Avoiding the Trap of Holiday Consumerism

by Isaiah Johnson   |   December 7, 2018


It’s no secret that holiday consumerism has skyrocketed over the years. The now-normalized urge to buy gifts during the holidays, combined with the strategies that businesses use to target consumers, have created a strenuous game that drains families, businesses, employees, and environmental resources. 

Businesses manipulate us to engage in over-the-top shopping, enticing us to buy more than we otherwise would with low costs, great deals, one-time offers, layaway, and more. But many of these offers mask hidden agendas or false deals. 

I once worked in a phone store that sold cheap-quality virtual reality headsets to customers who bought a new phone. The catch? The straps for the headsets were sold separately. This resulted in many unhappy customers who returned with headsets that they couldn't even put on, only to find out that they couldn’t get their money back because of the company’s no-return policy. 

The company also offered an accessory package deal where customers would get a discount if they purchased three phone accessories that were at least $25 each. While most customers walked away with a “deal,” they didn't seem to realize that they were being influenced to spend much more money than they had originally planned to spend.

Consumerism becomes even more intense with online shopping. When you’re online, companies are constantly monitoring your Internet activity to devise ways to get you to buy their products, using information such as recently visited websites, recent Google searches, or recently searched products. This information is quickly used to make online ads that companies can bombard you with, exposing you to these ads to the point that it affects your thoughts. 

As The Story of Stuff explains, we’re caught in a never-ending cycle of working hard to make money, then relaxing at home where we’re exposed to a slew of ads that make us want to go out and spend money—money that we’ll again have to go out and work hard to make.

The Costs of Consumerism

The environmental impacts of this never-ending cycle are huge. To meet our ever-increasing demand for products, the United States alone “uses up at least 30 percent of the Earth's resources and creates 30 percent of its waste.” This means that we’re not only decimating natural resources such as forests, but we’re creating ever more waste, leading to pollution, garbage pile-ups, and other toxic effects that continue to damage the environment and its resources. 

Production and shipping are very costly to the environment, as factories and vehicles release a constant flow of emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Not only are we generating massive quantities of waste, but we’re also squandering money because so many items are made to break. They’re deliberately designed to become obsolete so that you’ll be forced to spend money on more products. 

Consider cell phones, which are easily broken, or how electronics companies like Microsoft and Sony make their older video gaming consoles obsolete to force their customers to buy their newer products. This tactic works especially well with youth, who fall victim to peer pressure. Young people may not want to buy newer consoles because of costs or other factors, but they don’t have much choice when their services are cut off and they can no longer play with friends who have the newer system. 

With the barrage of video ads, commercials, posters, billboards, online ads, and more influencing us every day, the most troubling question is “how is this affecting childhood development?” Children are far more susceptible to advertising than adults. 

As a child, I was overweight thanks to a food addiction created by the ever-present media around me. In addition to all the McDonald's commercials, there were tons of cartoons that took extra time to make food look desirable and addictive. In many cases, the lovable main characters shared the common characteristic of a love for food. As a kid, it’s hard not to want to eat when you’re watching your favorite characters gorge.

Kids are huge targets for companies not just because they provide marketers with access to their parents’ money, but because they are the customers of the future. Companies want to influence them when they’re young, while they’re easier to market to. Kids today are targeted by such a high volume of advertising that even scientists aren’t sure how this will affect their development. 

What You Can Do

While many corporations’ tactics are questionable and sometimes underhanded, not all companies are evil. Businesses need advertising and products to survive. But there are still steps we can take to minimize any harm done to ourselves, our lifestyles, and our environment. 

Old Iphones
  • Become media savvy. Common Sense Media offers a blog post on “How Kids Can Resist Advertising and Be Smart Consumers,” with a video that gives excellent tips on teaching your kids how to recognize ads and products that they don’t need. Tips include sitting with your kids when they watch TV and letting them know whenever a form of advertisement, such as a commercial or product placement, appears.
  • Evaluate a product’s value before you buy it. If you indulge in every ad that comes your way, then your kids are likely picking up irresponsible spending habits. To protect yourself and save money, look at different website reviews to make sure you’re not being cheated. See if reviewers mention that items break often, or if they are of poor or high quality (but be aware that online reviews are another form of advertisement, and fake reviews are common.) Alternatively, get a second opinion from a friend or family member. 
  • Install an adblocker. A powerful way to protect yourself from online ads is to download and install an adblocker on your computer. For example, Adblock Plus is a free, easy-to-use plugin that helps prevent advertisements on certain websites.
  • Give  “experiential” gifts. A satisfying alternative to spending money on products that will eventually break is to give someone an amazing experience. Experiential gifts reduce waste and can lower the high demand for products to be made, thus saving environmental resources. Rather than getting your loved one a keychain for Christmas or their birthday, try some of these ideas:
    • If they like to dance, treat them to salsa or tap dancing lessons.
    • For more adventurous folks, take them skydiving or mountain climbing.
    • For techies, give the gift of coding or graphic arts classes. Or, bring your loved one to a game jam, a weekend-long (and usually free) event where people gather to create video games. 
    • Give tickets to movies and concerts. 
    • Save money by giving experiences such as stay-at-home dinners and hikes. 
  • Give the gift of skill. Websites like Udemy.com offer free or inexpensive online classes where you can learn a variety of skills. Not all classes are free, but they often offer discounted courses for $10. But be mindful of the “phone store” trap, and don’t purchase more classes then you need just because they’re cheap. Maybe just buy a class or two, and if the recipient finishes it and loves it, indulge in more. 

Check out New Dream’s extensive resources for more suggestions on great non-material gift ideas, or for how to reduce commercialism in your and your children’s lives.

Interested in supporting Isaiah's company, Project Beanstalk, as it seeks to expand diversity in the gaming industry? Consider contributing to his crowdfunding campaign

Isaiah Johnson is a 2018 New Dream Youth Fellow from Pittsburg, California. He is passionate about creating more diversity in the video game industry, and about positive social impact. He is especially interested in supporting youth of color as they learn more about technology and professional development. Isaiah brings a unique approach to his work in gaming: instead of the common emphasis on colors and actions that fuel anger and violence, he creates experiences that help people to build understanding and empathy. He is working to create a program for youth to learn professional game development to help spread new thinking and build in new perspectives among creatives and technologists.