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Materialism & The Modern Consumer Society

Are people enslaving themselves to modern consumerism?

By Noha El-Bassiouny

Co-authors: Hagar Adib, Salma Karem, Hadeer Hammad and Nesma Ammar

Envy, greed and jealousy were synonymous with materialism for ages, whereas today’s view of materialistic traits is associated with success, happiness and self-fulfillment. Materialism/Consumerism has become a prevailing phenomenon. Global mass media and transnational firms continue to create ongoing desires for material goods, fueling today’s consumer society.

Defined as the magnitude attributed to attaining and owning material products in order to reach important life goals and desired states, materialism leads to consumerism— the pursuit of happiness by primarily buying and consuming tradable goods and services. The shift in the perception of materialism traits cripples sustainable consumption; a concept defined as “the use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimizing the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations.”

A plethora of synonyms are used interchangeably with sustainable consumption including political consumerism, ethical consumption, consumer citizenship and green consumerism. Sustainability generally refers to the usage of products and services in a way that balances between consumer satisfaction and the preservation of the environment and natural resources while being socially and economically responsible.


The sweeping power of globalization in developing countries has transformed consumer values. Research has revealed that youth in the Middle East have been greatly influenced by Western culture. Egypt has experienced a drastic increase in the number of shopping malls, hypermarkets and megastores — in 2005, the number of shopping malls in Greater Cairo alone had reached 24.

This phenomenon has contributed to a number of social problems in Egypt such as sharpening class differences and increasing the occurrence of shoplifting in malls. To catch up with consumerism, most people strive to acquire the means for it by working much harder. The old saying that “people live for their work, not work for their life”, is becoming very true. Employees are trapped in a rat race at an increasingly global scale.

Most organizations are planned and run according to the norms and values of authoritarianism; egoism, performance orientation and careerism. Many people can’t exit or voice their concerns about managerial misbehavior for fear of losing their job which provides them with the material basis of their existence. In that sense, the rat race at the workplace becomes a precondition for the other race at the shopping malls.

A number of interrelated debates are raised concerning the current commercialized era. Few scholars are looking closely and seeking options for breaking down or disturbing the rat race at the work place, while others call for improving working conditions or CSR initiatives. That is largely attributed to the concept of societal marketing which is reflected in the emergence of corporate social responsibility activities on corporations’ priority lists.

Some scholars question whether people actually enslave themselves when they strive for a lifestyle produced by the global marketing machinery. They also question whether people free themselves from basic needs, reaching higher levels of self-esteem and self-actualization. Tracing the roots of this phenomenon is essential. Exploring childhood materialism, for example, can provide crucial insights for understanding and shaping our future.

It is argued that understanding childhood origins of some aspects of consumer behavior facilitate the process of fully understanding adults’ consumption behavior later on. Several questions emerge in the context of increased materialism that jeopardizes societal welfare: What could be the possible solutions for impeding this phenomenon? Which stakeholders at the time being possess more power? And could societal marketing represent hope for societal welfare improvement?


Companies engage in CSR initiatives as a manifestation of their moral development and harmonization with societal expectations and values. One CSR initiative that helps companies interact with their customers — a vital stakeholder group — is Cause-Related Marketing (CRM), which has gained dominance and acceptance as a conducive strategy for reflecting companies identities as socially responsible. It is defined as “the process of formulating and implementing marketing activities that are characterized by an offer from the firm to contribute a specified amount to a designated cause when customers engage in revenue-providing exchanges that satisfy organizational and individual objectives.”

Contemporary corporate engagement in CSR initiatives appears to be a means for recognition, appreciation and commercialization rationales rather than a fundamental part of managerial performance. Questionable motivational attributions, which determine public perceptions of corporate motives for CSR engagement, might arise in cases of a company’s disregard for the social problems it caused. The justification for such attributions arises from the belief that such charitable actions are intended to signal a pleasant image as a means for concealing their unethical doings.

There are different positions on how CSR and consumerism is perceived. CSR proponents believe that buying socially responsible products should not be considered part of consumerism since CSR is serving the greater good. In this sense, socially-responsible purchasing can be a means for outweighing the negative costs of consumerism. This raises an important question of whether CRM would be the most effective CSR initiative to outweigh the costs of consumerism or in fact the opposite.

On the other hand, CSR opponents believe that CSR is only a window-dressing exercise that companies use for commercialization and propaganda build-up. In this sense, CSR does not overcome the costs of consumerism since it does not serve the customers or even the social cause. The preceding debate highlights the importance of people’s perception of motives behind CSR engagement. Some may question the ethics of companies that intentionally use these means to market themselves better.


A global order based on the values of materialism and constructed around consumerism has resulted in citizens’ (consumers’) double-slavery to both the workplace and to their own materialistic desires fueled by a never-ending marketing and advertising surge. The downsides have become increasingly obvious. It is no wonder then, that the transcendental global community would need international institutionalized initiatives such as the Global Compact reflected in Kofi Anan’s initial call for globalization with a ‘human face.’

On the micro level, the importance of incorporating ethics in everyday business transactions, academia and popular literature is underscored internationally. Due to its high visibility, marketing is taking much of the blame for the excessive consumerism and the unethical practice. According to recent literature, issues such as misleading advertising, unsafe and harmful products, abuse of distribution channel power and promotion of materialism, which were the main ethical concerns of the 1950s, are still serious problems today, half a century later. This debate raises some questions and concerns related to the roles which education institutions, public and private sector companies, NGOs or government can play for advocating a morality beyond consumerism.


In this highly commercialized free market, it is almost impossible to persuade consumers to reduce their consumption levels. Yet, a call for more socially-conscious consumers would be more rational. More consumers should be aware of their power to buy and prefer products of companies that foster change. Research supports that socially-responsible consumers stand by those companies they consider to have similar morals and values as themselves.

A drastic call toward sustainable consumption should focus on sustainability for the entire society. Since consumers’ values regarding their consumption behavior are continuously evolving, the focus of research and practice should not be limited to socially-conscious consumers. The commitment toward sustainable consumption should be even extended to the mass market rather than specific consumer groups.

The call for sustainable consumption should target mass consumers rather than special groups. Corporate sustainability should not be limited to CSR initiatives but also extended to product value creation through sustainnovation. Research has been encouraging companies to integrate sustainability and innovation together in a way that provides greater potential for exceeding the basic standards of product convenience, usability and affordability.

Companies should focus on supporting causes rather than on its self-interests and profits. On one hand, proponents for CRM deem the initiative to be a means for bringing a greater good to the society rather than overlooking the social problems the community faces. This is also evident in the literature that charity-linked brands were found to be chosen more frequently than those that do not engage in such offers since consumers were prone to buy brands to support the causes they believe in, whereas others were encouraged to purchase such brands to support the company itself for engaging in these campaigns.

Another argument is the communication of such initiatives. To have a more effective move towards sustainable consumption, CSR communication should be shifted from the company’s side to the consumer behavior side. Rather than portraying the company’s social practices as a means for helping the society where consumers are mere participants, CSR communication should send a different message that companies empower consumers to help the world through making sustainable consumption decisions.

While presenting genuine corporate social responsibility, cause-related marketing and ethical marketing practices are seen as solutions to lift such barriers to sustainable consumption. Propagandists against excessive materialism and consumerism call for values implantation in the school as an effort in favor of what is known as “consumer education.” Leading authors have promoted concepts of character education as counter force against borderless materialism.