Contemporary economic models present the typical consumer as deliberative and highly forward-looking, not subject to impulsive behavior. Shopping for a product or a service is seen as an information-gathering exercise in which the buyers look for the best possible deal for products and/or services they have decided to purchase. Consumption choices represent optimizing within an environment of deliberation, control, and long-term planning. Whether such a picture is accurate it would be news (and news of a very bad sort) to a whole industry of advertisers, marketers, and consultants whose research on consumer behavior tells a very different story. Indeed, their findings are difficult to reconcile with the picture of the consumer as highly deliberative and purposive.
Serious empirical investigations suggest that these assumptions do not adequately describe a wide range of consumer behaviors. The simple rational-economic model is reasonable for predicting some fraction of choice behavior for some class of goods -apples versus oranges, milk versus orange juice- but it is inadequate when we are led to more consequential issues like consumption versus leisure, technological products with high symbolic content, fashion, consumer credit, and so on. In particular, it exaggerates how rational, informed, and consistent people are; it overstates their independence. Moreover it fails to address the pressures that consumerism imposes on individuals with respect to available choices and the consequences of various consumption decisions. By researching and understanding those pressures, one may well arrive at very different conclusions about politics and policy.
Corporations know that having a product available where target customers can buy it is essential to their business success. From the introduction of commerce to today’s immense information exchange, markets have always been the primary focus of any sound business plan. That is because markets provide the necessary fuels for any industry to evolve. By consuming a variety of resources and products and having moved beyond basic needs to include luxury items and technological innovations to try to improve efficiency, today’s consumers have created another type of consumer trend; consuming for the sake of consumption.
Such consumption beyond minimal and basic needs is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, as throughout history we have always sought to find ways to make our lives a bit easier to live. However, increasingly, there are important issues around consumerism and consumption that need to be understood as they are at the core of many, if not most societies. The impacts of current consumption, positive and negative are very significant to all aspects of our lives, as well as our planet. But equally important to bear in mind in discussing consumption patterns is the underlying system that promotes certain types of consumption and not other types.