No, the age of consumerism is not coming to an end any time soon for the simple reason that without it capitalism itself would come to an end. This is because capitalism is locked into a never-ending growth imperative of more, bigger, and better of everything. This can be seen in terms of the culture-ideology of consumerism as the framework for capitalism on a global scale, evident even in the architecture and design of cities everywhere (you can read about this in my new book, "The Icon Project. Architecture, Cities, and Capitalist Globalization").
If we restructure the question 'should the age of capitalist consumerism come to an end?' the answer is 'yes' because life on Planet Earth is not sustainable if we continue to consume and pollute as we do at present. Scientists have begun to collect geological evidence that suggests that we are entering the Anthropocene Epoch, which means that various human activities (for example, fossil fuels, nuclear radiation, declining biodiversity) are beginning to affect life on earth negatively in irreversible ways. We don't have much time - over the next few generations we must change the ways we consume and live, and this cannot be done successfully within the capitalist system.
Consumerism is not coming to an end, but is undergoing significant changes, brought by the technical changes of the last decades. On the one hand, consumers are facing an increasing tyranny of choice, with more and more options to choose from - most looking similar in terms of their utility – and do not necessarily the cognitive capacity to make a rational choice. Technology has tried to simplify choice, by offering search engines capable of narrowing down options on the basis of practically limitless search criteria. On the other hand, new business models have challenged traditional pillars of consumerism, more specifically ownership and the accumulation of goods.
Overall, consumerism is here to stay, as possessions play an important role in the expression of identities.
The most interesting trend in that respect is that of switching from an ‘ownership model’ to a subscription model. From car-sharing platforms, to music streaming, companies have challenged consumers to accept the fact that they do not need to own a product to enjoy its benefits – be it a car, a CD / MP3 file or else. Convincing consumers’ to accept a switch to a ‘servitization’ of products has been a challenging one, but is what could most significantly change or challenge consumerism the way we know it.
Finally, one should not ignore the growing concerns that consumers have about the sustainability of the products or services they buy. Even though this started as a trend, followed by a minority of consumers, this has already challenged the way companies manufacture and market products. Some manufacturers of home appliances have, for instance, made a move towards producing products that can be repaired and have an extended lifespan. For instance, SEB offers a 10-year warranty that its products will be reparable.
Consumers are facing an increasing tyranny of choice, with more and more options to choose from.
Overall, consumerism is here to stay, as possessions play an important role in the expression of identities (see the seminal work of Belk, 1988 on this topic). Fashion is perhaps the best example, has it has traditionally been a large provider of consumer identities. An illustration of this would be the rapid development of fast fashion in the 1990s, allowing consumers who do not necessarily have large financial means, to buy multiple clothing that help them express their identities. These days, increasing possibilities of (mass)customization mean that consumers can express even more personalized traits of personalities.
As consumerism can be linked to evolutionary traits of accumulation of resources to gain a competitive advantage in partners’ selection, it can be a challenge to predict its end. The functions fulfilled by consumption go beyond the purchasing, use and destruction of products and services.
No, the age of consumerism is not coming to an end, but it is changing due to digitization of markets, which brings about new forms of inequality due to the digital divide, so we need new forms of consumer protection in today’s world.
But before I explain this answer, I will situate it within the study of consumerism more broadly. Consumerism has been discussed in two main ways by people who study it. The first is promoting and protecting consumer rights through improving the consumer's “right to safety”, “right to be informed”, “right to choose”, and “right to be heard”. The second component is the attempt to stimulate consumption and create a culture that supports continued consumption. The first understanding of consumerism focuses on consumer protection, while the second focuses on consumption, even over-consumption. I will answer the question from the first perspective, i.e. consumer protection, and I will discuss it in the broader context of the digital age we live in today.
Consumer rights and consumer proctection have to do with trying to create a more equitable and socially fair market between companies and consumers. In order to achieve a more fair market structure, in my opinion, consumer vulnerabilities should be eliminated though improving consumer empowerment. This would create a more equal relationship between consumers and companies. This is what I called “market equalization”, where consumer power and vulnerabilities function in a more balanced and democratic way.
The digitization of consumption markets has significantly improved the situation for consumers, who can now easily access great amount of information and reviews about products, which improves the consumer right to safety and choice. Similarly, the consumer right to be heard and right to be informed are improved with social networking, review, and complaint sites (you can see my new article on this here).
Digital markets, however, come with their own risks. Cyber crimes, for example, are reaching unprecedented levels with increasing breaches of company database systems and the personal computers of consumers. The FBI recently reported that total losses are over $3 billion over the last couple of years. Companies, consumers, and even governments are suffering from digital crime. Thus it is important to consider ‘right to information safety’ for consumers in the contemporary digital age, which .would include consumer privacy and identity protection. .
Another complication of our digital age is that the traditional right to be informed is under major threat because of the staggering amount of information digitally available. Consumers are hungry for and consume more information on a daily basis than ever before. But not every consumer has an equal access to market information, often because of the lack of internet access, or the “digital divide” in contemporary societies where some people have internet access, and others do not. Another form of the 'digital divide has recently occurred in the USA with some telecommunication companies trying to profit from controlling the speed available in digital spaces. This issue sits at the heart of “net neutrality” discussions, which puts access rights into basic human rights in our digital age. Furthermore, even when consumers have equal access to the internet, they often have limited understanding of the internet technology because of cultural, generational, language, and physiological (disabilities) barriers (this is called called the “2nd degree digital divide”). Without an enhancement of the consumer right to access market information, consumers will be under-informed and can quickly become even more lost. Thus, I proposed another dimension to the traditional “right to be informed”, the consumer “right to access” market information.
Even though obstacles created by access inequalities can be fixed there are questions problems if the market information is reliable or not. Some available information on the internet is manipulated, misrepresented, and untrue; and consumers make daily decisions based on such deceptive information. Some of this information comes from consumers and some comes, directly or indirectly, from companies. Falsification and bullying are reaching very disturbing levels in our digital world. A company and its followers can easily put false claims about a competitor on consumer review boards, which might eventually damage the targeted company. There are some efforts to regulate these kinds of behaviors in the US, but detection of misinformation and stopping such acts are major problems. Thus, I propose an expansion of the “right to be informed” to include a “right to reliable market information".
Most of today’s giant digital companies, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc., were yesterday’s start-ups. Thanks to network effects these companies grew so fast and got so big that it became very difficult to compete with these giants. Although most of these giants empower their consumers, once a consumer is locked into their services it is difficult to leave these systems. This eventually reduces consumer choices in the digital market. We need more digital companies to provide various services, and legislation to reduce entry barriers for competitors and migration barriers for consumers.
Finally, today’s digitally savvy consumers are generating their own media messages and bypassing the mass media. Negative consumer brand identification (aka “anti-branding”) puts corporate branding efforts in jeopardy as this semiotic disobedience grows in digital platforms. Corporations often describe consumer re-branding efforts as brand dilution and copyright infringement, these responses have the potential to hurt consumers, affecting free speech rights and semiotic democracy. Thus, I have expanded the traditional consumer “right to be heard” to include free-speech rights. The more consumers become involved in digital markets, and the more our share-economy grows, corporations will eventually need to loosen up their copyright infringement arguments for the sake of consumer democracy.
As you can see, there are still consumer protection gaps in today’s digital markets. It is clear that consumer vulnerabilities are not disappearing, but are instead changing their shape and structure. Thus, it would be safe to say that consumerism is not reaching an end, but it is evolving alongside changing threats and risks to consumers, markets, and corporations alike.