'Credo General Reference' Definitions


Consumerism is a way of life rooted in mass production and the marketing industry. It includes a practice where social identity and prestige are constructed, experienced, and signalled through the purchase and possession of consumer goods and services. Consumerism is fuelled by easy credit and by advertising designed to create desire for commodities by associating their acquisition with valued states such as happiness, peace of mind, attractiveness, gratification, affluence, and success. Consumerism is central to an economy in which people are preoccupied with material consumption to the point where the amount of goods acquired may be far in excess of actual need. Producers of commodities in industrialised societies profit by ever-expanding consumption, but meeting this growing demand has been using up natural resources at an unsustainable rate.

At the other end of the product life cycle, consumerism includes the practice of discarding broken, out-of-fashion, and even slightly used products, making room for new acquisitions. This has resulted in a huge and rapidly moving waste stream that itself has become problematic. Most social theorists agree that contemporary consumerism began at the dawn of the 20th century and gathered momentum with an expanding middle class in Europe and North America after World War II. With modern globalization it has spread worldwide, wherever consumer products and associated images and narratives have penetrated societies whose traditional cultural economies have been disrupted by colonialist or neoliberal restructuring.


Waste is what remains after the production of goods or the extraction of resources, whether by humans or machines.

Types and Amounts of Waste

Waste comes in a bewildering variety of forms but can be categorised in two basic ways. First is its state: gaseous, liquid, or solid, with subcategories of all kinds within these broader categories. Waste can also be of organic origin or composition (animal excrement, wood pulp, plastics) or inorganic (typically metals). Waste may also be categorized by its toxicity. Some waste is relatively harmless, such as used paper. Some is harmless in and of itself but presents environmental hazards if not properly disposed of, such as plastic containers. Some waste, such as human or animal excrement, is not toxic per se, but it presents a health hazard if it contaminates water supplies, for instance. Finally, some waste, such as heavy metals, radioactive materials, or certain chemicals, is highly toxic to human health and the environment. (Nuclear and toxic wastes will receive little discussion here; for a more thorough discussion, see the chapters Nuclear Energy and Toxic Waste, respectively.)

Second, waste can be categorized by its source. There is waste associated with agricultural production, manufacturing, resource extraction, consumption, and human bodily functions. This chapter will largely focus on household waste.

By definition, waste is not useful or wanted, at least in its immediate state. It can be, and often is, recycled into useful material or products, or, in the case of organic wastes, used as compost or burned for energy. Whether reused or not, waste must almost always be removed in a timely fashion from where it is immediately produced—be it the farm, the factory, or the household.

© Sophie Leah Nathan-King, all rights reserved