views updated May 23 2018



All human societies consume. What distinguished Europe in the twentieth century was the rapidly expanding meaning, scope, and significance of consumption in politics, economy, culture, and everyday life. At the beginning of the twentieth century, consumer advocates in France and England hoped a "century of the producer" would give way to a "century of the consumer," where civic-minded consumption would advance welfare and ethics. By the 1950s and 1960s Europeans, like Americans, began to wonder whether they were becoming a new social system: a consumer society. By the 1990s consumer culture and consumerism became widely used both to describe a hedonistic postmodern lifestyle and to support a politics of choice.

The growing political and academic as well as commercial recognition of consumption as a distinct, even hegemonic phenomenon resulted from four overlapping dynamics: the politics of needs; the transformation of material comfort; the unprecedented proliferation of new goods and technologies; and the expansion of dream worlds and lifestyle consumption. Instead of a model of successive paradigm shifts (from scarcity to affluence; or from collective consumption to individualistic hedonism), these four dynamics overlapped, unfolding alongside each other. What changed was the balance between them as the meanings, objects, and practices of consumption evolved.


In the course of the twentieth century Europeans attached to "consumption" a growing range of goods, symbols, values, and practices. These included provisioning, using, wasting, and imagining consumption as well as shopping or the act of purchase. Consumption can take place in a number of sites and through different social systems (collective provisioning or market). The nineteenth-century association of the consumer with the literal using-up of essential foodstuffs (bread) and resources (gas and water) widened into more diverse forms and practices. In France in the 1920s, la cooperation nouvelle addressed "consumers of health" and marketed family holidays. In Britain already in the 1930s, it came to include "consumers of art" and "consumers of education." Keynesian demand management put consumption at the center of political economy. The consumer's new status was captured by the satirical magazine Punch in 1934 that made a boy proclaim: "I want to be a Consumer.… I've never had aims of a selfish sort.… I want to be a Consumer, and help to further Trade."

In socialist countries, critique of bourgeois consumption ushered in attempts to build a collective art of socialist consumption. In capitalist countries, concerns with private commercial forms of consumption increasingly marginalized earlier collective and business meanings (such as firms consuming coal), a trend reaching its peak in the "affluent" 1960s. Following American models, consumer advice bureaus now covered tourism and book clubs, car repair and fashion, and even marriage brokers. Since the 1990s, neoliberalism has exported the language of "choice" and the "sovereign consumer" from the market to the public sector. Most notably in Britain, public policy seeks to make patients, welfare recipients, and users of police demanding "citizen-consumers." The twentieth century closed with a similar project with which it began, although now proceeding from the domain of the market rather than civil society: the fusion of consumption and citizenship.


Europeans entered World War I with an uneven and underdeveloped sense of being consumers. Notwithstanding the expansion of commercial culture in the modern period and economists' attention to consumer preferences, consumption was mainly considered a problematic, even unproductive, inferior activity. It was first in Victorian and Edwardian Britain that democratic ideas were mobilized by taxpayers to position themselves as public-minded consumers. Significantly, consumers first articulated a voice over articles that were considered necessaries and were being exhausted in the literal sense of consumption (bread, water, gas). Consumer cooperatives, including women's groups, developed in the second half of the nineteenth century into a European network. But mobilization and identity-formation was uneven. Powerful societies in Manchester and Glasgow stood in contrast to more particularist and labor-oriented groups on the Continent; the large Konsumverein in Hamburg was called "Produktion"; outside Denmark, consumer cooperatives barely touched rural people. Socialist politics and corporate traditions of land, labor, and nation retarded a similar equation of consumers with the public interest in France, Germany, and Italy; in battles over high food prices, consumer interests were easily portrayed as a mere sectional interest.

Battles over trade policy at the beginning of the twentieth century and World War I catapulted consumption to the center of European societies, producing an unprecedented mobilization of consumers that would shape consumer politics and sensibilities for the next half century. Some of this mobilization was initiated by the state. War committees of consumers were set up in German cities, Vienna and Budapest, with the aim of educating consumers and limiting inflation and scarcities. Planners, like Walther Rathenau, identified consumption as an instrument of collective welfare, ethics, and national development. Most mobilization, however, came from below. From Barcelona to Berlin and The Hague, cities became sites of food riots. Even in Britain, which escaped severe crises of provision, the war led to the political education of citizen-consumers. If most experiments with consumer representation did not survive the end of war, consumers across Europe were now increasingly looking toward the state (not the market) to regulate trade and provide secure access to healthy food at stable prices.

The politics of food security played itself out differently conditioned by ideological as well as material differences. Conditions in Berlin were worse than in Paris or London but they also revealed a fragmented, antagonistic view of consumer interests that fueled social conflict and the collapse of the state. In contrast to an organic, inclusive representation of the consumer as public interest in Britain, poor housewives in Berlin attacked pregnant mothers and soldiers' wives for their greater entitlements. In Soviet Russia, on the other hand, scarcities helped the legitimacy of the new Soviet state. In Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) people only ate half as much in 1920 as in 1913, hated the tasteless canteen food, and sought to evade the Bolshevik shutdown of shops. Yet, problems of provision here strengthened a belief that state intervention was necessary and that social justice required the rooting out of bourgeois elements.

Consumer cooperatives emerged from the war stronger than ever, expanding their membership and share of the food sector, and, in Britain, forming a political party allied to Labour. Social democratic parties in the 1920s favored marketing boards, quotas, and other forms of regulation to stabilize agricultural production. Greater nutritional awareness prompted by the discovery of vitamins and biochemical knowledge emphasized the centrality of "essential foods" (especially milk) and led to popular demands on states to provide basic nutritional standards.

Western Europeans largely escaped the famines and chronic malnutrition haunting many other areas. Still, periodic scarcities and fear of hunger left a lasting imprint on people's identity as consumers. Daily rations in Essen, Germany, in 1918 for a "normal consumer" were almost half that later estimated by the League of Nations for inactive people. Barter, black markets, and home provisioning were as important as market systems of provision. Refugees, unemployed, children, elderly, and urban inhabitants without access to allotments were suffering most. This sense of vulnerability, revived after World War II by the extreme scarcities of 1944–1948, formed the mental background to the general support of agricultural protection and subsidies culminating in the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union.

Alongside economic nationalism and imperialism, food security also generated new transnational networks and global awareness. Much of the consumption in Central Europe after World War I was organized through intermediate organizations. In 1922 the American Relief Administration fed more than eight million people a day in the Soviet Union. Humanitarian aid after World War II meant survival for thousands in Western and Central Europe. Trade cycles, nutritional science, and the world depression (1929–1932) made internationalists turn to consumption as the vehicle for simultaneously advancing public health, absorbing excess production, and stabilizing international relations. "Freedom from Want" became a rallying cry for European social movements as well as a pillar of U.S.-Allied diplomacy. World War II left a new global awareness on the minds of many organized consumers. Scarcities were not just an Indian or Soviet problem: Europe was part of a global food problem.

Food security came late to Europe and overshadowed more spectacular, hedonistic aspects of consumption. Partly, this resulted from an expanding sense of needs and nutritional standards. Sugar, meat, and milk became necessities. The unemployed in the world depression were not starving, but nutritional knowledge highlighted a "hidden famine" caused by lack of vitamins and calcium. Consumption cemented a new democratic culture of social citizenship. In the West it only slowly became marginalized by a culture of choice, markets, and commodification during the Cold War. In the late 1940s, as many Britons supported rationing and fair shares as those wanting to abolish them.

The long preoccupation with food security also reflected the persisting vulnerability of many groups. Most Europeans in the 1950s were not part of a mass consumer society with leveled tastes. Social and regional contrasts remained significant. Until the late 1950s, West German workers lived frugally: real coffee was a luxury and chicory the main substitute. Only one-quarter of West Germans could afford to eat meat daily. By 1963 the typical working-class family still spent 35 percent of its budget on food. In Italy expenditure on food fell below 50 percent of the average household budget in the 1950s; for poor southerners it remained 75 percent. In 1959 the communal boards that operated the cucine popolari and provided food parcels and clothing still assisted over four million people in Italy. Regional gaps in Italy, Spain, and Portugal only narrowed in the 1960s to 1970s, facilitated by migration, industrial and service jobs, and a shrinking peasantry.

Attention to improvements in the standard of living conventionally focuses on the 1860s to 1890s, when the price of food fell rapidly thanks to declining costs of shipping. Europeans had to wait for the period from the 1960s to the 1990s for another significant improvement, following increased wages, the concentration of retailing, and the integration of food chains. In Greece the food share of household expenditure was still 30 percent in 1970 compared to 20 percent in Great Britain, Denmark, and Austria: by 1990 this figure had almost halved. An industrial worker in West Germany had to work over four hours for a pound of coffee in 1958, but only eighteen minutes in 1993. If for the majority of Europeans food security has became a distant concern, it remains alive for disadvantaged groups. The United Nations estimated that 1.5 million families in Britain could not afford an adequate diet in 1994.


Underneath the ups and downs of the politics of food, the home was transformed into a primary site of consumption practices and technologies. Accident figures in the European Union in 2000 are telling: domestic products and faulty usage caused about twenty million accidents, more than were caused at work or leisure.

By the late twentieth century, the largest share of consumption was dedicated to the home; from 20 percent in Portugal to 28 percent in Nordic countries. Housing, the use of water and energy, household durables, home maintenance, and gardening dominated consumption routines and expenditure. The home was the main space accommodating an ever-increasing number of objects and technologies. Consumption practices moved into the home (bathing, listening to the radio, using the computer) while production vacated it. In interwar Slovenia, industrial workers raised their own vegetables and kept chickens and rabbits. By the 1980s self-provisioning had become the distinction of a privileged alternative lifestyle. Even farmers rarely consumed what they produced and instead relied on the market; an exception was Poland, where every second individual farm still worked primarily to feed its own family in 1998. Technologies like the sewing machine briefly prompted a countertrend—by 1983, 52 percent of West German households had an electric sewing maching, 18 percent still had a mechanical one. But in the long-term, the productionist evacuation of the home is clear. The obesity boom in the early twenty-first century partly reflects declining food preparation skills. New domestic skills are increasingly consumption skills (computer games, warming up prepared foods)—not production skills; cooking, gardening, and home improvement have moved from being everyday life skills to advertised forms of lifestyle entertainment.

Material and cultural dynamics converged in this consumerist revalorization of the home. Modern German kitchens in the 1920s were initially advertised through the language of productivity, but by the 1950s, through representations of comfort and beauty: hard-working housewives were replaced by images of leisurely women. Clearly, work did not disappear from the home with the washing machine. Rather, technologies have rearranged the time and significance attached to different practices in the process of laundry: ironing, drying, and sorting have expanded even as washing itself has become less labor-intensive. A study of British couples in 1999 found that women spent four hours per day on household tasks, men three hours; women did more washing and cooking, men more pet care. The expansion of domestic consumption alongside increased female labor participation has arguably advanced gender inequalities: working women in two-income families continue to shoulder most chores.

