Consumerism vs Materialism

Nov 29, 2022 | Conscious Consuming, Reducing Waste

Consumerism. Materialism. Wait, aren’t they the same thing? I admit, I hadn’t really thought about it before reading, “Curing Affluenza: How to Buy Less Stuff and Save the World” by Richard Denniss. I kind of just lumped them into the same bag and didn’t really consider how they differ. After all, being consumerist and being materialistic were both things to be avoided, weren’t they?

Richard Denniss, however, has made me reconsider. Perhaps materialism isn’t actually such a bad thing.

“While consumerism and materialism are often used interchangeably, taken literally they are polar opposites.”

Richard Denniss author of “Curing Affluenza: How to Buy Less Stuff and Save the World”

Materialism over Consumerism

Denniss argues that consumerism is about the acquisition of stuff. The stuff itself doesn’t really matter all that much. On the other hand, materialism is about valuing material possessions. If this valuing leads to caring for and keeping things for the long term, this is a good thing.

His point is that if you really love your car (or smartphone or flat screen TV or little black dress or any other consumer good) you won’t discard it as soon as the next version comes around. If you love it, you’ll hold on to it. You’ll care for it. You’ll repair it. Ultimately, you’ll buy fewer cars, smartphones, TVs and dresses.

Buy Once, Buy Well

Following on from this idea is the concept of “buy once, buy well”. While this is a maxim for frugal living, it serves us well for lighter-footprint living as well. The principle is to buy the highest quality item you can afford so that it will stand the test of time.

Care and Repair

Further still, we can make things last by taking the time to properly care for them. In theory, the more we invest in something, the more likely we are to look after them well, and to repair them where possible rather than replace them. This is at the heart of what Denniss means by ‘materialism’.

Sashiko repair. Image by Heather on Flickr

The Real Value of Our Stuff

As Henry David Thoreau said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” We pay for stuff with money but in reality, we are paying for it with hours of our lives. Our time is a finite resource. We can’t earn more of it. When it is spent, there is no way to get it back. If we use that lens to evaluate our possessions (and our purchasing habits), we are probably more likely to be materialistic the way Denniss means.

Valuing while Holding on Lightly

I wonder, however, is it possible to be materialistic in this way while also holding on to our material possessions lightly? To my mind, a fulfilling and full life has little to do with possessions. There is no doubt that I gain pleasure from things I own and I am in the privileged position of living in great comfort. Abundance for me, however, comes from such things as my loving relationships and pursuing activities that are meaningful and purposeful. While I’m by no means a minimalist, I’d like to think that I could let most of my material possessions go and still be content (all else being equal). I want to hold on lightly to my stuff because, really, “the important things in life are not things” (Linda Godeau).

So while I agree with Denniss that we need to value our possessions to the extent that we care for them and make them last, I still take issue with being ‘materialistic’ and the importance our society places on owning stuff. It is a fine line to walk between Richard Denniss’ idea of healthy materialism and of being materialistic.

Side note: I can’t help but think at this moment of my favourite show of all time, Schitt’s Creek. The Roses, the family at the centre of the story, abruptly lose all their immense wealth. They are forced to leave their mansion for the only thing they have left, a small town in the back of nowhere. (Fortunately for us, they are also able to take Moira’s extraordinary wardrobe of designer clothes and wigs!) The arc of the story is, essentially, the Roses’ shift from consumerism and materialism to valuing the more meaningful things in life. As they adjust to this new way of life they also become touchingly endearing. Oh my goodness, I love this show!