Consumption consumes you | George Gray Molina

10 Jan 2014

a woman in a factory in Mexico Casimira Sanchez prepares pieces of gym equipment at a plant in Mexico City. A UNDP programme to strengthen small and medium-sized businesses increased their access to new market technology. Photo: Luis Acosta/AFP for UNDP

F. Scott Fitzgerald used to say about alcohol: “First, you take the drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” The same thing could be said about consumerism as a way of achieving social status and recognition.

First, let’s look at a few facts. Consumerism is the engine driving growth in Latin American economies. It represents 59 percent of the GDP in Brazil, 66 percent in Mexico, 69 percent in Chile, 77 percent in Honduras and 88 percent in the Dominican Republic — so more than two thirds of the economic growth in Brazil, Mexico and Chile over the past twelve months.

Consumerism also led to a significant reduction in poverty and favored the emergence of the middle class in the region. Today, most of the population is no longer “poor” in the statistical sense of the term, but “vulnerable” as they work in precarious labour markets yet enjoy higher levels of income and purchasing power than before.

Secondly, let’s look at some areas of concern. Consumption is intrinsically linked to high levels of liquidity, easy access to credit, and household debt. Household debt has increased throughout the region: According to Morgan Stanley, the ratio of household debt to income is 60 percent; in Brazil, the ratio stands at more than 30 percent, and at less than 30 percent for Peru and Colombia.  

Though it is still premature to announce “the end of the Latin American boom,” the sharp drop in the price of commodities sustaining our economies cannot be denied. The gradual depreciation of our currencies, the increased interest rates and a fall in foreign reserves are all part of the process.

If we look at the issue from a human development perspective, the most worrying effect is the impact on poverty levels. Economic downturn tends to have a negative effect on financial markets (less credit available), and it is only a matter of time before it affects key sectors in the economy (construction, building materials) and leads to a drop in consumption and job losses. 

According to a US survey, one of the most avoided conversation topics among new acquaintances is the level of credit card debt, a subject 85 percent of respondents would prefer to avoid. I am convinced the results of a similar survey in Latin America would not be as bleak, but the glorification of easy money is a matter for concern — in these turbulent times, let's hope that consumption does not end up consuming us.

Talk to us: How do consumption habits change as societies change and how do they impact development?

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