The modernization of the home facilitated the erosion of class and regional consumption communities. This came in two stages. First, the expansion of a common culture of ordinary consumption. Gas and water had been early sites of Victorian consumer protests, and it was the expansion of domestic utilities that initiated the second stage: the democratization of consumption routines following the expansion of consumer durables. Cultures of consumption did not so much progress from needs to wants. Rather, they produced an ever-expanding conception of needs. Previous luxuries, like a hot bath or refrigeration, became standardized conveniences. The expansion of the domestic consumption of water, gas, and electricity was stunning. In Berlin only 4 percent of all households had electricity in 1910, but 76 percent did in 1933.

In Western Europe, many urban dwellers had access to a common toilet by 1900 but the convenience of a private toilet inside one's flat only became normal in the interwar years and after. Semidetached housing made bath, toilet, and running hot water first accessible to some working class-families in Britain in the 1930s. Most Europeans had to wait for another generation; in West Germany only every other home had a bath as late as 1960. Smaller towns and rural areas lagged behind large cities. Even in France and Germany the outhouse and lack of running water was not unknown in rural areas in the 1960s. Central heating spread rapidly in the postwar years. In Western Europe, by 1996, 81 percent of households had central heating, 97 percent had hot running water; Central-Eastern Europeans are only slightly behind, with the exception of Bulgaria and Romania.

The connection of homes to utilities helped privatize consumption practices—the personal bath replaced the public bath. It also intensified practices. In early twentieth-century France even schoolteachers, those evangelizers of personal hygiene, still only washed their hair once a month. In the 1980s to 1990s daily showers rapidly became the norm for ever more Europeans. More frequent and intensive cleaning of the body revolutionized water consumption. Households today consume the largest share of public water supply: 35–40 percent of all domestic water consumption is used for bathing and showering. Changing lifestyles have had major consequences for the environment and urban infrastructures.

New communication technologies and household durables reinforced the importance of the domestic sphere. The car functioned as an extension of family life—the weekend outing, the holiday in Spain or Italy. Radio and television created new familial consumption experiences. These undermined commercial forms of public entertainment (the cinema) as well as collective leisure activities sponsored by church, towns, or social movements. By 1936 there were twenty-eight million radios in Europe—compared to twenty-three million in the United States. In the 1960s Western Europe picked up with the American expansion of television; 66 percent of British households had a television at the beginning of that decade, 90 percent at the end.

Washing machines have likewise privatized services. Since the 1960s, most clothes have been washed at home, not sent away or washed in a communal washhouse. The electrical industry in the interwar years promoted a cult of cleanliness to sell timesaving appliances. Class structures and the low income of working-class women meant that the diffusion of washing machines in Europe lagged behind the United States by one or two generations; before the 1950s they were limited to some middle-class households. In the long run, the rise of appliances and the decline of domestic services narrowed the gulf of consumer culture between classes. By the early 1960s, every other household in the United Kingdom and every third in Germany had a washing machine; by 1995, 88 percent of EU households did; dryers and dishwashers, by comparison, were still found in only every fifth household.

New technologies had contradictory effects on how people spent their time and money. In 1955, European cinemas attracted four billion visits. Attendance fell steadily to six hundred million by 1990 (a mere two visits per person per year), while TV viewing steadily increased; by 1974 Britons spent half their free time in front of the "telly."

New technologies and the new needs they foster have had important cultural spillovers for older consumption routines. The TV dinner promoted prepared food and altered the rhythm of the family meal. In 1960s Italy, the program Carosello, which mixed commercials with cartoons, meant children began to go to bed after this nine o'clock show. New consumption practices can coexist, interpenetrate, or compete with each other. The rise of TV, for example, has not meant the decline of the radio. In the 1990s, Europeans continued to listen to as many minutes of radio as they watched TV. What has changed was the social context—most listening was in the morning. Nor has TV been impregnable to new technologies, such as personal computing. People who spend less time on other leisure activities because of Internet use primarily reduced their time watching television and reading books, much less the time spent with family, friends, or sport.

Especially since the 1960s, advances in chemistry, engineering, design, and information technologies have resulted in an unprecedented expansion and thickening of the material world consumption, from Tupperware to electric kitchen tools, pocketsized music-players to computing toys. A "craze for novelties" already attracted attention in the eighteenth century. What was new in the second half of the twentieth century was the accelerating speed and scope of product innovation. Cycles of acquisition, use, and disposal quickened—the "throwaway society" was coined in 1955. Within a few years computers replaced typewriters, and CD and DVD marginalized the vinyl record. The shifting balance between objects and humans had contradictory effects for the domestic world of consumption. Some consumer durables like the dishwasher free up time for sociability. The multiplication of the same object, however, can also dissolve the familial into more lonely forms of consumption. With the purchase of a new television, the second set frequently moved into the children's room. In the former East Germany in 2003, 55 percent of six-to-thirteen year olds had their own set: they watched an hour more TV than friends without a set and suffered from a decline in social skills.

The expansion of domestic consumption was not an inevitable, market-driven process but shaped by politics and ideologies. In Nazi Germany, the radio had the full backing of the propagandist Josef Goebbels for providing relaxing entertainment and strengthening a depoliticized private sphere. In the 1950s traditional elites, especially the Catholic Church, initially opposed consumerism, fearing it would destroy the family. Christian Democratic ministers like Ezio Vanoni in Italy and Ludwig Erhard in Germany won with an alternative prescription: consumerism cemented the family by liberating people from basic material drives and freeing mothers from housework, thus enabling families to spend more time with each other. Conservative women's groups spread the gospel of domestic happiness through consumerism. Governments provided tax credits to assist families' purchase of new consumer durables. The family was an indirect beneficiary of export-led growth policies during the economic miracle. Low investment in collective consumption, transport, and services made the family and private forms of consumption like the car, kitchen, and entertainment at home more vital than ever.

The most self-conscious and aggressive experiment seeking to reverse the long-term expansion of domestic consumer culture was socialism. After the Russian revolution, Soviets targeted the private home and commercial markets as twin expressions of bourgeois capitalism. Communes and housing cooperatives tried to reform the byt or daily life. Soft furnishings were condemned as hazardous to health, dangerous remnants of prerevolutionary culture, household objects attacked as oppressive. New cities like Magnitogorsk promoted communal living, public baths, and collective leisure activities. In the end, socialist attempts to transform consumption routines were as impressive for the resistance they caused as for their ambition. The replacement of Christian with socialist objects in the home was greeted with grumbling or opposition. Individuals in collective living quarters often resorted to consuming food in the last corner of privacy remaining: their bed. In Magnitogorsk, many preferred to live in mud huts, which may have been primitive but afforded domestic privacy, than in the new collective barracks. In the early 1930s, the Communist Party took a U-turn in the program of domestic transformation: people's private objects and consumption practices were accepted. The primary role of women was to support the male worker and industrial productivity by managing a clean and comfortable private home.

In the 1950s and 1960s, consumption became a symbolic site of mutual observation and competition between rival social systems. Tellingly, Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev conducted a "kitchen debate." In 1958 Walter Ulbricht pinned the superiority of socialism on the promise that East Germany would overtake its Western neighbor in per capita consumption of food and consumer goods. Socialist consumers were to benefit from a new "selling culture," new industrial inventions, and domestic comfort. Initially, in the mid-1950s the campaign to mechanize housework considered public spaces (such as launderettes at work) as well as private households, and the East German state sought the advice of female consumers. By the early 1960s, however, the growing competitive orientation toward the West led to a producer-oriented fixation on appliances in the home; in 1958 only 1.6 percent of East German households had a washing machine, by 1967 this had risen to 38 percent. Department store combines (Konsument) and mail-order catalogs were also introduced. Yet, investment in consumer industries was too limited and price reform too cautious to allow for an expansion of consumption akin to that in West Germany. From the early 1960s the share of consumption in GNP declined. The two-tier system between rationed goods and more expensive goods eroded popular trust in the socialist ideal of more equitable consumption. Engagement with consumer culture was stopgap. In the late 1960s the regime initiated a youth fashion plan that sought to engage with teenage culture, only to divert resources once bottlenecks in other textile branches emerged. Planning directives and political personalities, not consumers and their changing tastes, directed policy. Increased imports of consumer goods in the 1980s were financed through ever-advancing debt. Ultimately, the East German state was overwhelmed by the desires it had helped to unleash.


The interwar years initiated an unprecedented commercialization of film, music, and other spheres of culture that transformed the mental and sociological nature of consumption. New forms of media consumption like cinema and radio and their expanding audiences were tied to anxieties of "mass consumption" and to the erosion of European culture by American commercial civilization. Already in late nineteenth century France, Gustave Le Bon argued that mass markets created dangerous new means of manipulating the gullible masses. From right to left, interwar commentators warned of the ephemeral nature of mass consumption and the power and commercial rationale of the culture industries that uprooted the uneducated, suggestible masses from their traditional values only to leave them in the grip of cheap pleasures, easy preys for authoritarian regimes; critics ranged from F. R. Leavis in England to José Ortega y Gasset in Spain, to Frankfurt School scholars in American exile. Just as industrial society shifted toward mass production, so consumption too appeared to shift from individual to standardized mass practices and desires.

Certainly, film and phonograph expanded the virtual stimuli and behavior introduced in the late nineteenth century by the department store, the flaneur, and window shopping, allowing ordinary Europeans to escape into readily available dream-worlds. The political uses of consumption were not lost on the Nazi state. Mass entertainment was partly distraction, partly promoted as a collective experience of joy designed to strengthen a national community: the most successful years for German film and dance were the early years of World War II. Yet, "mass consumption" was not intrinsically connected to manipulation, nor to the creation of soulless individuals in a lonely crowd. Cinemas, like department stores, opened public spaces for isolated groups, especially women. Commercial music was successful because it was linked to dance halls and clubs that offered new forms of sociability and feelings of liberation.

Centralization, standardization, and mass production created pressures for greater uniformity. At the same time these released opportunities for creativity and more pluralistic tastes. Music is an example. Regional leisure cultures gave way to more uniform national practices in the interwar years. Radio raised expectations across class and region about the acceptable standards of musical performance, assisting in the creation of shared national cultures. The velocity of cultural production and consumption accelerated with the rapidly changing number of hits and musical fashions. The phonograph made a greater variety of music available to working and middle classes. Popular music dominated commercial radio, a trend that public radio was unable to ignore; 56 percent of minutes broadcast during an average Sunday on Radio Luxembourg in 1935 was popular song and dance music, another 35 percent comedy songs and light orchestra; only 0.5 percent was classical music, and only 9 percent nonmusic related.

In the interwar years, amateur music gave way to professional, organized musical production; one British agency in 1938 controlled three hundred bands playing in two thousand halls. In the 1960s to 1980s, with the growing availability of cheap, electrical instruments (the guitar, then the synthesizer), the divide between producers and consumers of culture became once again more porous, as listeners learned they could make music too. Punk in the late 1970s emerged from a simple if sometimes violently staged belief that musical production had ceased to be the monopoly of commercial producers and trained musicians. Music became part of a lifestyle, a shift that minimized established traditions of musical training and reinforced a performative and rebellious aspect of consumer culture. As continuous cycles in the evolution and commercialization of popular and subcultures have shown, "mass culture" always creates opportunities for transgression and resistance that undercut a logic of standardized uniformity. What was new in the 1980s and 1990s in music, fashion, and other parts of youth culture was the accelerating speed in the cycle of style creation, commercial marketing, transgression and, again, creation.

