Skip to content
Search

Latest Stories

Top Stories

Mass consumerism and the hypocrisy of Gen Z

Young adults shopping for clothes

Members of Gen Z consume at an unsustainable rate: clothes, makeup, technology and every other imaginable product.

RyanJLane/Getty Images

Pruthi is a professor of entrepreneurship at San Jose State University, where she is a co-founder and director ofHonorsX, and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. Kharbanda is a senior at Presentation High School in San Jose, Calif.

California lawmakers recently approved two bills banning grocery and convenience stores statewide from offering customers reusable plastic bags. These bills are the next step in combating plastic waste, but what about the waste from mass consumerism that has come to pervade our lives?

Through the past decades, we have been trained to shop, purchase and consume products to solve our problems. While mending old clothing or refurbishing used goods have become things of the past, new products that are ubiquitously promoted are cramming our stores, screens, mailboxes and nearly every aspect of our lives.

Growing up in the digital age, Gen Z is the prime target for this consumerist culture. Their lives are catered toward finding flaws with what they currently own and buying the next best thing. In the process, our world lays waste, proving the disastrous effects of those spending habits.


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits. Today, that figure is 30 — one for every day of the month. Much of this clothing is hoarded. The Daily Mail reports that women in the U.K. buy half their body weight in clothes each year, storing 22 unworn items on average in their closets. While those who have the luxury to buy in excess live in momentary bliss, young women and children who are exposed to toxic chemicals in factories that manufacture those items pay the price.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

We are deeply alarmed by the wicked social problems facing our world, and we need to reawaken Gen Z’s consciousness on an urgent basis.

The origins of mass consumerism

Late Capitalism, a concept refined by German economist Werner Sombart, refers to the drastic expansion of goods and services in the West after World War II. As the U.S. solidified its role as a global leader, technological innovation ushered an era of prosperity. American citizens were able to buy a variety of goods and services like never before; in reality, they became “consumers.”

This philosophy was not a sudden mistake, but a calculated attempt to build the U.S. economy while depleting resources to generate profits and uncritical consumers who submit to the system of mass production and mass marketing, an ever-widening abundance of goods within a culture that emphasizes buying and selling, desire, glamor and flexible, purchase-driven identities.

Mass consumerism became a grave reality with the rise of e-commerce platforms. Today, American consumers are surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of options for a singular good, and sellers who use a variety of unethical and exploitative tactics to lure consumers into buying more.

Gen Z’s mass consumerism

Deemed as a trendsetting generation, Gen Z is known to defy expectations and break racial, gender, and social norms. Gen Z is praised for its care of diverse groups of people, its call for action regarding social injustices and its unwillingness to tolerate the status quo. Their preaching of climate activism and boycotting of brands merit accolades. However, Gen Z is also a generation that consumes at an unsustainable rate: clothes, makeup, technology and every other imaginable product.

The rise of e-commerce, trend cycles and social media has magnified these habits. One of the most evident instances of Gen Z's tendency to make large purchases for low prices is in the fast fashion industry. The Chinese online giant Temu’s catchline is “Shop like a billionaire,” whereas stores like Forever 21 and Zara sell the idea of buying luxury on a budget. The more of an item Gen Z consumes, the less satisfaction they derive from each additional unit as the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility aptly sums up.

According to data from CivicScience, 90 percent of Gen Z between the ages of 18 and 24 report using social media. A November 2022 Statista survey found that nearly 40 percent of Gen Zers in the U.S. spend more than four hours on social media platforms everyday. In “GenZ and Media-Overexposure to Products Leads to Overconsumption”, Kyungmin Min discusses the French term “Panoplie,” which signifies a person who believes that their purchase of a particular product places them among a consumer group. From theKardashians,who promote slim, sun-tanned bodies to rich influencers who advertise exclusive brands and businesses, social media has ingrained the message that if one buys a particular product, they are able to partake in a desired lifestyle.

Infiltrating our phones and cluttering the screens of Tik-Tok, Youtube and Instagram, the aesthetics of “clean girl,” “mob-wife” or “old-money” motivate purchases not only by a simple preference, but by a deeper desire to segment a connection with a social class.

The heart of Gen Z hypocrisy and a call to action

So, what can Gen Z do to address their conscious indulgence in fast fashion and other forms of mass consumerism? They can adjust their behavior to make a difference but they can also be proactive to have their voice heard. Whether it is as climate activists at global conferences or becoming involved in other corporate issues that interest them, it doesn’t matter. Gen Zers can make a difference if they choose to become involved.

