Is your marketing perpetuating Scarcity Capitalism?

Kate Holly
The Ethical Move
Published in
7 min readApr 26, 2022


Photo of almost empty shelves due to Covid in a Swiss grocery store. A person is walking on the left with a red basket filled with items.
Photo by Boris Dunand on Unsplash

You’ve probably heard the phrase “scarcity mindset” before, but what exactly does it mean?

I define it as the belief that we do not have enough, we will not have enough, WE are not enough, or there is not enough for everyone.

I often hear this phrase in self-help circles, paired with the conclusion that we can manifest all the abundance we want by thinking differently.

As a mindset coach, I agree that our thoughts and beliefs influence what we will end up creating in the world, but I have a different take on this.

Getting everyone out of scarcity is going to require more than just a mindset shift in how we think about our own resources: it will require a shift in how we think about the world’s resources.

Scarcity mindset

Scarcity mindset isn’t inherently bad. It’s a survival instinct that is trying to keep us alive.

The trouble is, this reactive state is not conducive to long-term survival: only to short-term fixes.

Scarcity thinking creates the tunnel vision that allows us to hyper-focus on emergency situations, but it does not allow us to see with perspective, and we often end up getting deeper and deeper into scarcity as we “borrow from Peter to pay Paul”.

Many of us get stuck in a chronic state of scarcity thinking because we live in a culture driven by what I call “scarcity capitalism”.

Scarcity capitalism is the dominant cultural narrative that justifies the inequities of our world by claiming that scarcity is inevitable and that the economy is a zero-sum game where, in order for some to win, others must lose.

We are encouraged to compete for scarce resources rather than to cooperate on win/win solutions. We are encouraged to go for short-term profit over long-term sustainability. Even if we believed all of that, this competition proves futile, as the system is entirely rigged to favour the most privileged few.

Systems that perpetuate unequal resource distribution

A recent report revealed that the world’s 26 richest people own as much wealth as the poorest 50% (that’s 3.8 billion people).

We know that the current distribution of resources is heavily influenced by systems that were built from colonization, white supremacy and patriarchal domination, which means that historically marginalized people (pretty much anyone who is not an owning class white man) are going to have a heck of a time competing in that zero sum game.

While it’s true that we will not solve these systemic challenges with a simple mindset shift, it’s also true that part of what drives economic inequity and wealth hoarding is scarcity thinking, which is just as deeply rooted in the wealthiest parts of the culture.

It brings to mind the famous John D. Rockefeller quote where someone asked him how much money was enough and he replied “just a little bit more.”

A culture embedded with scarcity thinking is disruptive to an ethical society for many reasons.

Scarcity capitalism:

  • Has been used to justify colonization, land theft and slavery, all of which have blocked off access to the resources that rightfully belong to everyone.
  • Has relied on the unpaid domestic labor of women for centuries.
  • Defines a healthy economy or business as one that experiences indefinite growth, which drives unnecessary consumption.
  • Erodes democracy by teaching citizens to identify as consumers first. This turns our politics into a false and over-simplified binary in which people make all decisions based on brand awareness rather than a depth of understanding of the policies, systems and stakeholders involved.
  • Manipulates consumers with scarcity sales tactics that are designed to OVERRIDE our critical thinking skills and keep us in a reactive threat state that can only be resolved through the safety of a purchase (aka “retail therapy”).
  • Oscillates between fear-mongering and romanticizing to create the false sense that perfection is possible, and that we are in total control and if we are experiencing something uncomfortable, difficult or messy it is because we aren’t making the right consumer choice.
  • Moves to privatize resources that should always remain in the public commons: air, land, seeds, forests, waterways, schools, healthcare and more.
  • Moves resources and visibility away from anything that does not have a quick return on the “free market”, which often includes art, education, culture, journalistic integrity, environmental preservation and more.
  • Preys upon disaster instead of fundamentally solving the problem that created the disaster.

So, what does all of this have to do with marketing?

Marketing has always played a meaningful role in perpetuating our culture of scarcity.

The easiest way to create a predictable response in consumers is to prey upon their survival instincts. Marketers trigger our scarcity fears every time they imply that we are incomplete, broken or inadequate but can become whole and sufficient if we buy their product.

Marketers know that scarcity increases the value of what they are selling, and they use artificial urgency to make us think that supplies will disappear before we can get what we need, so we had better start snatching them up.

The seminal 2002 BBC documentary series, The Century of the Self, traces the extensive and often sinister relationship between discoveries in psychology and the field of marketing, starting with Sigmund Freud’s nephew and the “father of PR”, Edward Bernays.

Bernays used his uncle’s research on the unconscious mind to develop marketing strategies that triggered hidden fears and desires as a way of motivating consumerism.

During that era of change, a wall street banker from Lehman Brothers, Paul Mazur, wrote in a 1927 Harvard Business Review, “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

In other words, there was an intentional shift to invent a sense of scarcity in order to sell more.

As the scarcity myth has motivated the privatization of our collective resources, destroyed ecosystems in order to keep up with production, encouraged isolation through fierce individualism, and allowed the gap in economic inequity to grow ever larger, we have created a powerful self-fulfilling cycle of very real and life-threatening scarcities for humanity, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

The truth is…

We have BOTH a real and urgent scarcity challenge AND plenty of resources to solve the challenge, but in order to break the self-fulfilling cycle of scarcity we have to break the spell of scarcity thinking. This is where creative entrepreneurs and ethical marketers can make a meaningful shift in our culture.

Here are 5 scarcity-busting ways to grow a sustainable and ethical business:

  1. Focus on the quality of your offers, your relationships, your community impact, and your communication skills. Some of the most thriving businesses I know don’t even need a marketing budget, because the obvious value and impact of what they do spreads the word farther and faster than a paid ad ever could.
  2. Design a business model that does not require infinite growth in order to serve your needs and fulfill its purpose. I like to use the model of Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economy”, which lays out two simple but profound goals for designing an economy that works on both a macro and micro scale: How will we limit growth on the top end so that it is sustainable to our planet’s resources? How will we amplify growth on the bottom end so that everyone is paid a thriving wage?
  3. Know what “enough” looks like for you, for your business and for your clients, and practice allowing yourself to have it, rather than constantly striving for more.
  4. Create sales processes that encourage critical thinking so every single person who buys your product or service has made a thoughtful decision. Be transparent about pricing, allow clients time to do their research, and trust that you can make money this way and it is actually better for your business in the long run.
  5. Work with a coach or someone who can help you understand your thoughts and beliefs. When we free ourselves of the trap of scarcity mindset, we gain a better perspective on the resources that are available to us, we make more effective business investments, and we become more generous and service-oriented, which is usually a magnetic place from which to attract ideal clients.

What are some of the ways that you disrupt scarcity thinking in your business? Comment below and let us know.

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Kate Holly
The Ethical Move

Kate Holly is a justice oriented mindset coach for creative entrepreneurs, healers and thought leaders, and host of “The Space Beyond Scarce” podcast.