From a long-term perspective, critics may have overestimated the passive gullibility of consumers and underestimated the creative, diversifying dynamic of "mass consumption"; the potential for resistance, self-discovery, or the pursuit of new identities, such as in subcultures, gay communities, or the designing of one's own personality through a creative or ironic appropriation of brands and fashions. The expansion of cultural consumption has not only created new genres (video art, rock, culture jamming) but also widened access to older genres like opera and museums. But critics were correct in fearing the erosion of cultural authority, not least their own: there is perhaps no other area in twentieth-century Europe where the democratization of consumption has done more to erode class hierarchies of taste and expertise than music.

Tourism and the pursuit of luxury emerged as key phenomena in more democratic forms of consumption since the mid-1950s. Their development reflects the dialectic between commercialized standardization and playful, hedonistic, and ephemeral aspects of contemporary consumption. Tourism has grown by over 7 percent per year since the 1950s to become the world's largest industry. The 1950s to the 1970s saw the rise and fall of standardized mass tourism; the first charter flight from Berlin to Mallorca took off in 1956. Spain received 1.5 million tourists in 1952, 43 million by 1984. Standardization has since been overshadowed by more personalized forms of cultural consumption and orchestrated encounters with difference: the personalized, exotic trip; short-term luxury breaks; cultural city breaks; and sustainable tourism. Tourism in particular is about consumption as pleasure, self-expression, and the transcendence of new wants. If consumption has become about identity, tourism has played an integral part in socializing people into sensual consumers yearning for fantasy and authenticity, self-discovery, and enchantment. The growing significance of this commodified form of hedonism and fantasy has also, however, reinforced social inequalities and exploitation. Forty-six percent of Europeans were not able to go on holiday at all in the late 1990s—especially unemployed, retired persons, and manual workers. Abroad, the hedonistic pursuit of self and pleasure has boosted sex tourism; in Thailand, popular with Europeans, an estimated 800,000 children are in prostitution.

One powerful engine behind mass consumption was the influence of the American model of a classless consumer society. American products, ideas, and tastes became a prominent part of Europeans' lives—the most popular TV series in the 1970s and 1980s were American (Bonanza, Dallas, Dynasty); in 2002, U.S. movies were responsible for 70–80 percent of all box office receipts; American-style malls have risen up outside many European cities; EU consumer protection in the 1970s initially borrowed from John F. Kennedy's speech of 1962. Still, Americanization amounted less to a wholesale imposition of American taste and objects than to a creative dialogue, admittedly on an uneven politico-economic playing field. This dialogue could result in imitation, fusion, or rejection. Images of a classless, consumerist American way of life were a central branch of anticommunist cultural diplomacy after World War II in the Marshall Plan, America Houses, traveling exhibits, and the Voice of America. One-half million Italians passed in awe through an "American Way" supermarket exhibit in Rome in 1956. In practice, however, European consuming cultures retained significant differences. A supermarket opening in Florence in 1961 was greeted by demonstrations and boycotts from shopkeepers and some residents. As late as the early 1980s, Italians and the French bought only 2 percent and 14 percent of their food in supermarkets; compared to 32 percent in Germany and 70 percent in the United States. One-quarter of French people in the early twenty-first century shop at least once a week in a local market.

The American convergence of consumption and citizenship met with different responses. If in the 1920s German experts had been skeptical of American mass consumption, they embraced American marketing and its fusion of opinion polling and commerce after World War II. In France, by contrast, there was resistance to the conflation of political and consumer culture. Postwar Britain was divided between supporters of fair shares and those embracing choice and consumerism; some championed advertising as the friend of democracy and freedom, others criticized it for undermining civic culture with selfish materialism. Europe, moreover, was not only the recipient of American models, but an active contributor through multilateral global relations, including a Japanese/British strand promoting savings.

New national idioms emerged where American and indigenous styles became fused. This was true for music, but also for fashion and advertising. British menswear stores combined more egalitarian American marketing with an indigenous appeal to the gentleman. Many European advertisers remained skeptical of American methods as out of tune with the taste regimes of their own imperial cultures. Into the 1950s, empires provided alternative cultural systems, with their own genres (Empire film) and purchasing promotion (Empire advertising). Immigration and postcolonial developments have helped diversify many areas of consumption from food to fashion that are as important as trends of Americanization. "Mass consumption" and "Konsumterror" have been continuous targets for new social movements and terrorists since the 1960s. At a popular level, Europeans have responded with different sensibilities to the relative decline of their cultural industries and regional traditions. Seventy-five to seventy-eight percent of young people in Italy, Ireland, and Portugal were interested in the screening of European films in 2000, but only just over 40 percent in Sweden, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Popular resistance to "McDonaldization" and the preservation of local food culture has been greatest in France and in Italy, the hub of the "slow food" movement.


A comparison of European consumers in the early twenty-first century with their grandparents or great-grandparents points to significant trends of convergence. Most Europeans enjoy unprecedented affluence and comfort. Like most citizens of the "developed world," they share a material culture involving television, stereo, telephone, automobile, and, increasingly, virtual modes of communication. Most live in private homes with hot water, central heating, electricity, refrigerator, and washing machine. Even in Eastern Europe by the late 1990s, 90 percent of households had refrigerators, 75 percent color televisions, over 50 percent automatic washing machines, and almost every other person used a computer and had a car; only Romania significantly lagged behind. In 2003 Estonia had as many mobile-phone users as France. Working time has declined, consumption time has increased; working hours in Western Europe fell by over one-third in the twentieth century. Differences within as well as between societies have become less pronounced compared to the situation on the eve of World War I, where, for example, the average Milanese ate fifty-three kilograms of meat per year, but those in Trapani (Sicily) only three kilograms. Meat, fresh fruit, and vegetable consumption has increased across Europe since the mid-1970s; outside France, 40 percent or more of Europeans are overweight or obese.

Whereas consumption tended to reinforce class and status communities in the first half of the twentieth century, more recently it has helped to dissolve these into more fluid and pluralistic relationships. Gender and generational hierarchies have become looser. The recognition of the elderly and children as "active consumers" and the sexualization of childhood are twin features of this trend. Young Europeans have a shared image of the body: 50 percent of fifteen-year-old girls either diet or think they ought to. Consumer desires transcend income differences: Romanians are even more concerned with consumption than affluent Western Europeans.

With the collapse of socialism, markets and retail concentration have become the defining modes of provision for Eastern as well as Western Europeans. Outside Italy and Spain, the small retailer has become a marginal presence; in Sweden 80 percent of local dairies and distribution centers closed between 1960 and 1994. While the variety of manufactured and synthetic products has increased, biodiversity for apples and potatoes has diminished. Street festivals like the love parades record a shared transnational hedonism. The consumer has also shot to the fore within the European Union (EU). The Treaty of Rome (1958) only mentioned the consumer in passing in relation to the common agricultural policy, but since 1975 the European Commission has sought to establish a market-based citizen-consumer. Consumption is a vital source of income for European states; most Europeans do not realize that they pay as much tax on consumption as on their income. In the 1980s and 1990s several governments began to export choice and consumerism from market into public services, especially the United Kingdom.

Nonetheless, visitors touring Europe in the early twenty-first century would find it difficult to square their experiences with ideas of globalization or postmodernity. Instead of a common material culture or a symbolic totality of objects and meanings, different groups and countries continue to have distinct cultures of consumption. In addition to "glocalization" or creolization, remarkable contrasts remain between and within societies. In proportion of their household budget, Greeks and Spaniards spent twice as much on restaurants and hotels than Scandinavians. Britons, Danes, Dutch, and Germans spent twice the share on recreation and culture as their Mediterranean neighbors. Austrians and Britons spent twice as much money on their pets as do Germans and Italians. In many societies, eating remains a crucial source of sociability, but in Austria 50 percent of consumers eat alone. Italians and Finns consume twice as much water as people in France or Flanders. Advertising spending (as percentage of GDP) is twice as high in Holland, the United Kingdom, and Greece as in Italy, Ireland, and France.

How (and how much) people consume remains in part determined by income and national welfare systems. In France, health-related consumption has shot up dramatically since the 1960s. Athenians spend twice as much on leisure as their rural neighbors. Pensioners significantly improved their standard of living in France in the 1970s to the 1990s and now consume as much as younger cohorts, whereas in Britain they experienced impoverishment and consume 25 percent less. More than half of Germans rent their home, while 80 percent own theirs in Spain, Ireland, and Italy; this has implications for related aspects of domestic consumption (home improvement, gardening). Scandinavians are well ahead in consuming new communication technologies (mobile phone, Internet).

The uneven advance of consumerism is captured in contrasting approaches to credit and saving. National legislation and financial institutions have shaped the availability and use of consumer credit. In the United Kingdom, consumer credit rose from 50 percent to 70 percent of the national income (1988–2001); Britons were twice as likely to have a credit card as Germans, while 22 percent of Italians did not even have a bank account. Between 1970 and 2000 the household saving rate (percentage of disposable income) fell dramatically in Italy (from 32 percent to 11 percent), Portugal (15 percent; 9 percent), and the United Kingdom (5 percent; 3 percent), but was stable in France (15 percent; 14 percent) and Germany (12 percent; 10 percent)—in the United States it declined from 8 percent to 0 percent.

And Europeans continue to spend their time differently. The average Finn and Swede spend seventeen minutes on the phone per day, whereas Danes and Belgians are concise with only four to five minutes. Reading remains a popular pastime in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Scandinavia, much less so in Portugal. Mediterranean people spend one hour more per day in front of the TV than Nordic people. Germans, Dutch, and Austrians predominantly listen to international music, while national music continues to amount to half the music sales in Italy, France, Finland, and Greece. Regional trends remain pronounced in cultural consumption. In 1996 average residents in Lyon and Manchester went nine times to the cinema, three times more than those in Seville, Marseille, Vienna, and Berlin. There are three times as many visits to the theater per resident in Copenhagen than in Berlin or Rome. Danes visit amusement parks twice as often as Italians. The Irish and Danes are compulsive renters of video; not so Italians, Germans, Swedes, and Portuguese.

Cultural patterns shape tourist desire as much as income or climate. Mediterranean people spent over 80 percent and Scandinavians half their holidays in their home country, while over two-thirds of Irish, Germans, and Austrians prefer to go abroad. Greeks like hotels, Dutch prefer campsites or rented apartments, Swedes and Finns touroperated holidays. The Irish in 1999 spent more on their holidays than any other Europeans (except Luxembourgers)—three times as much as Swedes and Portuguese.

In general, the democratization of taste appears to have proceeded in two different directions. Britain is close to American dynamics of cultural specialization: activities like listening to the radio, reading, and sport became the preference of smaller groups of people who pursued them, however, more intensely. Countries like Norway and Holland, by contrast, displayed a trend toward greater cultural homogeneity: the rise or fall of consumption practices is more inclusive, a shared social trend. Thus in the United Kingdom and United States people listened less to the radio in 2000 than in 1975, but those who especially liked the radio intensified their habits, whereas in Norway and Holland both groups reduced their listening time.

