Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Evolution and Applications of the Term Consumerism: Theme and Variations

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Evolution and Applications of the Term Consumerism: Theme and Variations

Article excerpt

The word consumerism has become so commonplace that those associated with the consumer movement probably take the term for granted. In fact, however, the word is relatively new and its meaning or, more properly, its meanings have been the subject of differing opinions and periodic reinterpretations. Many readers of this Journal would agree with The Oxford English Dictionary's definition of consumerism as having to do with "the protection of the consumer's interests" (1989, 802), but shades of emphasis and contending definitions may well cloud the issue in the public's mind.

The twists and turns in the meaning of consumerism make an interesting story, but the question goes beyond semantics. Words communicate images and values which ultimately shape perceptions; if the meaning of a word is unclear, possibilities for miscommunications abound. An understanding of the term and its history is, therefore, important to both academicians and activists concerned with consumers' interactions with the marketplace.

Part of the problem lies in the lax manner in which the suffix -ism is used in American English. The American Heritage Dictionary defines -ism as follows:

(1) Action, process; practice: terrorism. (2) Characteristic behavior or quality: heroism. (3) a. State; condition; quality: pauperism. b. State or condition resulting from an excess of something specified: strychninism. (4) Distinctive or characteristic trait: Latinism. (5) Doctrine: theory; system of principles: pacifism (1985, 679).

The fifth definition covers most of the familiar -isms (such as capitalism or socialism) including consumerism. The latter is not a "theory," but is identified by "a system of principles" associated with the precepts of the consumer movement.

There remains a degree of ambiguity, however. Not only is "system of principles" somewhat vague, but similar construction does not guarantee similar meanings. Sexism, for example, means distinctions or biases which are based on considerations of gender, but it is clear that the meaning of feminism is not derived in a parallel fashion. Such variations in the use of -ism are evident in the case of consumerism.


Debut, Disappearance, and Return

The consumer movement can be traced back for nearly a century (Herrmann 1974; Mayer 1989), but the word consumerism is of relatively recent origin.(1) What is believed to be the first documented use of the word appeared in The New Republic in 1944.

Some of the oldest and most successful consumer enterprises grew independently of the rural impulse that in recent years has been most active in spreading the idea of consumerism. A business of over one million dollars a year in Waukegan, Illinois grew out a housewives' milk strike 34 years ago. . . (Greer, 275-276).

The context of the sentence suggests that the reference is to the cooperative movement. The article dealt with consumer cooperatives and the author expressed an "interest in eliminating waste and needless tolls in retail and wholesale distribution" (Greer 1944, 274).

Thus, the term consumerism was apparently first used in a manner which is only tangentially related to contemporary usage. That original usage reflects the important role of cooperatives in the consumer movement through the 1930s.(2) Moreover, the link to that earlier, reformist tradition may help explain reactions to consumerism when the word reemerged in conjunction with the consumer movement of the mid-1960s.

The immediate impact of the term, however, was nil. It went unnoticed and no evidence that it was used in reference to the consumer movement could be found for nearly a quarter century. The movement revived with President Kennedy's 1962 call for a "Bill of Consumer Rights" (Lampman 1988) and Esther Peterson's appointment to the new position of Special Assistant to the President for Consumer Affairs two years later. …

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