Consumerism Inflicts Structural Violence


Billions of people suffer from the  rich world’s overfed appetite. Consumerism violates human rights and ravages the environment.

The interests of a consumer society are in deep conflict with the interests of the commons, justice, peace, and the human condition. Majority World citizens experience the fallout of the violent consumer infrastructure. In today’s consumer society, conflict manifests as structural violence and, to a lesser extent, direct violence against each other (e.g., children killing each other for brand name clothing). 

The violent consumer infrastructure emerged out of the tensions of perceived scarcity, one of the main determinants of conflict (Homer-Dixon, 1991). The ideologies of capitalism, top-down globalization and neoliberalism are predicated on the notion of scarcity rather than abundance. With perceived scarcity comes competition for resources (land, water, labour, money, time), leading to winners and losers and the possibility of conflict and violence.  Ironically, scarcity is not necessarily the problem; rather, it is often the uneven distribution of resources that is the problem. There is enough to go around, but unfair access to political, economic, and other resources – because of involuntary membership in certain ethnic, racial, religious, gender, or other groups – leads to exploitation, repression, and alienation, as well as denial of basic needs. This is structural violence. 

The term “structural violence” was first coined by Johan Galtung in 1969. He was looking for a construct that respects the reality that, even though a nation is not a war, its citizens can still be experiencing violence due to a lack of justice, security, freedom, and rights. Unlike visible violence and war, indirect structural violence is almost invisible. It is embedded in ubiquitous social structures, normalized by stable institutions and regular experience. The results are unequal power and unequal life chances. Because these inequities are long-standing, they usually seem ordinary, the way things are done, and always have been. Still worse, the people who are victims of structural violence often do not see the systematic ways in which their plight is choreographed by unequal and unfair distribution of society’s resources and power, or due to human constraint caused by economic and political structures. Unequal access to resources, to political power, to education, to health care, or to legal standing are all forms of structural violence.

Structural violence can also occur in a society if institutions and policies are designed in such a way that barriers are built into society that result in lack of adequate food, housing, health, safe and just working conditions, education, economic security, clothing, and family relationships. Such is the case with consumerism. 

People affected by structural violence tend to live a life of oppression, exclusion, exploitation, marginalization, collective humiliation, stigmatization, repression and inequities, and face a lack of opportunities due to no fault of their own. The people most affected by structural violence are women, children, elders, and those from ethnic, racial, and religious groups, and sexual orientations that differ from the mainstream. 

Because they, and others, may not see the origin of the conflict and violence, people negatively affected by structural violence often feel they are to blame – or they are blamed — for their own life conditions. This perception is readily escalated because people’s normal perceptual and thought processes divide people into in-groups and out-groups. Those outside our group lie outside our scope of interest and justice. They are invisible. Injustice, which would be instantaneously confronted if it occurred to someone in our group, is barely noticed if it occurs to strangers or those who are invisible and irrelevant. 

It is easy to morally exclude those who fall outside our group. This exclusion leads to the others becoming demeaned or invisible, meaning we do not have to acknowledge the injustices they suffer, even if we are the cause.

The entire consumer infrastructure is a key source of structural violence, meaning people are harmed somehow due to no cause of their own. This violence is enabled by consumers who, knowingly or not, embrace the ideology of consumerism in a market system that, intentionally or not, creates huge systems of injustice; infringements on human, labour, and environmental rights; gender inequities; threats to peace, human security and freedom; and massive encroachments on the human condition and the commons. Following are some stark examples of the structural violence entrenched in the consumer society and global marketplace: 

Even though Northern consumers comprise only 20% of the world’s population, they consume more than 86% of the world’s resources. They have 87% of all automobiles, 74% of all landline phones (does not include cell-phones), use 84% of all paper, consume 58% of all energy, eat 45% of all fish and meat, and get 94% of all bank loans. This reality means that eight of every 10 people in the world share just 14% of all global consumption activities, representing a great divide in power and resources.

Total global consumption levels exceeded the planet’s ecological capacity in the late 1970s. We would need more than five planet Earths to sustain the world if the world’s population consumed at the level of just two countries, the US and Canada (Worldwatch Institute, 2004). What is even more telling is that citizens of these two countries are the least likely to pay more for organic, environmentally friendly, or fair trade products (Global Market Insite, 2005).

