Definition of Consumer Society

girl shopping in mall image by Nikolay Okhitin from

A consumer society is a culture in which consumption of material goods is encouraged, and the economic health of the society is dependent on the spending of the population.

In contrast to feudal or peasant-based societies and pre-capitalist structures, consumer societies require a population that has at least some level of disposable income, as the economic structure is based, directly or indirectly, on their purchases, and not on royal decree or monarchical decisions. Consumer societies are characterised by relatively open exchange, a focus on material wealth, and a belief in progress.


Due to the fact that consumer societies are dependent on consumption, advertising is a defining characteristic. Advertising did not exist in subsistence societies, because people didn't need to be reminded or convinced to acquire something that they needed such as food or shelter. In a growth based economy, the population needs to be convinced to continually increase its consumption levels, which requires an omnipresent and consistent input of advertising. While many people think that advertisements are promoting individual products, at a deeper level what they are promoting is the act of consuming itself.

Households Based on Consumption Rather than Production

In pre-capitalist societies, most households were based on production. Small-scale agriculture and cottage industries existed within the home environment, where residents produced much of the food and goods that they consumed, and sold or traded the rest. In a consumer society, most households are sites of consumption, and produce no goods at all.

Consumption Required to Support the Economy

A defining characteristic of a consumer society is that, if non-essential consumption was removed, the economy would collapse. In pre-consumer societies, non-essential consumption existed, but was primarily the purview of a privileged minority, and was not essential to the continued functioning of the overall economy. As soon as the consumption of the masses became an essential part of the economic equation, economics became dependent on growth, and capitalism as we know it. Consumerism was born.

Economic Interaction is Decontextualized

Nearly all transactions in a consumer society are depersonalised and decontextualised. Money and goods are exchanged between strangers, and the trading partner's status, family, and role are irrelevant to the transaction. This is an aberration in the history of trade. In most traditional societies, trade in goods is intertwined in complex ways with social roles, family relations, and systems of gift-giving, debt and obligation.

Purchase of Labor Saving Devices Leads To Purchase of Leisure Devices

One of the ways that a consumer economy propagates itself is by valorising the idea of leisure. Advertising convinces the population to avoid labour by purchasing devices, and then to avoid torpor and poor health by purchasing further devices for exercise and recreation. Both of these acts help to keep the consumer economy growing ever larger.