from wanting to be included as part of a particular social group, aspirations of a particular lifestyle they wish to lead, a desire to convey their individuality or even due to environmental or political issues. As with the wealthier members of society in the past, people are more likely to engage in conspicuous consumption in order to create an impression on others regarding the way they choose to live, for example by the way they dress or the type of car they drive, or house they live in. Thorstein Veblen discusses this in his book ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’ first published in 1899. (Veblen, cited in Hetherington, 2009, p.31) Due to rising affluence and the availability of a wider range of choice, particularly since the 1980’s with the introduction of large shopping centers and the increase of products sold by supermarkets, consumption is based more on what a person wants, rather than what they need.
Despite the fact that a consumer society is one that can be considered as no longer divided by social class, it is suggested that a division still exists, in particular by Zygmunt Bauman in what he describes as the seduced and the repressed. (Hetherington, 2009, p.25) Whilst there is more choice in a modern consumer society, he argues that this is only made available to people with the means in which to access it. Whereas in the past a lack of wealth or income may have restricted certain members of society from consuming, in modern society those with mobility issues for example, may be excluded due to not being able to access the goods and services on offer. Other factors such as age, race and gender may also play a part in producing what are in this instance regarded as repressed members of society. In contrast the seduced, who are often those targeted by companies selling goods and services, are regarded as having a higher value in society due to their ability to participate in consumption.
A consumer society therefore, is one that is made up of people who are able to acquire not just what they need, but also what they want. However, equally important are the things that are no longer needed or wanted, and subsequently thrown away. This occurs when the consumer considers that the value of a particular item no longer reflects the reason for keeping it. The value of an item is determined in various ways such as how useful it is, how much it is worth in monetary terms or how worthwhile it is to the consumer, and is the basis on which they decide whether or not to keep it. In addition to this,