To be sure, just 100 of the world’s companies are responsible for 71 percent of emissions. Yet, Gen Z cannot be absolved of their responsibility to combat consumerist culture. Several innovative new businesses like Patagonia andTOMS are socially responsible ventures that are extensions of their founders’ philosophy of sustainable production and consumption. Furthermore, no company can be successful without its customers. Whether it is Amazon, Target, Forever 21, Coca-Cola or Nestle, millions partake in their successes simply through buying their products.

The message for Gen Z is to not forget their own role in working towards a better planet. In addition to calling out companies if they believe profits are excessive they must work through their own actions and motivations to purchase fewer goods. Let’s collectively reduce our identities as consumers and replace them with refusers if we are to eradicate waste and mend the injustices and inequalities that we as individuals believe must be addressed.

Read More

Iceberg hiding money below
wenmei Zhou/Getty Images

The hidden iceberg: Why corporate treasury spending matters

Freed is president and co-founder of the Center for Political Accountability.

Too much media coverage and other political analyses focus on contributions by corporate political action committees but overlook the serious consequences of political contributions made directly from corporate treasury funds.

In talks with corporate executives, the default too often is almost exclusively on company political engagement through its PAC. This ignores what one political scientist has likened to an iceberg of spending, where disclosure is not required (and hence is “dark money”) or is partial (only by the recipient, not the donor) and totals are much greater than the amounts allowed for PAC spending.

Keep ReadingShow less
hand reaching out over an American flag
Nikolay Ponomarenko/Getty Images

Big Philanthropy to the rescue? Think again.

Cain has served in leadership roles at numerous foundations, nonprofits and for-profit corporations. He was a founding partner of American Philanthropic.

As the media and elites across America take up a fight to “save democracy,” Big Philanthropy is casting itself in the role of superhero. Since 2011, the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy reports, some $5.7 billion has gone to programs supporting U.S. democracy, with grant announcements that often depict foundations as stepping up to forestall a doomsday.

The Carnegie Corporation, warning of a “fragility of our democracy ... unimaginable just a few years ago,” has pledged to strengthen social cohesion and combat polarization. The MacArthur Foundation is partnering with Carnegie and the Ford and Knight foundations, among others, in the $500 million Press Forward effort to “address the crisis in local news.” As Knight president Alberto Ibargüen put it to the New York Times: “There is a new understanding of the importance of information in the management of community, in the management of democracy in America.”

Keep ReadingShow less
American flag and business imagery
Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

How your company can follow the model for political spending

Freed is president and co-founder, Hanna is research director, and Sandstrom is strategic advisor at the Center for Political Accountability.

With corporate political disclosure and accountability accepted as the norm, the next step for responsible companies is to put in place a framework for approaching, governing and assessing their election-related spending. The framework would establish policies for when or whether to spend and a process for evaluating the benefits and risks associated with a decision to use corporate resources to advance a political cause or candidate.

Keep ReadingShow less
Superhero businessman revealing American flag
BrianAJackson/Getty Images

Are U.S. companies living up to their commitments to democracy?

Fordham is a PhD student in political science at the University of Washington. Brumbach is an associate professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

“[A]s a company, we have a responsibility to engage. For this reason, we are working together with other businesses through groups like the Business Roundtable to support efforts to enhance every person’s ability to vote.”

These were the words of AT&T CEO John Stankey, responding to a Georgia law that limited absentee voting. A similar bill proposed in Texas prompted Dell CEO Michael Dell to issue the following statement: “Free, fair, equitable access to voting is the foundation of American democracy. Those rights — especially for women, communities of color — have been hard-earned. Governments should ensure citizens have their voices heard. HB6 does the opposite, and we are opposed to it.”

The pattern is clear: U.S. business leaders are increasingly vocal in support of democratic institutions.

Keep ReadingShow less
Cash and market graphs
Javier Ghersi/Getty Images

Companies must manage risk through due diligence of political spending

Hanna is research director, Freed is president and co-founder, and Sandstrom is strategic advisor at the Center for Political Accountability.

As the 2024 election cycle begins in earnest, companies must act on their fiduciary responsibility to more closely monitor their political spending and the accompanying risks. Too often corporate leaders fail to fully assess and scrutinize the ultimate beneficiaries of political contributions from corporate treasury funds. This oversight constitutes a lapse in corporate officers’ duty of care to protect and advance the interests of the company and its shareholders.

Keep ReadingShow less