Consumers' expectations of retailers, governments, and consumer movements also continue to differ. Sixty percent of Finns and Swedes think price one of the three most important factors when buying food, but only 18 percent of Greeks, who privilege quality, taste, and family preference. Trust in supermarkets is very high in the United Kingdom and Holland, whereas Scandinavians, French, and Germans place it in small producers and farmers. Risk sensibilities and perceptions of "the consumer interest" continue to differ, partly reflecting different national regimes of regulation and consumer politics. In Norway, there is a low sense of a distinct consumer interest, and the state is expected to act on people's behalf. In France, consumer groups have been more populist and confrontational, whereas in Germany they tended to be more technocratic and corporatist. In Britain, a more pluralist vein emerged, with consumer movements stressing the diversity of consumer interests to be protected and consulted. In contrast to British and German consumers, it is Danish and Dutch consumers who see the representation of consumer interests as a principal task of consumer movements, rather than just issuing practical advice. With the decline of the cooperative movement since the 1950s, membership in consumer organizations differs more than ever—25 percent in Holland and Sweden, but only 2 to 3 percent elsewhere. Nor has the democratization of the European market meant an equally "free" play of consumption. In Sweden, advertising aimed at children is banned, in Ireland smoking in public. Privatization and regulatory policies affecting the consumption of utilities continue to differ in spite of general directives by the European Union on liberalization and the consumer interest. In an oligopolistic setting like Germany, where four conglomerates dominate the market for electricity, consumers pay twice as much as in the British market.


Outside the dominant branch of neoclassical economics, consumption mainly attracted negative scholarly readings until the late twentieth century. It was viewed either as a source of class division and inequality or as a source of manipulation by which capitalists and dictators sought to pacify citizens into passive "masses." Thorstein Veblen in 1899 focused on the "conspicuous" consumption of a parasitic "leisure class": the display of consumer goods served to buttress superior status. In the 1960s Pierre Bourdieu presented consumption as a "structuring structure," a classifying as well as classified system, which re-created social distinction and class cultures. The Frankfurt School and American scholars such as Vance Packard and Stuart Ewen emphasized the power of advertising, mass media, and producers in manipulating people through dreamworlds and material objects. With the declining importance of class, the democratization of taste, and the expansion of consumerist discourse and practices came more diverse and positive appreciations of consumption in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead of a "passive dupe," fields as diverse as cultural studies, anthropology, and management highlighted the consumer as an "active" coproducer of meaning, taste, and self-identity. The pleasures, creativity, and benefits of consumption were re-appreciated, their aesthetic and emancipatory potential for individuals, outsiders, and subcultures celebrated. The triumph of markets and the political language of choice have been mirrored in the more positive scholarly readings of consumers as agents and of the opportunities available in commercial culture for the creation of personal and collective identities. Early twenty-first-century sociologists of ordinary consumption have dug beneath the spectacular or conspicuous landscape of consumption to retrieve more mundane, routine practices (washing, eating) and their relation to changing technological systems. After the initial reaction against a productivist bias, scholars are also reintegrating production into their analysis. Social scientists are discussing consumption in areas well beyond the sphere of shopping, ranging from media consumption and tourism to social services.

Historians have broadly followed these trends, but only part of the way. Consumption was initially approached through an interest in retailing or mass-production, critical of the shift from collective leisure to commercial consumer culture. Social historians looked at consumption through the lens of "social distinction," emphasising the reproduction of habitus and structures of inequalities. The influence of cultural studies in the United Kingdom and United States was to highlight transgressive, creative, or emancipatory features. Attention to gender highlighted the liberating aspects of cinemas, department stores, and boutiques in providing women with access to the public sphere. Generational shifts have received far less attention. More recently, scholars have highlighted the contribution of consumers to democratic politics and civil society. How political and commercial domains interact remains underexplored, although new work on consumer identity and knowledge is a starting point. Unlike medieval and early modern colleagues, most modern historians writing on consumption still say little about routine practices, technologies, and the environment.


The implications of consumption for public life and environment remain dominant tropes and moral dilemmas of political debate and social mobilization. For much of the twentieth century, cultural and political elites as well as intellectuals attacked "consumerism" as a shallow and alienating form of individualist materialism that dissolved communal solidarities, political commitment, and critical thought. Twentieth-century European history shows the problems with such a zero-sum equation of consumption and citizenship. As well as allowing for apolitical escapism, consumption has given excluded groups access to public spaces. In the early twentieth century, consumer mobilization shaped civic sensibilities. Since the interwar years commercial and political domains have become more interactive and mutually constitutive, but alongside trends of depoliticizing individualization, consumption, and market research have also been mobilized for progressive purposes, such as the use of opinion polls to highlight the political centrality of family, identity, and personal well-being. Formal political engagement may have declined, but the expansion of consumption-oriented lifestyles also helped to broaden the terrain of political culture, including environmental, generational, and gender politics. The increase of consumption has not merely amounted to more goods but to new facilities of symbolic expression. As a source of identity, consumption has been the main beneficiary from the collapse of more totalizing ideological projects (fascism, nationalism, socialism) and the loosening of class and gender hierarchies. Feeding into more pluralistic forms of public life, consumption may not bundle the collective energies of previous larger collective projects, but from a democratic point of view this may not be a bad thing. Cultural consumption has fostered civil society, and new information technologies have introduced new spaces of mutuality. In former socialist societies, like East Germany, the goods and symbols of consumption are being fashioned into in a new politics of identity.

Much of the critique of "consumerism" originates in a critique of neoliberal "choice." The rise of "choice" in political discourse, however, must not be conflated with the experience and practices of consumption in everyday life. A British study in 2004 found that the majority of people did not experience "choice" in their weekly shopping, but frustration. Shopping involves forms of sociality, not just self-centered hedonism. Consumption, moreover, is broader than shopping. The ongoing intensity of recurrent moralistic debates about the death of the public may in itself be good evidence against the thesis that consumption has eroded politics.

The environment shows a less ambiguous picture of the public costs and benefits of convenience and affluence. Europe has played an important part in the causal connection between consumption in the developed North and global environmental problems. Eighty percent of resources are now consumed by the 10 percent of people living in the North. Since 1950 the richest one-fifth on the planet has doubled its consumption of energy and meat and quadrupled car ownership while the poorest fifth has barely changed at all. However, it is the lack of recycling and sustainable consumption in the affluent North rather than consumption as such that has carried global costs. Some European societies have been at the forefront of addressing this problem, as well as causing it. Europe's carbon dioxide emissions declined with the shift from coal; in 1995 it was 8.5 tons per person (21 in the United States). In many continental European cities car-sharing and public transport policy has reduced car use. Dutch people have a high car ownership but take 30 percent of their urban trips by bicycle. A major environmental culprit has been energy consumption in the home, which increased by 9 percent in the 1990s while industrial and agricultural use declined. The gains from increased efficiency of many products (washing machines use four times less water in 2000 than in the early 1970s) has been outweighed, however, by increasing ownership numbers, the rise of single-person households, and new wasteful technologies; in Holland 13 percent of all energy consumption in the home feeds the stand-by function of appliances. Most Europeans continue to be oblivious to how much water and energy they consume and pay for. Household waste in Holland increased by 55 percent between 1985 and 1998. Germany, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries have led sustainability initiatives, increasingly relying on civil society as well as on state initiatives, such as tax policies, eco-labeling, recycling, and pay-as-you-throw-away schemes; in 2002 Holland, 9,210 households participated in a nongovernmental organization initiative and achieved a 26 percent reduction in their household waste. More neoliberal countries, like Britain, with less homogenous cultures of consumption and policies of privatizing public services have lagged behind in sustainable consumption. In spite of the revival of alternative politics of consumption among the young, it is disproportionally those over over sixty-five who separate waste. How to decouple consumption and growth from environmental damage is becoming a central concern of formal politics as well as social movements and "alternative" consumers.

See alsoAmericanization; European Commission; European Union; Globalization; Leisure; Public Health; Tourism.


Baudrillard, Jean. The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London, 1998. Originally published in French in 1970.

Brewer, John, and Frank Trentmann, eds. Consuming Cultures, Global Perspectives. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 2006.

Buchli, Victor. An Archaeology of Socialism. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1999.

Daunton, Martin, and Matthew Hilton, eds. The Politics of Consumption: Material Culture and Citizenship in Europe and America. Oxford, U.K. 2001.

de Grazia, Victoria. Irresistible Empire: America's Advance through 20th-Century Europe. Cambridge, Mass., 2005.

de Grazia, Victoria, with Ellen Furlough, eds. The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective. Berkeley, Calif., and London, 1996.

Eurostat and Official Publications of the European Union. Trends in Europe and North America: The Statistical Yearbook of the Economic Commission for Europe. New York, 2003.

Goubert, Jean-Pierre. The Conquest of Water: The Advent of Health in the Industrial Age. Translated by Andrew Wilson. Princeton, N.J., 1989.

Gronow, Jukka, and Alan Warde, eds. Ordinary Consumption. London and New York, 2001.

Haupt, Heinz-Gerhard. Konsum und Handel: Europa im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Göttingen, 2002.

Kotkin, Stephen. Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1995.

Miller, Daniel, ed. Acknowledging Consumption: A Review of New Studies. London and New York, 1995.

Mort, Frank. Cultures of Consumption: Masculinities and Social Space in Late Twentieth-Century Britain. London and New York, 1996.

Sassatelli, Roberta. Consumo, Cultura e Società. Bologna, 2004.

Schor, Juliet B., and Douglas B. Holt, eds. The Consumer Society Reader. New York, 2000.

Trentmann, Frank, ed. The Making of the Consumer: Knowledge, Power and Identity in the Modern World. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 2005.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. 2nd ed. New York, 1953.

Frank Trentmann


views updated May 29 2018



The study of consumption is important in many fields of social science, including anthropology, sociology, economics, and psychology. A key definition of consumption is one that reflects our use of the term in daily life. That is, consumption may be defined as the personal expenditure of individuals and families that involves the selection, usage, and disposal or reuse of goods and services. In this respect, we are all consumers, choosing and using goods and services, which we pay for with earnings, savings, or credit.

As late as the last century, the term was primarily linked to disease: consumption was another term used to describe pulmonary tuberculosis (TB). Because of this fact, as well as the conventional use of the term to designate wasting or destruction, consumption had a decidedly negative connotation until the middle to late twentieth century.

While there is a tendency to associate consumption of goods and services with modernity, where it has become central to the lives of individuals and the social and economic lives of communities and societies, consumption is part of any social order. In premodern societies, there was typically a closer relationship between the producer and consumer: for instance, the cows of a particular farmer produced milk, some of which he kept for his own use and some of which he may have traded to a neighbor in exchange for part of her crop of soybeans. Production and consumption were closely partnered and reflected an economic system constructed on subsistence production and precapitalist means of exchange, such as barter.

The capitalist economy is built on the relationship between production and consumption, and goods and services are exchanged for money and credit. In contrast to earlier economic forms, the distance between producer and consumer grows as the division of labor becomes more complex and fewer people grow their own food, make their own clothing, or receive education, protection, or other services from within their own family, clan, or other small group.

Classical economics, the product of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thinkers like Adam Smith (17231790) and David Ricardo (17721823), theorized capitalist markets and argued for the power of the free market. Classical economics posited the notion of consumer rationality, assuming that consumers of goods and services are rational and spend money in ways that maximize satisfaction from purchases.

