Consumerism: Why We Should Recycle

Social IssuesEnvironment

  • Author Cecily Stephens
  • Published July 5, 2023
  • Word count 809

Recycling, which until recently was frequently disparaged, has increased as more people realize the impact of unbridled consumption on the environment. But the concept of recycling isn’t really new. Earlier in American history, thrift was a virtue, manufactured goods were made to last, nothing that was still usable was discarded and if you didn’t need it or couldn’t afford it, you did without it. The worship of material things was viewed as morally and spiritually bankrupt. Now our economy is built on consumption and consumerism is extolled as the mother of all virtues. How did we get to a point—and in a relatively short period of time—that is so far removed from the values this country once regarded as sacrosanct?

Consumerism can be defined as a cultural model that promotes the acquisition of goods, especially the purchase of goods, as a vehicle for personal satisfaction and economic stimulation. In the most fundamental terms, it results from the increased prosperity of a population that has the means and the leisure time to think beyond day-to-day survival.

The stock market collapse in 1929 triggered the Great Depression, which brought the economy to a stop and entrenched the country in misery. World War II is considered to be the effective end of the Depression: America propelled its resources and productivity into the war effort, and soon the economy was booming. With victory on the horizon, the president’s council of economic advisors was concerned about a massive post-war recession and determined to find a way to convert to a peacetime economy. One of its members was economist and retailing analyst Victor Lebow.

Lebow advocated for a new economic direction predicated on consumption, aggressively promoted by advertising and specifically exploiting the new medium of television. “Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life; that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate,” said Lebow in his article “Price Competition in 1955.” “Our economy demands a constantly expanding capacity to produce…Television achieves three results to an extent no other advertising medium has ever approached. First, it creates a captive audience. Second, it submits that audience to the most intensive indoctrination. Third, it operates on the entire family…What becomes clear is that from the larger viewpoint of our economy, the total effect of all the advertising and promotion and selling is to create and maintain the multiplicity and intensity of wants that are the spur to the standard of living in the United States." Relentless and unrestrained consumerism was seen as the key to continued prosperity as well as a staunch defense against market failure.

We have now reached a point where we are using our natural resources faster than they can be replenished. Heavy reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels has an enormous impact on the carbon footprint. The staggering amount of waste produced by humans (an estimated 254 million tons per year in the U.S alone) saturates the landfills and contaminates the environment. Deforestation is destroying the land and toxic plastic debris is choking the oceans. It’s disturbing to realize that the ubiquitous plastic grocery bag⎼ over a trillion produced worldwide annually⎼ has only been in existence for about three decades.

Annie Leonard’s 2007 documentary film “The Story of Stuff” gives chilling statistics on the end results of unchecked consumerism. Our food and water supplies, even the very air we breathe, are at risk from unsustainable practices—and the inevitable result is massive human suffering on a global scale. The possibility of a bleak future for our children has led to increased awareness of how our behavior affects our planet and to greater appreciation of the value of recycling.

Recycling is only part of the equation but it’s a big step in the right direction. Support for sustainability is as much a cultural and social mindset as it is a political motivation. We have the resources and the technology to effect change, but we lack the will. We need to think in terms of a society that is based on reduction, reuse and renewability, not debt, disposability and destruction.

Recycling programs foster a sense of community and contribute to the health and well-being of our environment. Fewer landfills translate into increased property values, decreased pollution and less destruction of our natural capital. Recycling encourages us to appreciate that we live on a finite planet, that our resources are not unlimited and that our actions have consequences that affect all of our lives.

We can make a difference.


Lebow, V. (1955) Price Competition in 1955. Journal of Retailing.

Leonard, A. (2007) The Story of Stuff [documentary film].

C.R. Stephens, graduate of Pittsburg State University

B.S. Biology, B.I.S. Sustainability, Society & Resource Management, M.A Communication-Mass Media Research & Analysis

Dedicated reader, writer, researcher and tree-hugger with diverse interests

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