Conspicuous consumption | Thorstein Veblen

Many of us are aware of consumerism but the theory underpinning it, Conspicuous Consumption, is less well known.

This post is a basic introduction to the theory of Conspicuous Consumption and by extension – consumerism. I also touch on how we can change by being intentional consumers. Refuting for ourselves the ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ that society tells us that we ’need’ – chief among these the desire to impress colleagues, family, friends and anyone else empty enough to be impressed and care about what new shiny thing we have.

Definition of Conspicuous Consumption

Conspicuous Consumption was a term coined by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen to describe and explain the practice of consumers purchasing goods of a higher quality or in a greater quantity than is necessarily practical. More specifically it refers to luxury goods or services to publicly display one’s wealth or status. (Which is where the ‘conspicuous’ element comes from – conspicuous meaning ‘attracting attention’.)

While Conspicuous Consumption is typically associated with the wealthy, this form of consumption is practiced by all economic classes.

From idolizing and imitating hip hop artists by wearing fake and ostentatious ‘bling’, to spending weekends in the mall, super excited about a new pair of designer heels to add to an ever-filling closet, you’ll find examples of conspicuous consumerism everywhere among different kinds of people and income levels.

Definition of Consumerism

The concept of consumerism was derived by the concept of Conspicuous Consumption proposed by Veblen.

Consumerism now has, confusingly, quite a few different definitions – some of them even conflicting.

For the sake of this post, we are using the definition as follows:

Consumerism is the selfish and frivolous collecting of products, or economic materialism. In this sense consumerism is negative and in opposition to positive lifestyles of anti-consumerism and simple living. – Source

HISTORY OF IDEAS – Consumerism


Across Borders – Rich And Poor, East And West

Veblen suggested it was the wealthy who display this Conspicuous Consumption. However, if you simply look around you will see Conspicuous Consumption practiced by all economic levels and across different cultures.

Middle and lower classes today spend excessive amounts of money on clothes with in-your-face branding to signal how they have an expensive and popular brand.

In the West we typically think our materialism is limited to our culture, but that’s just part of our solipsism as a society.

It is not just confined to the West and in some respects has grown into an even bigger problem in modern Asian society as the East becomes more and more prosperous.

China has a massive problem with parents spending huge amounts of money on their child (due to the previous policy of one child per family), and Conspicuous Consumption in general. – Source

Russia, with its booming economy, is also now experiencing a problem of Conspicuous Consumption. – Source

Advertisers have capitalized on this and market products to make you want things that you otherwise wouldn’t, and make you feel excluded from others if you don’t have or want the same thing as they do.

Materialism and Conspicuous Consumption


The Link To Consumerism

I think it is important to note at this point, that I am not saying that spending money on expensive items is automatically Conspicuous Consumption.

One can have a hobby that requires expensive purchases, but if it is intentional and has meaning, then it wouldn’t fall under Conspicuous Consumption or consumerism. If the main intention is to impress others rather than the value it will provide to you directly then I say that it falls into Conspicuous Consumption.

In today’s economy, it’s easier to get things we don’t need (even if they are not luxury items) to impress others. Branded clothing is a popular easy example.

On one level we are programmed to want things just for the sake of buying it, AND to buy to raise our status among each other. We are pitted against each other in a rat race that many of us never consciously made, but find ourselves taking part in to different degrees, because of advertising, culture, and the algorithms that increasing dictate how we spend our time.

Beauty is commonly a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty.

-Thorstein Veblen



The Antidote

Be a more intentional consumer. Evaluate the purchase-related decisions you make on a day-to-day basis. Be aware that your ego may lie to you, telling you that a purchase will make you happy.

Ask yourself – “is this something that reflects my values?”


Recommend short (4 min) film by artist Steve Cutts whose artwork caricatures modern life and its ironic situations.  Cutts shares that the insanity of humanity and global issues are an endless pool of inspiration for sarcasm and drawings.

Happiness by Steve Cutts

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