Another aspect of consumption theorized in economics is the phenomenon of underconsumption. In underconsumption theory, economic stagnation is fostered by an imbalance between consumer demand and the production of goods. Though underconsumption theory is not central in contemporary economics, it influenced both academic thinking and public policy in the early twentieth century. Beginning around this time, concerns about underconsumption spurred governmental intervention in the economy, particularly public-works spending, which was seen as central to putting disposable income into the hands of American consumers.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraiths (19082006) most widely recognized book, The Affluent Society (1958), offers a mid-twentieth-century perspective on economics and consumption. Galbraith proposed a corrective to the conventional theories of economics, which assumed a scarcity of resources. This scarcity, he suggested, justified increased private-sector production and limited government regulation and taxation. However, Galbraith believed the contemporary period on which he focused was characterized by an affluent society in which scarcity was not a central concern. As such, he posited that government economic practices were misguided and, in fact, fostered a paradoxical situation of private-sector affluence and public-sector squalor. That is, while private consumption grew, public spending on infrastructure projects, including parks and schools, diminished. Galbraiths support of public-sector spending has influenced liberal and neoliberal thinkers who followed him. Interestingly, the affluent society of which Galbraith wrote and about which he was concerned consumed far less than the consumer society of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

While Marxist economic theory is commonly associated with concerns about capitalism and production, Karl Marx (18181883) did not neglect to recognize the function of consumption in capitalist society. In the Grundrisse, he argued that a condition of production in capitalism is the discovery, creation, and satisfaction of new needs arising from society itself. [Capitalism involves] the developing of a constantly expanding and more comprehensive system of different kinds of labor, different kinds of production, to which a constantly enriched system of needs corresponds (Marx [18571858] 1973, p. 409). While Marx highlighted production as a driving process of industrial capitalism, consumption, whether driven by need (associated with the proletariat) or materialist desires (associated with the bourgeoisie), was a critical partner.

Though the perspectives of classical economists (the bourgeois economists, according to Marx) and Marxists differ in many respects, they share a similar perspective on the valuation of consumables (goods and services). The labor theory of value, embraced by classical economists through the middle of the nineteenth century and central to Marxist economic theory, holds that the exchange value of a good or service is derived from the amount of labor (including labor expended on gathering raw materials and producing machinery) required to produce it. Marxist economics, however, adds that the profit derived by capitalist owners of the means of production comes from value added by workers to the consumable good but not paid to them in wages. Capitalist production, thus, is exploitative, as workers produce goods and surplus value is appropriated by the owners.

The labor theory of value has been challenged by social scientists in, among others, the fields of economics and sociology. For instance, the theory of subjective value challenges the notion of intrinsic value that is present in that theory by suggesting that value derives from the power of an object (or service) to meet a need or a desire. The value of a consumable, thus, may derive from variables such as its utility, its scarcity, or its status. Among sociologists, nineteenth-century French scholar Gabriel Tarde (18431904) was among the first to locate the value of goods in the intensity of consumer desire rather than in the production process. Contemporary sociologists have elaborated the point more fully, highlighting the power of modern marketing in creating desire for goods and services.

Sociologist George Ritzer has written extensively on consumption (and overconsumption) as a sociological artifact of modern society. He argues that modern states are characterized far less by production than by consumption. That is, while in earlier decades, the economies of countries like the United States were focused on production of goods, today many modern states produce few tangible goods (though they continue to produce intangible goods like knowledge and information). Rather, consumption is central to the national economy.

In Enchanting a Disenchanted World, Ritzer suggests that, in understanding the nexus between consumption, capitalism, and modernity, social scientists need to attend to the new means of consumption, which he defines as those things that make it possible for people to acquire goods and services and for the same people to be controlled and exploited as consumers (1999, p. 57). Examples of the new means of consumption are shopping malls, cruise ships, and Las Vegasstyle casinos and resorts. All of these are places that offer the consumer ample buying opportunities but, at the same time, operate as instruments of consumer control, as consumers are convinced to buy what they do not need, to believe that they need what they only want, and to spend beyond their means in order to achieve a sought-after emotional state or status. Even the physical layout of buying venues like supermarkets and malls is constructed with the aim of maximizing spending by fostering impulse buying and forcing consumers to forge a path past a plethora of enticing products or shops before finding the products they need, or even the exit.

In his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen (18571929) argued that in well-off societies spending operates as a means by which individuals establish social position. He coined the term conspicuous consumption, which he suggested was common among the nouveau riche, a class that emerged from the new wealth generated in nineteenth-century America by the second Industrial Revolution. In this period, the rich flaunted their good fortune with the public consumption of luxury items. In this cultural context, Veblen suggested that ostentatious displays of wealth, rather than honest productivity, showed ones success to society. Of the culture on which he wrote, he commented that labor comes to be associated in mens habits of thought with weakness and subjection to a master. It is therefore a mark of inferiority ([1899] 1994, p. 41). That is, it was participation in consumption rather than participation in production (the labor force) that defined ones status in society.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (19302002) approached the issue of consumption from another angle. He argued in Distinction (1984) that taste can be understood as a field of contestation. Within this field, taste is contested and those with greater resources have the power to define what is in good taste and bad taste. Those in the upper classes, for instance, have the opportunity to both learn and define what is in good taste. By comparison, those in the working class lack the knowledge or the means to exhibit the distinctive (good) tastes of the upper class and are disadvantaged by their lack of what Bourdieu calls cultural capital. Bourdieu is not suggesting that these categories of culture are objectively real. Rather, he is arguing that taste is a field of play in which those with more power are able to both define and act out good taste.

In terms of consumption, the taste for burgers or foie gras, commercial action films or foreign movies, and mass-produced beer or fine wine, and the classes we associate with those choices, are socially determined but, like many other social phenomena, take on the appearance of being natural. Consequently, argues Bourdieu, taste is a field in which class inequalities are socially produced and reproduced.

One aspect of consumption that is endemic in the United States and other economically advanced countries like Japan and Australia is competitive consumption. In the middle of the twentieth century, Americans, particularly those in the rapidly expanding suburbs of postWorld War II America, were concerned with keeping up with the Joneses. Economist James Duesenberry (1949), writing in this period, focused on the phenomenon of competitive consumption. The demographic, economic, and technological boom years of the postwar era made acquisition of new consumer goods like dishwashers and color televisions possible, and competitive consumption made their acquisition probable.

Consumption is powerfully influenced by marketing. While this idea is axiomatic today, the power of advertising was not always so widely recognized. In the mid-twentieth century, Vance Packard (19141996) illuminated the tactics and techniques of the advertising industry in The Hidden Persuaders (1957). Packard described the marketing of goods through the use of motivational research, subliminal advertising, and other subtle but effective methods of persuasion based in scientific study. Packard linked the imperative to sell to a massive tide of production that followed World War II: marketers recognized the importance of creating an imperative to consume that could take advantage of the rising tide of affluence (also recognized by Galbraith). Packard took a position against consumer manipulation, arguing that it was a moral question.

As Packard recognized, in contemporary America, competitive consumption is heavily driven by the influence of the media. While the reference groups of the past included neighbors who commonly inhabited the same socioeconomic status, the reference groups of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century include those whose earnings may far outpace those of the average consumer. Economist Juliet Schors The Overspent American (1998) posits that while consumption in early postwar America revolved around keeping up with neighborhood norms, reference groups have stretched to include workplace colleagues. The movement of more women into the workplace may have been a catalyst in the transformation of reference groups, as working families may have less time to attend to the habits and acquisitions of neighbors (if they know them at all). Further, reference groups are now also composed of friends who inhabit the fantasy worlds of television and films (she gives the example of the popular American television program, Friends, on which stylishly dressed twentysomethings inhabited well-appointed apartments in New York City that few of their real world contemporaries could afford). Modern efforts to keep up with ones reference groups are thus more costly and more likely to drive one into debt.

Following close behind Schors careful social scientific dissection of modern consumption is Robert H. Franks Luxury Fever (1999). Frank argues that the luxury fever that has gripped modern America is characterized by the pursuit of grander, flashier, more costly goods, ranging from backyard grills (he discovers a top-of-the-line grill that retails for $5,000, not including shipping and handling) to automobiles to megahomes. This pursuit, he notes, is embraced not only by the very rich, but also by consumers with far less disposable income as well, leading to low rates of saving and growing rates of debt. Frank argues that an altered spending environment, in which expectations regarding ones own consumption or even ones gifts to others, is the product of the profligate spending of those at the top of the economic pyramid and the availability of extravagantly priced products. He elaborates the example of the grill: The real significance of offerings like the $5,000 Viking-Frontgate Professional Grill is that their presence makes buying a $1,000 unit seem almost frugal. As more people buy these upmarket grills, the frame of reference that defines what the rest of us consider an acceptable outdoor grill will inevitably continue to shift (1999, p. 11). To mitigate the effects of the countrys febrile state, Frank prescribes tax exemption for savings and the institution of a progressive consumption tax, arguing, as did Galbraith, that there needs to be greater attention given to public infrastructure spending, which falls by the wayside in a society obsessed with private consumption.

The use of advertising to create a relationship between material products and people has been examined by Jean Kilbourne. In Cant Buy My Love (2000), Kilbourne argues that advertisers seek to spur consumption by disseminating the message that products fulfill human needs for things like love, relationships, and respect. Young people are particularly susceptible to messages that promise that product consumption will give them emotional fulfillment. The message has ample opportunities to reach its audience: according to Kilbourne, the average American is exposed to no fewer than 3,000 advertising messages each day.

Social pressures for status, relentless advertising, and easily accessible credit can bring about hyperconsumption. Psychology recognizes hyperconsumption as a disorder, and the term oniomania (which comes from the Greek term onios, for sale) is a label used to designate people obsessed with shopping (conventionally called shopaholics ). Because the profligate spending of money and the consumption of luxury goods is not only socially acceptable, but often appears desirable, a shopping addiction is less likely to be taken as seriously as other addictions, such as gambling or alcoholism.

Consumption, and arguably even overconsumption, is not only acceptable in the social arena of modern American society, but it is also embraced. Consumer spending accounts for fully two-thirds of all economic activity in the United States. As such, in spite of the substantial debt carried by Americans in contrast to the rest of the developed world, public policy is largely favorable to sustained and even increased consumption. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, some political commentators embraced the term market patriotism to describe the federal governments entreaties to continue buying and spending.

Modern market patriotism represents an interesting contrast to the wartime sacrifices asked of previous generations of Americans. For instance, during World War II, Americans were entreated to carefully control consumption. External controls like rationing were supplemented by appeals to patriotism, including the Consumers Victory Pledge signed by millions of American housewives: As a consumer, in the total defense of democracy, I will buy carefully. I will take good care of things I have. I will waste nothing.

Internationally, the United States has a low rate of both national and household savings, far below that of Western European countries, Japan, or China. This reflects, in part, the priority given by different states and individuals in the global community to savings and consumption, as well as adversity to debt.

While the study and theorization of consumption in the social sciences has been in existence for a long time, it has evoked the greatest interest in the decades of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The growth in consumption, both nationally and globally, correlates with a rise in studies and publications on consumption, consumerism, overconsumption, and the transformation of modern societies from producers to consumers.

