Why We Buy

A Systems View On Consumerism

Project Overview

Timing: This project was completed for my Understanding Systems class between January 2021 –April 2021

Context: Inspired by our own frustration with our relationships with stuff, our team became interested in looking closely at the systems in place that facilitate acquisition, encourage consumption, and ultimately lead to disposal. The maps and diagrams that follow were created for my Understanding Systems class in collaboration with my teammates Nicole BrkicAlejandra Farias FornesRazane Hanna, and Amy Morrell.

Key Activities: Research, application of Systemic Design Toolkit process, systems mapping, graphical output 

My Primary Roles: Research, leading written brief, group mapping exercises

Why I'm Sharing: My team for this project was outstanding -- truly a testament to the superior quality of work you can produce when you work with the right people. Also, our synthesis map is just really frickin' cool. 

What is the problem?

Consumerism is a system that supports our modern way of life and a "wicked problem" that is deeply entrenched in our society and culture. Most of us are not subsistence farmers, so the fact is that some consumption is necessary for human survival in our current word. But the reality is that modern day consumerism is an intentionally designed vicious cycle where spending begets spending, creating an obsession.

We came up with a research question to help guide our work: 

How might we leverage knowledge towards actionable change to encourage responsible and conscious consumption for societal well-being?

Our maps and diagrams that we completed in the first half of this project all came together in our Synthesis Map, which depicts the system of consumerism as an actual machine that is always in motion. 

Synthesis Map

Our gigamap was the culmination of the foundational systems mapping we did in the first half of the project, several of which I've included below in greater detail. 

Gigamap Building Blocks

Iterative Inquiry 

 The Iterative Inquiry tool was used to frame our project boundaries and examine what propels consumption, who the actors are that drive it, how it is realized, and ultimately, the goal of this system at large.   ​

We identified how a seemingly innocuous activity, like making a single purchase, has deeper implications due to the design and structure of consumerism. Purchasing behaviours are choreographed by advertisers and media, distributors, manufacturers, and retailers to drive profit. This manufactured need is only temporarily satisfied as purchases become tied to the validation of a consumer’s identity and social status.   ​

Actors Map

The Actors Map identifies the various entities involved in our system, and organizes them relative to the knowledge and power they possess.

At the highest levels of knowledge and power are entities and departments in organizations who report to more powerful entities. Retailers have great influence and power since they choose what to put on the market –sometimes to the detriment of the community and environment.

The individual consumer receives information from and is influenced by other actors vying for their attention and dollars, although ultimately, consumers decide how to spend their own money. This is only a moderate amount of power – they make decisions based on heuristics, and the most prevalent organizational messages.

NGOs and social activists, along with secondhand shops and recycling organizations, have a great deal of knowledge on how to mitigate our increase and surplus of waste, but not enough power to effectively leverage that knowledge. 

Causal Loop Archetypes 

We identified two causal loop archetypes that were a strong fit for the system of consumerism. 

Fixes That Fail

In this loop we see that when a consumer makes a purchase to fulfill a need or want, it has the unintended consequence of giving the consumer an emotional response.The response can be positive (“I enjoyed that feeling -- I’m going to do it again”) or negative (“That didn’t work, let me buy something else”), but either way it leads the consumer to feel the need or want to purchase additional goods and the cycle repeats. 

Shifting The Burden

When we understand the act of purchasing as an emotional response, this archetype helps outline how the act of purchasing isa symptomatic solution. It does not address the core emotional issue of an individual’s unhappiness. While“retail therapy” can be momentarily soothing and sufficiently distracting, it ends up producing a side effect of guilt and shame for spending money and making an unnecessary purchase. That guilt might propel the individual to seek out help and support by way of therapy, and address the underlying issue of unhappiness. However, we are humans and therapy cannot stop emotions, full stop. Eventually we become unhappy again and the cycle repeats. 


