Consumerism and Travellers

Are you a shopaholic? Go on admit it. You just can’t resist all those lovely shiny things, right? Well, if you are not, you will perhaps be more aware that consumerism is rife in today’s world. It lurks everywhere, around every corner, ready to ambush you and to part you and your cash. Travelling takes you out of your routine however and I think strengthens your resistance to the pressure of consumerism.


Most people are constantly exposed to consumerism in all its glory, especially in the Western world. Advertising is consumerism’s weapon of choice and we are all exposed to it while commuting, shopping, reading the paper, watching TV or listening to the radio. You really have to live under a rock to truly avoid it. We are tempted endlessly, by things that we ought to spend our money on in order to make our lives more fulfilling, more fun and supposedly easier.

Living in London I really felt the pressure of consumerism. It is easy to subconsciously compare ourselves to others and to worry that we will be judged if we do not have the latest gadget or fashionable clothes. We become materialistic and greedy for more. I always thought I was quite good at resisting it. I have always been quite self-disciplined about my spending and kept away from shops in an effort to avoid temptation, only shopping for things as I needed them, but when I left London I still found I had far more things that I ever needed. Fail.

The Challenge of Ownership

As a traveller the desire for ‘stuff’ doesn’t vanish, but you face the challenge of ownership. The more you own, the more you have to carry around the world with you, pay excess luggage charges for, pay to store, or store with a kind relative (thanks Mum!)

You could feel the absence of your belongings, but I am embracing this challenge. I actually find life is simpler with fewer things (except dressing for work if you have a career change). I only have so many options when deciding what to wear and I know where to find most of my things (most of the time!) Of course, a couple of things are important to have but you’d be amazed at the number of things you don’t miss. Fewer possessions also means fewer things to maintain, repair and store, saving time for other activities.

The classic attack on consumerism is to compare levels of happiness in poorer parts of the world with the West. It certainly emphasises how material-oriented the West is, although a meaningful comparison is hard to make. I can’t say that children I met in East Africa were any happier than children in wealthier countries, but I will always remember their big smiles and the positive energy they exuded, when they had so little by way of material possessions. A few years ago a young boy in Uganda approached me for a plastic water bottle in my pocket. The huge grin on his face when I gave it to him will be with me forever.

Less is More

Focusing spending (time as well as money) on activities and experiences, rather than material possessions leaves us feeling more content. People don’t lie on their deathbeds regretting not having had more clothes after all do they? To me, this is a clear case of less is more.

This doesn’t mean that I live out of a bag. When I spend extended periods of time in one place of course I buy a few things. I recently bought a second hand bike and helmet, some strawberry plants and am thinking of buying a food-processor (rock n roll – eh?) These are things I have identified as things that would enhance my life here. I enjoy cycling, growing strawberries (four green ones so far) and cooking. These are not articles I want as a result of being exposed to advertising or peer pressure. I don’t hold any emotional attachment to these things. I am enjoying them now and next time I move I will sell them or give them away.

Think how you feel when you are on holiday. You are somewhere away from your normal surroundings. You are a safe distance from work, assuming you can leave the emails alone. You are also estranged from the peer pressure to keep up with others. Nobody knows you on holiday and the people you meet judge you for who you are and not your possessions.

Travelling, for me, has made life more like that. Do I mean lounging on a beach reading paperbacks and drinking cocktails, well no actually. I do think that having and wanting less makes focusing on rewarding activities and ultimately contentment a more achievable goal though.

Do you feel that travelling has altered your attitude to consumerism?

Photo credit: F Delventhal


  • Mary in York

    Good article.

    I loathe the uber-consumerist creed that the UK has created over the last ten or so years. Once we prayed in a church, now we worship stuff in Tesco on a Sunday morning instead. Doesnt seem to have made us any happier though.

  • Renata

    Awesome post! I wrote something about this a few weeks ago when I was packing up my room and discovered I don’t use over half the things I own. We really don’t need as much as we think we do. We may want these things but we definitely don’t need them and this is a distinction that many people forget.
    My recent post 30 Days Of Indie Travel: One Day

  • Avatar photo


    Hi Folks – Thanks so much for the lovely comments!
    @Tobias – Isn’t it interesting how you notice such changes in yourself?
    @Mary – Do you think Sunday trading hours are to blame?
    @Renata – Definitely a difference between ‘need’ and ‘want’. I completely agree.
    My recent post Traveller Karma

  • Steve

    I definitely see a change in attitude to consumerism when I travel. it highlights just how much you need and can get by without. When I travel, I know that I can get by with just a few changes of clothes and a few other things. I must admit that I do get enjoyment out of the things own though. After all, I donate or throw anything I don’t use anymore. But I do keep a few things I know I could get by without though such as my waffle maker. I just love waking up on the weekends and making them with my wife. It’s our thing to do.

  • Mary in York

    @Liv – yeah, in part as it was the last nail in the coffin for any time being set aside for anything other than shopping. But I think you also need to factor in the availability of easy credit, the whole celeb culture stuff (“you too can look/sound/be just like Cheryl/Posh/whoever if you BUY stuff!!!”), and probably other reasons that someone cleverer than me can work out.

    I really noticed it in Havana; I’m not saying communism’s fantastic, or that there’s anything wrong with wanting a nice house or nice clothes, but because of the scarcity of material goods in Cuba you just saw people chilling and chatting and making their own entertainment. Obviously the climate there helps – I guess England isn’t the best place for sitting around outdoors generally! – but the people seemed relaxed and at ease with each other, and, what really struck me, was the way the generations mixed. They weren’t scared of their young people. If you think about that in the context of the trouble we had here in the UK over the summer, when our youth seemed to go on a consumerist feeding frenzy, I think there’s a point there somewhere.

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