SEE ALSO Absolute Income Hypothesis; Conspicuous Consumption; Consumption Tax; Economics; Macroeconomics; Microeconomics; Permanent Income Hypothesis; Relative Income Hypothesis; Underconsumption


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Douglas, Mary, and Baron Isherwood. 1979. The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption. New York: Basic Books. Rev. ed. 1996. London: Routledge.

Duesenberry, James S. 1949. Income, Saving, and the Theory of Consumer Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Frank, Robert H. 1999. Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess. New York: Free Press.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1958. The Affluent Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kilbourne, Jean. 2000. Cant Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. New York: Free Press.

Marx, Karl. [18571858] 1973. Grundrisse. New York: Vintage. Packard, Vance. 1957. The Hidden Persuaders. New York: McKay.

Ritzer, George. 1999. Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge. 2nd ed. 2005.

Schor, Juliet. 1998. The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Dont Need. New York: HarperPerennial.

Smith, Adam. [1776] 1991. The Wealth of Nations. New York: Prometheus.

Veblen, Thorstein. [1899] 1994. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Penguin.

Daina S. Eglitis


views updated May 08 2018


CONSUMPTION. It is not coincidental that the Latin word consumere, 'to use up', referring chiefly to food, has come to stand for the act of purchasing and using all variety of goods. This meaning developed at the same time that merchants succeeded in changing the nature of consumption in the course of the early modern period. In the early sixteenth century, consumption for the vast majority of people meant almost exclusively eating food, on which the bulk of most people's household income was spent. By the end of the eighteenth century a much greater proportion of people had become consumers in the modern sense of the word: 'those who use their income to purchase products for the satisfaction of desires beyond immediate needs'.

The most significant variables in this general pattern, the growth of consumerism, were class and geography. Those in the uppermost social strata had always been, to some extent, consumers. Even through the Middle Ages they purchased luxury items such as rare and exotic spices, silks and jewels, aromatic perfumes, and wine, but the range of goods available was fairly limited and they were always prohibitively expensive. City dwellers, despite expendable income, did not have many opportunities to indulge themselves. There simply was not that much to buy, and most Europeans did not have access to these goods due to the limitations of geography, poor roads, and scant international trade.

How and why early modern Europeans made the transition from a relatively meager material culture to one in which a significant number of people enjoyed true opulence depended on a number of factors. The growth of world trade, market-oriented agriculture, demographic growth and inflation, and urbanization were all key factors. So, too, was social mobility. Put simply, more people with lucrative professions had money to spend, and goods arrived more frequently and in greater volume. Competition among the ascendant classes and emulation of courtiers forced the elite to refashion themselves constantly and to invent new tastes in food, clothing, and luxury items. These extravagances kept both them and their tastes distinct from their social inferiors. Thus, fashions changed ever more quickly and high culture was definitively separated from popular culture.

A perfect example of this process was the popularity of spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and sugar. Originating in what is now Indonesia and India, and passing through the hands of many middlemen, such spices were extremely expensive, making them a perfect symbol of wealth to be consumed, literally. After direct trade routes to Asia were established by the Portuguese, spices were imported in much greater volume. The price did not come down as much as one might expect, however, because such things were rigidly controlled by the state, and the Venetian and Genoese merchants trading in the Mediterranean were not put out of business as quickly as is generally supposed. In any case, more people had access to spices and this significantly diminished their efficacy as markers of social status. The use of cinnamon and sugar, especially after the latter was grown commercially in the New World, was no longer the exclusive domain of the most wealthy and powerful. By the mid-seventeenth century, spices began to go out of fashion in elite cookbooks, and by the eighteenth they were increasingly banished to sweet desserts. Only pepper retained its status as a universal seasoning, but, like the other spices and sugar, it, too, eventually came down in price.

The growth of cities also had a major impact on patterns of consumption. The rural peasant dependent on subsistence agriculture was increasingly replaced by the entrepreneurial farmer who used capital-intensive methods to grow food for the market. The small holder was either converted into a wage laborer, in which case he became a consumer rather than a direct producer, or, in another context, he joined the teeming ranks of people who fled the countryside to seek work in cities. Cities are, by their very nature, consumer-oriented. In areas of urban concentration such as the Low Countries and Northern Italy, and around major cities such as London and Paris, the trade in foodstuffs was brisk due to the great demand. Just supplying cities with bread was a major industry and shortages could lead to riots. To prevent this, the state routinely fixed the prices of bread, passed laws to discourage grain speculation, and did everything it could to ensure a regular supply. In years of crop failure or famine, which struck nearly every decade, their efforts often proved futile.

These conditions were only exacerbated by demographic pressure. With the exception of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, most of Europe experienced a steady rise in population throughout the early modern period. This in turn put pressure on resources, driving prices higher and giving further incentives to food producers to expand their operations by moving onto marginal land and hillsides, draining marshes, applying fertilizers, and using crop-rotation systems. All these factors helped to make agriculture more commercial in nature, and, of course, fed the growing cities. Inflation also forced average consumers to spend a growing proportion of their household income on basic staples such as grains, making the average diet relatively poor in protein.

Cities were regularly supplied with meat and vegetables from the surrounding countryside, however. Imperishable items such as stockfish, cheeses, cured hams and sausages, dried pulses, and wine could all be imported from farther afield. In Northern Europe beer was increasingly brewed commercially and on a large scale rather than in the home, and was consumed in public houses or taverns. For poorer city dwellers, the bulk of the diet consisted of bread and starches, dairy products, and relatively durable vegetables such as cabbages and onions. Fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables were comparatively expensive and continued to be so throughout the period despite the growth of intensive cattle rearing and market gardening. Vegetables such as artichokes and asparagus, melons, and all manner of fresh fish retained their association as foods fit for nobles, and in Catholic countries, where Lenten restrictions were still in force, these could be extremely costly. Fresh game was also a valuable commodity, and small birds, rabbits, and the occasional boar or deer were highly esteemed foods served only on the best of tables.

What constituted good taste in refined circles also shifted dramatically in the course of the early modern period. In the beginning, a profusion of spices and a preference for sweet-and-sour dishes inherited from the Middle Ages still held sway. Variety and a great abundance of food served in multiple courses was the accepted way to impress guests. These features gradually gave way to smaller dishes, elegantly garnished and accompanied by sauces intended to accent rather than contrast with the main ingredient. The invention of a flour and fat-based roux lies at the core of what would eventually evolve into classic French haute cuisine in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Naturally, maintaining a kitchen staff with the requisite expertise and equipment also became necessary for anyone with a pretense to dining savoir faire.

The discovery of the Americas and linking markets around the globe also had a great impact on patterns of consumption. We tend to think first of American foods, such as potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers (capsicums), which would eventually transform European diet and food culture, but their use was limited until the late eighteenth century. Corn (maize) is the only possible exception to this rule as it caught on fairly quickly and was grown extensively in Southern Europe. More important were the luxuries introduced in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: chocolate, tobacco, and, from Asia, coffee and tea. All these, along with the requisite utensils, became standard consumables in fashionable society. It has been suggested that hot caffeine-laden drinks were ideally suited to Protestant Northern Europe, where sobriety and working long hours were culturally embedded ideals. Whether this is the case or not, coffee and tea did eventually replace alcoholic beverages as the typical morning and midday drinks of choice, first among the wealthy and then, increasingly, among the working classes.

Colonial possessions of the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas and Asia, and, in the seventeenth century, those of the Dutch, French, and English, provided markets for manufactured goods and also supplied raw materials to the mother country. Whether it was sugar grown on an enormous scale in the Caribbean or Brazil with slave labor, or cotton and rice in the English colonies, these products now entered the European markets. American drugs like cinchona bark and sassafras and dyes like cochineal also became valuable commodities. From Africa came gold, ivory, and slaves and, from Asia, along with spices, rare porcelain, which became the rage until Europeans discovered how to make it themselves in the eighteenth century.

Even the advent of table manners influenced patterns of consumption. Although adopted slowly and sporadically, the fork was eventually considered indispensable. Matching sets of silverware soon replaced the mismatched spoons and knives that diners often carried with them. Along with these developments, individual place settings replaced the more common platters from which medieval diners had plucked food with their fingers. Rather than a slice of bread or wooden trencher, plates of pewter, earthenware, porcelain, or, later, silver became significant investments for the average household. Wealthier homes would also have a collection of platters, basins, ewers for water and wine, and a great variety of serving vessels. Although matching sets were rare, the possession of these items conferred status on the owner, and they could, of course, always be pawned or, if silver, melted down in case of emergency. Napkins, which were usually large and draped across the shoulder, and tablecloths were also becoming ever more typical items among those who chose to dine politely.

Household furniture also proliferated in number and delicacy throughout the early modern period. From a rough bench and literally a "board" set on wooden trestles that could be moved from room to room, there soon appeared permanently fixed tables with turned legs, and elegant sideboards and cupboards on which to display the family tableware. Elaborate candelabra also became necessary as the time for dinner as the main meal of the day gradually shifted from midday to early evening. The dining room itself, as a separate, intimate room with one function, is an invention of the early modern period.

Beyond the dining room, the bedstead, linens, and chestsoften containing the wife's dowrywere also highly valued possessions. They were almost always listed in wills and household inventories, and their deposition after death was very carefully monitored. Even the pillows, bolsters, and blankets, sometimes the most valuable items listed in inventories, would be carefully preserved for the use of heirs.

Clothes, too, were considered important articles of property. While the average peasant or laborer might own only a few sets of clothing and only one suitable for special occasions, wealthy people could invest a serious fortune in doublets, hose, and starched ruffs for men, or jewel-studded brocades and silks for women. Domestically produced velvet, damasks, and satins were even exported to Asia. The fabric as well as the dyes used, not to mention the workmanship, made these extremely expensive items. The fur lining in the finest cloaks, something its possessors were proud to show off in portraits, may not have been merely a fashion statement. Unusually cold and erratic weatherwhat has been called the Little Ice Agebeginning in the late sixteenth century and extending into the eighteenth, may have actually made such items necessary.

One can see the small but expensive consumables that so entranced our early modern forebears by looking at still life paintings of the period. Beyond the lush vessels and glasses prized for their radiance, clocks, mirrors, books, writing implements, and musical instruments often clutter these canvases. Although they often figured some way in the memento mori ('remembrance of death') theme of these paintings, they were also possessions that people wanted to show off. So, too, were paintings themselves: whether portraits, devotional images, or genre scenes, they were something anyone with enough money sought to commission. Tapestries were also typical and valuable household items that served both as decoration and a way to prevent drafts. What is perhaps unique about the way such items were purchased and kept is that they became true collections. Some people sought out antique statues or cameos, others bronzes or strange and marvelous beasts that were amassed into "cabinets of curiosities." Connoisseurship became the true test of the refined gentleman, and, on the requisite grand tour, young men would begin their collections by scrounging up books and manuscripts, paintings, and other souvenirs from their trip through Europe. Ironically, just as the military role of the nobility was being ceded to the professional soldier, collecting arms and armor became one way to preserve one's heritage.