To understand the system of consumerism holistically we needed to clearly identify and illustrate all the different actors and areas of the system and show how their different actions impact and influence one another. These categories allowed us to understand the interrelationships that exist within the system and the process highlighted the complexity of the driving factors behind consumerism. 

Dynamic Systems Map

To fully illustrate the causes and consequences of Consumerism, we created a Dynamic System Map to examine the effects of consumerism on our environment, our economy, and ourselves. For an interactive walk-through of this map, click here


The purchase of goods eventually leads to the discarding of goods, in one form or another. In this map, we see that asa person makes purchases and acquires more, they have to find solutions to store all their items – however this additional space may encourage them to purchase even more, thus creating a reinforcing loop. That said, storage is a limited resource, and will eventually lead a person to the act of discarding goods, either directing them to a landfill, which leads to environmental degradation (with the unintended consequence of guilt),or rerouting for reuse, which counters environmental degradation. We can also see how sending items for re-use contributes to the zero-waste movement. Closely related to the zero-waste movement is Minimalism. As we see more people move to the minimalist lifestyle, there is a negative impact (balancing)on the economy as people are buying less. In turn, this decrease in consumption is a boon for the environment as fewer purchases mean fewer resources being used for production and manufacturing, and fewer goods coming into play in the cycle of acquisition and disposal.


In our pursuit to purchase, we stimulate economic growth, and in order to make those purchases, a person needs to earn an income which they do by working. As they work more, their income increases, but so does their capacity to purchase. As more purchases are made, perhaps out-of-step with the rate of income earned, this has the consequence of increasing the amount of debt a person takes on. This debt leads to increased stress, requires them to work more to earn enough income to pay those debts down. Eventually these events can lead to mental health problems and feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Ultimately, these negative feelings keep consumers still seeking a ‘better’ life.


The pursuit of a ‘better’ life comes from a place of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with one’s current circumstances, and those feelings of discontentment come from external influences. Media feeds us images of the type of life we should aspire to, fuelling materialism and prompting a desire to improve our social status, with the hopes it will bring us closer to that ‘better’ life. However, this status seeking also causes us to feel the need to maintain appearances of success, but consequently leads to us questioning our own identity and sense of self.


When we make purchases beyond fulfilling our basic needs, we are doing so in pursuit of a ‘better’ life. We are shown repeatedly through messaging from media and marketing tactics what a ‘better’ life should be, and we are promised that we will find happiness and fulfillment – but only through the purchase of certain products and acquisition of certain attributes. The pursuit is a long and seemingly never ending quest. We can become distracted or fooled into thinking we’ll find it through the instant gratification that purchasing can provide.However, the thrill of instant gratification can lead to a purchasing addiction which leads to ever-increasing consumption. 

Thank You & Acknowledgements

My brilliant, insightful, empathetic, talented beyond measure and generally wonderful teammates were a true highlight of this project. Beyond bonding over shared values and dreams of a world where consumerism doesn't run our lives, over the course of the project we also became real friends -- this felt like a feat considering that when we started working together we'd never met in person and didn't really know each other. This group was an absolute treat to work with and epitomized the magic that can happen when you work with people you enjoy and respect. A true highlight of my Masters program! 

Nicole Brkic

I've been so fortunate to work with Nicole in 3 different groups over the course of this program and every time she brings incredible insights and mind-blowing visualizations. Nicole got us started on the Synthesis map concept and worked on it with Ale and Raz.

Alejandra Farnes

Alejandra tackled our original systemigram at a point when none of us were quite sure what a systemigram was! 

She was also one of the contributing designers to the visualization of our Synthesis map.

Razane Hanna

We were lucky enough to have 3 designers on our team, which included Raz! Razane got our presentation looking good, tackled user journeys and our actor's map, and was one of the Synthesis map makers!

Amy Morrell

Amy was our editor extraordinaire and Kumu guru! Her experience in marketing, retail and consumer goods helped guide a lot of our insights, and she took a leadership role in getting our ideas organized and flowing. 

Using Format