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The acquisition of stuff looms large in the American imagination. What is life under consumerism doing to us?

Consumer choices, we sure have them.
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Some things are such an ingrained part of our reality that it can feel silly to even take note of them. Oxygen, say, or the popularity of smartphones. The existence of gravity, the practice of semi-regularly cutting the hair that grows from our heads, the linear nature of time, the fact that, hey, America sure is made up of a lot of states, isn’t it?

One of the biggest givens of modern American life is that we live in a consumer society. I am not shocking you by saying this. We don’t, as a matter of course, barter for or simply take things of value; we purchase them, and maybe we sell them, too. We are inundated with products to buy and encouragement to buy them, and we put energy and attention into the acquisition of consumer goods at a tremendous, society-defining scale.

Consumerism wasn’t always such a dominant force in Americans’ lives. Over the past 100 or so years, though — following the birth of mass production in the early part of the 20th century, the codification of the American dream in the 1950s, the perfection of advertising over the next decades, and the increased centrality of the stuff we own ever since — it has metastasized into something unavoidable, inescapable. All-consuming.

Over the next month, we’ll be rolling out more than a dozen stories that examine this entrenched reality.

You might notice a thread of pessimism throughout these stories. You could reasonably feel discouraged — both from buying specific items (bottled water, the subject of a beautiful comic next week, sure won’t come out looking great) and about the system itself.

This can be overwhelming and, let’s face it, annoying. For one thing, buying is necessary for most people to survive. Food, shelter, clothing: not really opt-in, rarely free. And buying can also be exciting, comforting, helpful, fun. Consumerism is full of little gifts; hell, consumerism practically invented gifts.

It’s also a system that gives us a lot of responsibility, and very little control. You should stop buying bottled water, yes — so should I. How many of us have to stop buying bottled water for it to make a difference? And how do you get all those people on the same page?

It’s worth realizing what parts of our lives consumerism does or does not control, what parts we want it to control, what parts we need and want each other’s help to change. What does it mean to live in a consumerist society? What does it do to us, to our ideas of ourselves, to our relationships to each other, to our planet? What do we benefit from? What hurts us?

—Meredith Haggerty, deputy editor of The Goods

Natural oil cosmetics with shadows on a pink background. Flat lay style.

TikTok made me buy it

The video app is causing products to blow up — and flame out — faster than ever.

By Rebecca Jennings

A couple and their three children walk through the parking lot from a shopping mall, with a bakery behind them.

Why do we buy what we buy?

A sociologist on why people buy too many things.

By Emily Stewart

The lie of “expired” food — and the disastrous truth of America’s food waste problem

Stop throwing your food away.

By Alissa Wilkinson

The spiritual bankruptcy of bottled water

Selling out a national resource, at 75 billion bottles every year.

By Marina Bolotnikova and Christine Mi

a woman falling into an abyss surrounded by products (wine glass, Starbucks cup, FILA disruptor) and cultural signifiers (TikTok logo, BLM sign, Minion)

The great American cool

In the past, taste was scouted from hip kids and sold to the masses. But in the great river of content, what does cool even mean?

By Safy-Hallan Farah

Everyone’s selling something

The plight of the inadvertent pitchman.

By Luke Winkie

Gen Z doesn’t know a world without fast fashion

Why do we expect teenagers to out-thrift major retailers?

By Terry Nguyen

Pop music sold us on consumerism one single at a time

In hit songs, wealth is success, and success is always earned.

By Ann-Derrick Gaillot

Brands save America?

From filling potholes to providing insurance, private companies have taken over public works.

By Emily Stewart

How Big Beverage poured empty promises down our throats

The American beverage aisle is overflowing, with no sign of letting up.

By Melinda Fakuade

The worst money we’ve ever spent

Some money mistakes are unforgettable. Here are a few.

By Vox Staff (and friends)

Homeownership can bring out the worst in you

It’s the biggest thing you might ever buy. And it could be turning you into a bad person.

By Jerusalem Demsas

Editors: Meredith Haggerty, Melinda Fakuade, Alanna Okun, Caroline Houck, Daniel Gross

Donald Trump

Trump is suddenly in need of a lot of cash. That’s everyone’s problem.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will decide if the government can seize control of YouTube and Twitter


Why Lyft and Uber drivers did their largest strike ever

View all stories in Money

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