The growth of consumerism was fostered by several fiscal innovations that undoubtedly played a major role in the increased volume of trade. Although only fully functional toward the end of the early modern period, joint stock companies and stock exchanges, legally guaranteed limited partnerships and contracts, and insurance, not to mention more accessible forms of credit, all made trade a more reliable business venture. Trade became less of a wild gamble or "adventure" than a steady source of regular income. All this meant that more and more goods were available and affordable for the average consumer, but it would still be premature to label this society as consumer-oriented.

Among the factors that prevented this from becoming a truly consumerist society, perhaps the most important were the mental constructs of the period and the basic tenets of mercantilist theory and state policy based on them. Working under the assumption that wealth can only be generated by carrying goods abroad to obtain the highest price and having a favorable balance of exports over imports, European states imposed stiff restrictions and duties to check domestic consumption. Only if manufactured goods were sold abroad, they reasoned, would money flow into the country, bullion (precious metals) being the index of national wealth. To produce and consume goods domestically might shift the money around, but it could never generate wealth. By this logic, governments offered incentives to have goods shipped abroad, from surplus grain to woolens to cutlery and manufactured items. This effectively kept the supply low and prices high at home. Governments stimulated external trade by granting monopolies, chartering companies with exclusive privileges (the East India Companies are a good example of these, as are the colonial settlement charters), and by financing mercantile wars. Compounded with demographic pressure and inflation, this meant that most people never became full consumers until the industrial age, and that the goods that were consumed tended to remain expensive imported luxury items. For the wealthy few, Europe offered real opulence to which an increasingly large number of people had access, but for most people it would not be until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century that they became true consumers.

See also Capitalism ; Class, Status, and Order ; Clothing ; Commerce and Markets ; Food and Drink ; Grand Tour ; Industrial Revolution ; Industry ; Mercantilism ; Monopoly ; Trading Companies .


Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. New York, 1978.

Cipolla, Carlo. Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 10001700. 3rd ed. New York, 1993.

Dalby, Andrew. Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. Berkeley, 2000.

De Vries, Jan. Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis, 16001750. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1976.

Flandrin, Jean-Louis, and Massimo Montanari, eds. Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present. Translated by Clarissa Botsford. New York, 1999.

Foster, Nelson, and Linda S. Cordell, eds. Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World. Tucson, 1992.

Glanville, Phillipa, and Hilary Young. Elegant Eating: Four Hundred Years of Dining in Style. London, 2002.

Jardine, Lisa. Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance. New York, 1996.

Mennell, Stephen. All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present. Oxford and New York, 1985.

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, 1985.

Musgrave, Peter. The Early Modern European Economy. New York, 1999.

Paston-Williams, Sara. The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating. London, 1993.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants. New York, 1992.

Visser, Margaret. The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners. New York, 1991.

Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789. New York, 1983.

Ken Albala


views updated Jun 11 2018


Energy is a commodity, and like any commodity, its level of consumption is largely a reflection of its price. However, unlike most other commodities, energy is not valued as a good unto itself, but as a means to achieve an end—the power behind the technology that makes it possible to do more and improve standards of living. For this reason, huge sums are spent by governments, utilities, and businesses to gather the statistics to forecast consumption patterns. They want to know not only how much energy can be found, extracted, transported, and converted to useful forms, but also how that energy powers today's technology and the emerging technologies of tomorrow.


From 1967 to 1973, U.S. energy consumption dramatically increased, from 57.57 quadrillion Btus to 74.28 quadrillion Btus (see Figure 1). In these years leading up to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, energy was inexpensive and growth in consumption was closely linked to population and economic growth. Forecasters could look at population and economic growth trends and accurately project a similar growth in energy consumption. The oil price shock changed this dynamic by spurring energy-efficiency improvements. Overall energy consumption declined to 70.52 quadrillion Btus by 1983 thanks, in large part, to dramatic improvements in energy efficiency. People in the United States, as well as much of the developed world, learned how to do more with less. More fuel-efficient cars, new energy-efficient homes and office buildings, the retrofitting of existing structures, and more energy-stingy appliances and lighting all played a part in lowering energy consumption from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s.

The years 1983 through 2000 were marked by stable or dropping energy prices. Adjusting the price of energy for inflation, it was about the same in 1998 as it was in 1967. In the case of gasoline, the inflation adjusted price was actually lower in 1999 than it was before the oil embargo. As a result, people put less effort into conserving energy and became more open to incorporating new energy-hungry devices into their lives. Products that were virtually nonexistent in the 1960—dishwashers, microwaves, telephone answering machines, and personal computers to name a fe—are now considered necessities by many. Americans felt an urge to splurge as consumption gradually reached 94.21 quadrillion Btus by 1997.

Energy-efficiency improvements have offset much of the increased demand from these new appliances. But demand has increased, and will continue to increase, as the combination of continually increasing disposable income and cheap energy accelerates ever more novel inventions and innovations requiring energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) projects that the prices of oil and natural gas will rise modestly until the year 2020, and the price of coal and electricity will fall approximately 20 percent by then, which will help push energy consumption to 119.4 quadrillion Btus by 2020, more than double the level of consumption in 1967.


Efficiency has a dual role. While improvements were being made on the use side, major efficiency improvements were happening on the conversion side—the converting of heat energy to electricity. From 1970 to 2000, the efficiency of combined-cycle natural gas plants jumped from about 38 percent to 58 percent. The average efficiency of coal-burning steam turbine plants also improved, with the average for better units attaining 34 to 38 percent efficiency, and a few new units reaching the 45 to 48 percent range.

Efficiency improvements benefit a nation because it takes half as much coal to produce a given amount of electricity with a 40 percent efficient coal-fired steam plant in 2000 as it did with a 20 percent efficient plant in 1970. Even though electricity consumption is expected to increase by more than 20 percent from 2000 to 2020, inefficient plants will continue to be retired, retrofitted, or replaced by efficient plants, so that it will take far less than 20 percent more fossil fuel to meet this greater consumption.

A secondary benefit is that efficiency gains in fossil fuel generation also reduce all types of harmful emissions, even carbon dioxide—the greenhouse gas suspected by many as a major culprit of climate change. A 45 percent efficient plant releases approximately 40 percent less CO2 per megawatt-hours of electricity produced than a 25 percent efficient plant that it might be replacing.


The U.S. government has tracked consumption by energy source since 1949, the year when petroleum overtook coal as the major source of energy (see Figure 2). Petroleum consumption continued to increase throughout the 1950s and 1960s due to increases in transportation and industrial demand, and as a coal replacement for heating and electric power generation. Natural gas consumption also increased during this period as it became the fuel of choice for home heating.

Following the Arab oil embargo of 1973, natural gas consumption declined until the mid-1980s primarily due to the assumption that the nation was running out of natural gas and because of legislation outlawing the use of natural gas for "low priority" uses. Energy conservation efforts in the industrial, commercial, and residential sectors, primarily the improved energy efficiency of new furnaces and boilers, also were instrumental in this decline. Petroleum consumption peaked later, in 1978, and then began to fall as older vehicles were replaced by more fuel-efficient models, and because of the effort of utilities to switch from petroleum as a fuel for generating electricity.

In the early 1970s, coal consumption once again equaled its earlier peak in the early 1950s and continued to grab a larger share of the electricity-generation market due to the price and supply problems of petroleum and natural gas.

Beginning in 1986 and through the 1990s, natural gas consumption rose again as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission began deregulating natural gas, and natural gas electricity generation became the choice due to innovations improving the efficiency of generating technology. These new plants were not only more efficient than coal-fired plants, but also less expensive and time-consuming to construct. By 1998, natural gas consumption equaled its 1972 peak of 22.6 quadrillion Btus.

Many nuclear power plants were ordered in the 1960s and early 1970s, but construction slowed in the mid-1970s and halted in the early 1980s because of the high cost of construction, problems with radioactive waste disposal, and political obstacles. Despite no new power plants being built, better management and technology resulted in more energy generation during the late 1980s and 1990s. In 1996, nuclear facility efficiency (the amount of power generated divided by the maximum possible generation) reached an all-time high of 76.4 percent. Although the amount of nuclear-generated electricity more than doubled between 1980 and 1996 (2.74 to 7.17 quadrillion Btus), the future contribution is certain to fall through 2020 for three important reasons: limited potential for further gains in efficiency, many nuclear facilities are scheduled for retirement, and no new facilities are planned.

Out of the 7 quadrillion Btus contributed by renewable energy, more than 95 percent comes from hydroelectric power and biofuels (waste energy, wood energy, and alcohol). Geothermal, solar, and wind are all very minor contributors. Renewable energy's share is unlikely to grow because hydroelectric power faces political and environmental concerns about dams, no new geothermal sites are planned, and biofuel potential is limited. Another major factor hindering growth in renewables was the much lower than expected electric generating cost for coal and natural gas. The projections made in about 1980 for the year 2000 were way off target. In terms of dollars per million Btus of energy, coal was widely projected to reach $3 to $5, not $1, and natural gas was projected to reach $4 to $8, not $2.

In the future, if the criterion for selecting new generating capacity was solely fuel cost, coal will be the number one choice. But the much greater costs of coal-fired plants (primarily to meet local and federal emission standards), as well as the potential of tighter standards, will make gas more attractive in many cases. And although natural gas prices may rise, the fuel costs per kilowatt-hour for gas-fired power plants should remain unchanged as efficiency gains offset the rise in fuel prices.


Among the four major sectors of the economy—residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation—the industrial sector has historically been the greatest user of energy (see Figure 3). The industrial sector includes energy-intensive industries such as those for paper, metals, chemicals, and petroleum products as well as light-energy industries such as textiles and furniture manufacturers.

In 1951, industrial consumption was 17.13 quadrillion Btus, nearly as much as that for residential and commercial and transportation combined. From the 1950s through the early 1970s all three sectors continued to grow, with the residential and commercial sector showing the greatest increase, a reflection of the growth in office and housing stock.

The period 1973 to 1983 was one in which industrial consumption declined significantly, falling from 31.53 quadrillion Btus to 25.75 quadrillion Btus. There were a number of factors responsible for this steep drop. Foremost among them were the increase in the price of energy, a drop in output in many energy-intensive industries, and vast improvements in efficiency. Per thousand dollars of manufacturing sales, energy use declined by more than 25 percent between 1977 and 1997. The concerted energy-efficiency efforts of the industrial sector resulted in consumption in the residential and commercial sector briefly surpassing the industrial sector by 1986.

From 1983 to 1998, all three sectors of the economy experienced an increase in consumption largely because the price of all energy sources dropped. In the residential and commercial and the industrial sectors, the greatest growth was in natural gas and electricity consumption. Although new homes were more energy-efficient, they were on average much larger and filled with more energy-hungry housing features that either did not exist or were considered luxuries—air conditioning, Jacuzzis, microwaves, dishwashers, and security systems, to name a few—for home buyers in the 1970s. Some of the consumption increase can be attributed to the need to space-condition more area, as the average home size expanded from 1,600 square feet in 1970 to 2,100 square feet in 1998. The amount of commercial sector space also expanded, which required more energy for air conditioning, heating, and lighting.

Consumption in the transportation sector historically has been less than either the industrial sector or the residential and commercial sector, but it is of greater concern because consumption is almost entirely petroleum as opposed to a mix of petroleum, natural gas, and electricity. And because electricity can be generated from a number of different sources, and because there is greater opportunity to substitute one source of energy for another in generating electricity, the price and supply security that exists in other sectors does not apply to the transportation sector.