The consumer class spends more on luxury products, such as cruises, perfume, makeup, and ice cream (let alone necessities) than it would take to fund and achieve the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which deal with poverty, literacy, hunger, child and mother mortality, environmental sustainability, gender equality and empowerment, and disease (Worldwatch Institute, 2004).

By some estimates, 83% of all clothing purchased in the United States and Canada is made elsewhere. That means that 8 of 10 clothing items hanging in your closet are not made at home. The same reality holds for 8-of 10 toys, 9-of-10 sporting goods items, and 9-of-10 pairs of shoes in your closet. This is an issue because less than 1% of the final cost of a product is paid to the worker, who makes, on average, 15-25 cents U.S. per hour. If you pay $50 for an item, workers in another country receive less than 50 cents for producing it, and this amount is far below what they need for even the most basic sustenance (New Community Project, 2005).


Nearly 4 of 10 clothing and apparel items for sale in the United States and Canada are made in China, where workers are forbidden to organize to improve work conditions (sweatshops and child and prison labour). If people wanted to consume more fairly, it would be difficult, as less than .01% of world trade is in the form of fair trade. That is even less than 1-in-100. And even when people are aware of these facts, most are not willing to pay more for a fair trade product. The system and consumer attitudes preclude consuming differently (Global Market Insite, 2005; McGregor, 2006a).

8 of 10 products purchased by members of the consumer class are made by girls aged 12-14. Typical sweatshop employees, 90% of them women, are young and uneducated (aged 16-25). Sweatshops are businesses that regularly violate wage agreements, the rights of women and child labourers, and many health, environment, and safety laws (Woolf, 2001).

There are 2.2 billion children in the world, and 1.9 billion of them (9 of 10) live in “developing countries.” Nearly 250 million of them (13%) work in sweatshops, meaning one in every eighth child is not receiving public education, a reality that does not bode well for their future well-being and quality of life or the human condition. 

These examples illustrate massive infringement of the principles of non-violence: exploitation, dehumanization, lack of respect, social and economic injustice, harm to others, impoverishment leading to oppression, stressed human relationships, exclusion from power, lack of opportunities, and ecological disharmony. People in a consumer society live a relatively comfortable life at the expense of impoverished labourers and fragile ecosystems, often in other countries. 

The veil of consumerism enables consumers to overlook the connections between consumerism and oppressive regimes (governments, world financial institutions, and transnational corporations) that violate human rights, and increase drug trade and military spending. This disregard is possible because consumerism accentuates and accelerates human fragmentation, isolation, and exclusion for the profit of the few, contributing significantly to violence. A consumer society values this new form of slavery and the resultant disposable people. It also ignores the implications of Northern consumption decisions on Majority World citizens, the next generation, and those not yet born. 

Worse, as Northern, privileged consumers experience inner conflict and lack of peace as a result of living in a consumer society, they deal with the fear and anger emanating from this conflict by consuming to the point that consumerism is also a form of slavery for those doing the consuming. People behave as they do in a consumer society because they are so indoctrinated into the “logic” of the market that they cannot see anything wrong with what they are doing. Because they do not critically challenge the neoliberal market ideology, and what it means to live in a consumer society, they actually contribute to their own oppression, becoming slaves of the market and capitalism. 

This enslavement happens at the same time their consumption decisions oppress others who make the goods, and the natural ecosystem (see McGregor, 2001). Strong and unsustainable consumption patterns have developed and gone unchallenged, to the point that consumerism and structural violence represent dominant forces in human social interaction. These forces are transforming human life in powerful and destructive ways. 

This situation is not without hope (defined as a connection to the future). There is a growing movement of people who are challenging the fallout of consumerism as structural violence, including the CCPA and contributors to and readers of The CCPA Monitor. These social change agents are advocating for ethical and moral consumption, for non-violent consumption, and for a culture of peace rather than a consumer culture that is predicated on alienation, dissatisfaction, disenchantment, misplaced self-identity, and false relationships. These citizens are focusing on positive peace, on justice, human rights, freedom, human responsibilities, solidarity, equality and human security — on the absence of structural violence.

Professor Sue L.T. McGregor


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