Instrumental consumption

Not all consumption is good and not all consumption is bad. Since some consumption provides well-being, people often think more consumption will provide more well-being. This is not strictly the case, one of the reasons being that not all consumption is the same.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes a distinction between instrumental materialism and terminal materialism (or consumption) as a basis for knowing the benefit of material goods and services. In short, instrumental consumption is a means to achieve well-being, whereas terminal consumption generally detracts from well-being.

The distinction highlights the idea that the purpose of possession/consumption, and not just the fact of possession/consumption itself, should form the basis of deciding what is good consumption and what is unnecessary consumption, and therefore wasteful and bad. Instrumental materialism is seen as a purposeful, healthy and creative engagement with the material world, whereas terminal materialism is meaningless and destructive to both the individual and to the natural environment.

Terminal consumption

Terminal consumption is an end in itself, in other words it is consumption for the sake of consumption. Csikszentmihalyi called it terminal because it leads nowhere.

For some, the term materialism brings to mind greedy con­sumers buying unneeded things and devoting their precious life to the shal­low and mindless pursuit of money and possessions that will serve them as status symbols. Possession is the ends in itself, and not a means to further ends. In this type of materialism “the end justifies the means” because when one values something only as an end in itself, other outcomes can be ignored, especially if they are negative or harmful.

The cost of conspicuous consumption

Thorsten Veblen was an American economist who coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ and defined it as consumption that costs more than it is worth. This is also a good definition of terminal consumption.

The costs of material consumption include personal, social and environmental harm. Personal harm, because it wastes our precious time on earth – we only have one life and we shouldn’t use it on things that don’t matter. Social harm, because terminal materialism escalates status competition and distrust of others. Environmental, because it is a waste of resources, we only have one planet and we shouldn’t waste it on things that don’t matter, either.

Instrumental consumption

In contrast to terminal consumption, instrumental consumption are the goods and services essential for a person to thrive and become fully-functioning.

Firstly, there are fundamental goods and services such as food, water, clothes and shelter that are essential for our physical and basic security needs. Beyond that there are goods and services that are instrumental in furthering our higher psychological needs.

Instrumental consumption often involves using material objects as either symbols to strengthen interpersonal relationships (e.g. photo albums, mementoes and gifts) or as agents to engage in creative and fulfilling activities such as personal development, arts, crafts, sports, hobbies, recreation and adventure.

Instrumental consumption also involves the use of goods and services as instrumental means for discovering and furthering personal goals. In this type of materialism there is a sense of direction, in which a person’s intentions may be actualised through interactions with artefacts. This does not imply that possessions are used purely as means, because their use can also produce enjoyable experiences that, in a sense, are an end in themselves. However, even these ends act in the broader context of the realisation of a fully-functioning human. This is a context-related materialism, as opposed to terminal materialism, in which there is no sense of reciprocation in the relation between the object and the goal.

The three types of consumption

In summary, there are essentially three type of consumption:

  1. Fundamental consumption, which is for physical survival needs.
  2. Instrumental material consumption, for higher psychological needs.
  3. Terminal consumption, which is consumption for its own sake and is not worth it.

In general, in modern developed economies there is too much terminal consumption and relatively too little instrumental consumption.