Another problem with the dependence of transportation on petroleum is the enormous military, strategic, economic, and political costs of securing the petroleum supply. Estimates of the military costs alone associated with the Mideast region for the period from 1980 to 1993 ranged from $100 billion to more that $1 trillion.

Transportation is also the emissions leader. About 75 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and 45 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions come from the transportation sector. If rising levels of CO2 are found to be responsible for global warming, and measures are put in place to severely curtail CO2 emissions, the measures will have the greatest impact on the transportation sector.

As the other sectors have shifted from petroleum beginning in the mid-1970s, the transportation sector has not because of the formidable petroleum-consuming internal-combustion engine. Although competing technologies (electric, fuel cells, and hybrid vehicles) create less emissions, internal-combustion-engine technology continues to make dramatic steps in limiting emissions. It is likely to remain the dominant means of transportation propulsion through 2020, which is why petroleum consumption in the transportation sector will remain high. In 1997, a total of 24.04 quadrillion Btus out of the 36.31 quadrillion Btus of petroleum consumption found use in the transportation sector, consuming nearly all the 24.96 quadrillion Btus that had to be imported.

Close to 65 percent of the petroleum consumed for transportation is gasoline, followed by 18 percent for diesel fuel and 13 percent for jet fuel. The DOE expects that the rise of "cleaner burning" alternative fuels should lower the share of gasoline and diesel, and expects greater air travel to increase the share of jet fuel.

Vehicle technology exists to improve fuel economy to 45 miles per gallon (if 45 miles per gallon was the average, the United States could be a net exporter of petroleum), yet the average consumer of the 1990s values performance and other features far more than fuel economy. This shifting priority away from fuel economy is why the steady improvements in gas mileage through the late 1970s and 1980s halted in 1990s. The trends of more people, more vehicles per person, and more miles driven per vehicle all point toward transportation petroleum consumption increasing significantly in the future.


Despite the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s, the world is projected to consume more than twice as much energy in 2000 as in 1970, and more than three times that amount by 2020 (see Figure 4). In the world at large, energy consumption is greatest in North America, followed by Europe and the Pacific Rim countries. In the early 1970s, approximately 60 percent of all energy consumption occurred in North America. Consumption growth of the Asian Pacific economies led the world in the 1980s and 1990s, which brought the North American share of energy consumption down, to about 50 percent. Still, looked at from a consumption per capita basis, the 4 percent of the world population who reside in the United States consume 50 percent of all energy. Many feel that this fact could have dire consequences. If the developing world follows the energy-intensive U.S. model, the world will have to deal with the environmental problems associated with much greater energy use.

The United States is by far the most energy-intensive user. Americans consume more than twice as much energy per capita as in Europe or Japan, and are the largest emitter of CO2. Of the 6 billion metric tons of carbon emissions worldwide in 1996, the United States emitted 1.466 billion metric tons, followed by China at 805 million, Russia at 401 million, and Japan at 291 million. Although many countries consume more energy than China, China consumes vast amounts of coal—the worst fossil fuel for CO2 emissions.

As long as the source for consumption is mainly fossil fuels, who is doing the consuming and how much is being consumed promise to be two of the most contentious aspects of international relations for the foreseeable future. Energy consumption presents a troubling paradox: Greater energy consumption is the result of a higher standard of living, but this greater consumption also portends greater, and often unacceptable, environmental costs.

John Zumerchik

See also: Biofuels; Coal, Consumption of; Economically Efficient Energy Choices; Economic Growth and Energy Consumption; Emission Control, Vehicle; Fossil Fuels; Gasoline Engines; Hydroelectric Energy; Natural Gas, Consumption of; Petroleum Consumption; Population Growth and Energy Consumption; Supply and Demand and Energy Prices; Transportation, Evolution of Energy Use and.


BP Amoco. (1998). BP Statistical Review of World Energy. London: Author.

Green, D. L. (1996). Transportation and Energy. Washington, DC: Eno Transportation Foundation.

International Energy Agency. (1998). Energy Statistics of OECD Countries. Paris: Author.

Nye, D. E. (1997). Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. (1998). Annual Energy Review 1997. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. (1998). Annual Energy Outlook 1999. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. (1998). International Energy Outlook 1998, with Projections through 2000. Washington, DC: Author.


views updated May 21 2018


What It Means

People often think of consumption as the process of using consumer products, which are all the kinds of goods and services that can be purchased. In economics, however, consumption is a term used to talk about how much money all consumers are spending on goods and services. It is represented as a number that indicates the total amount of money consumers spend (an amount known as expenditure) in a given time period.

The goods and services that matter in the calculation of consumption are those that are “final” goods and services—things such as food, heating oil, telephone service, electronics, and home appliances. They are called “final” because they are either used up or transformed to such a degree that they cannot be reused or no longer resemble the original good. Purchases of machines, buildings, or factories by businesses are not included in the calculation of consumption because these things are used to produce other goods but are not consumable goods in and of themselves. They are thus referred to as “intermediate products.”

Every time people purchase and use goods in order to keep their homes running, transport themselves to school and work, and clothe and feed themselves, they are, as consumers, contributing to the overall spending patterns of the economy. When economists analyze the economy on a macroeconomic (large-scale) level, consumption is of primary interest because it accounts for about two-thirds of all spending in a given time period.

When Did It Begin

As modern capitalist economies have developed over the past few hundred years, they have been grounded in the exchange of goods and services for money. (Capitalism is a system in which business is owned by private individuals and prices are determined through the free interaction of buyers and sellers.) Philosophers and economists, recognizing that spending is one of the basic features of capitalism, have studied the way people spend money and how it affects the economy. For instance, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) believed that consumption was motivated solely by the desires and wants of individual consumers. His theories paved the way for other theorists to develop ideas about consumption’s fundamental role in economic systems.

In the 1930s the British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) attempted to find out how the income levels of consumers related to the ways in which they spent their income. According to Keynes, in making a decision about how much to spend, the typical consumer is mainly influenced not so much by the price of goods as by how much income he or she has. Consumers, Keynes said, usually spend most of whatever income they have on goods and services. He called this relationship between consumer income and consumption the “consumption function.”

More Detailed Information

Consumption is one of the four kinds of spending that add up to what is known as “aggregate expenditures” (the total amount spent on goods and services in a nation’s economy). The three other kinds of expenditures are investment expenditures (spending by the business sector), government spending, and the value of goods exported to other countries. Each of these components represents a stream of spending that contributes to aggregate expenditures, but consumption carries the largest amount. In fact, in the U.S. economy consumer expenditures make up, on average, two-thirds of total spending.

In determining (or predicting) the rate of consumption, a specific part of consumers’ income called “disposable income” plays a crucial role. Disposable income is the amount of income consumers are free to use after paying taxes. Consumers can use their disposable income for consumption or save it, thereby not spending it.

The proportion of the total amount of disposable income spent on consumer goods and services is referred to as the average propensity to consume, or APC. To figure out the APC, economists compare the disposable income of a given time period to how much consumers spend during that period. For example, in 2001 the disposable income of U.S. households was $7,469 billion. Of this amount, consumers spent $7,342 billion and saved $127 billion. What this means is that American consumers spent almost all of the money they received in 2001. On average, they spent 98 cents per dollar of income (an APC of 0.98), leaving only 2 cents per dollar for savings.

As this example shows, the United States has an extremely consumer-oriented economy. Some years, in fact, the APC in the United States has been higher than 1.0; this happens when consumers spend more than 100 cents per disposable dollar. In order to do so, they have had to pay for some of their consumption with credit (borrowed money) or with savings from the past. When consumer spending exceeds disposable income, consumer saving is negative. At that point, consumers are said to be “dissaving.”

Economists seek to understand consumption so that they can observe trends in consumer behavior and attempt to predict how consumers will use their disposable income. Although it has been proven that consumer spending is linked to income, there are other influences on consumption. One of these is expectations. People who know they will receive money in the form of such things as gifts, bonuses, or raises will start spending more money before they receive their extra money. In this way, expectations can alter spending habits.

Wealth is another influence on spending habits. For example, if an individual can sell some of her stock (portions of ownership in companies) in order to pay for her child’s education, her spending is being financed by wealth, not by her current income.

A third influence on spending habits is credit. This is money that consumers borrow from banks or other institutions (including stores themselves) in order to purchase goods and services. When a customer uses credit, he or she has to pay the institution a fee called interest, which is usually calculated as a percentage of the loan amount. Some consumers are eligible for higher levels of credit and lower rates of interest than others; others are not eligible for credit at all.

Income taxes and price levels also influence consumer behavior. If the government cuts tax rates, consumers are able to keep and spend more of their earned income. Likewise, if the government raises taxes, disposable income decreases and as a result so does spending. Increases in general price levels reduce the real value of money (because each dollar of income does not go as far as before) and may lead people to cut back on spending.

When economists want to predict the effect of new government programs, it is important for them to know not just the APC but also the MPC, the marginal propensity to consume. This measures the total amount of spending on consumer goods from an increase in disposable income. For example, if the government were to cut taxes on a household by $100 and they spent an additional $80, the MPC would be 0.80. Knowing the MPC helps governments understand how fiscal policy (changes in government spending and taxation) effect the economy as a whole.

Recent Trends

In recent decades businesses have been increasingly competitive in their attempts to convince the individual consumer to spend money. They primarily do so through advertising and marketing, two tools that have become highly developed. Often their strategies involve researching consumers’ needs and desires so that they can tailor their marketing and advertisements to a specific type of consumer. For example, many manufacturers and retailers use computer software to match advertisements to the content of private e-mails and the information provided by credit card purchases. Economists have begun to study more closely the effects that marketing has on consumption.


views updated May 11 2018

con·sump·tion / kənˈsəm(p)shən/ • n. 1. the using up of a resource: we should reduce energy consumption. ∎  the eating, drinking, or ingesting of something: liquor is sold for consumption off the premises. ∎  an amount of something that is used up or ingested: a daily consumption of 15 cigarettes. ∎  the purchase and use of goods and services by the public: an article for mass consumption. ∎  the reception of information or entertainment, esp. by a mass audience: his memo was not meant for public consumption.2. dated a wasting disease, esp. pulmonary tuberculosis.


views updated May 21 2018


Consumption refers to the using up of goods and service by consumers. In fact, consumption of goods is considered to be the final step in the production process and the ultimate purpose of production. While the term consumption can include both capital consumption and nonproductive consumption, it generally is restricted to mean nonproductive consumption. Nonproductive consumption is when goods or services are not used in any further production processes. This is different than capital consumption, which refers to the use of goods and services to produce more goods and services. An example of capital consumption is the use of factory equipment to make products such as running shoes. Nonproductive consumption, on the other hand, occurs when individuals or families purchase personal-use items or services such as cars, computers, paper clips, or manicures. Governmental bodies can also engage in nonproductive consumption. An example of this might be the decision of a city or town to build a public facility, such as a school or library. Therefore, nonproductive consumption most often includes consumption by private individuals, social groups, and the public.


views updated May 23 2018

consumption (kŏn-sump-shŏn) n. any disease causing wasting of tissues, especially (formerly) pulmonary tuberculosis.
consumptive adj.


views updated May 18 2018

consumption See tuberculosis