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
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.
CONSUMERISM IN EGYPT
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?
RESPONSIBILTY AND CAUSE-RELATED MARKETING
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
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.
INSIGHTS TOWARD A
SUSTAINABLE CONSUMPTION AGENDA
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
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.