The human species’ growth and global consumption status quo is presently unsustainable. The purpose of this paper is to establish a broad analysis on global consumption patterns, more specifically, on over-consumption. Over-consumption is a global systematic problem in which the process of production and consumption is unsustainably exploiting the natural world. This problem is severely draining natural resources and dramatically damaging the environment. This paper argues that in order to reduce global consumption, and therefor protect both humans and the environment from consequences, there must be radical and fundamental changes implemented.
Present initiatives are insufficient and have not resulted in even a fraction of the sharp decline in resource exploitation needed to ensure resource sustainability. This argument will be presented in multiple stages. First this paper will discuss why consumption and sustainability matter, and accordingly why the issue of over-consumption is pressing and serious. Second this paper will discuss the academic debate on who is ultimately responsible for this change. Some academics stress the need for consumer sovereignty and lay the necessary changes at the hands of the consumers, while others argue this is insufficient and that it’s the responsibility of governments, non-government actors, and businesses who need to lead the fundamental shifts necessary for sustainability. Third this paper will look at how the present world is dealing with the issue of consumption including new trends such as “green” products; ultimately arguing that these initiatives while positive fall desperately short to enact real change. Finally this paper will stress the importance of fundamental and immediate changes to the process of consumption on our planet in order to ensure the stability and safety of all living creatures.
The consequences of climate change and resource exploitation are extensive, serious, and nearing a point of no return. Recent research by NASA has found that February 2016 broke existing global temperature records by a marginally shocking amount.1 One example of the disastrous implications of this will be the melting of polar ice caps resulting in significant sea-level rise. By 2100, an estimated ~600 million people could be directly affected by rising sea levels.2 In the US alone, by 2100 at current rates nearly 13 million Americans will have their homes under water.3 There has been an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence to support the connection between human activity and environmental climate change and for this reason this foundational understanding will be taken for granted in this paper. The full consequences of global temperature increase and sea level rise are beyond the scope of this paper, however these extreme changes include problems such as ecological disasters, changes in crop seasons, instability in animal migration, loss of food and water, displacement of millions of people, and the devastation of coastal cities. Where this paper will turn its attention to is to how consumption contributes to environmental degradation, and how it fits into the broader discussion on sustainability.
The 1994 Oslo Symposium defined sustainability as “the use of services and related products, which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life while minimizing the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle of the service or product so as not to jeopardize the needs of further generations”.4 Simply put, sustainability is ensuring that what you are doing is not preventing the success and health of present and future generations of both humans, and also the entire natural environment. Consumption matters to sustainability for two main reasons. First the over exploitation of natural resources directly contributes to problems such as climate change, an example of this is the release of greenhouse gases contributing to global warming.5 The second area of importance is that over-consumption creates massive problems in regards to pollution.6 Many examples exist such as plastic bags in Bangladesh clogging water drains and leading to severe increases in flooding7, the massive collection of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean threatening the ocean’s ecosystem8, and even in areas such as tourism where the accumulation of pollution in places like the coasts of Ireland is damaging its “green image and scenic beauty.”9
The problem with consumption is that by many metrics, the Earth has “overshot its capacity to supply, source, and sink resources without substantial negative impact.”10 To understand consumption, we must understand how this instability occurred and why now the growth is unmanageable. In the last 45 years the human population has doubled from 3.5 to 7 billion people.11 This population explosion was coupled by a booming world economy; the size of the world economy quadrupled to 42.5 trillion dollars (USD) in 2011, and global GDP per capita nearly doubled.12 Child mortality has plummeted and mean life expectancy has risen from 56 years to 69 years.13 These positive and ballooning statistics are encouraging in initial analysis; the problem is that the consequences of this growth have destabilized the global environment and resulted in exhaustive resource depletion.
Consumption is important to people. In many ways it is symbolic and allows for the creation of a self-image, accordingly this has inspired and reinforced a “consumer culture.”15 This consumer culture, established in the West, has created lifestyles of affluence and encouraged rampant production, ownership, and the creation of waste. The present level of consumption has stressed out the finite quantity of natural capital; the threshold for sustainable growth is at its end.15 One example of the type of reductions necessary is in carbon output. For the planet to stabilize the global temperature increase to only 2 degrees Celsius, it would require a 130 fold improvement of efficiency by 2050.17 An area of direct carbon consumption that needs drastic reduction is in vehicle emissions among affluent countries. 2/3 of all vehicle travel takes place in Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries. In relation to vehicles, there is a direct relationship between GDP and the amount of car ownership, oil consumption, and C02 emissions.18 Countries with high standards of living pride themselves on car ownership. This car ownership is devastating to the environment and uses an extreme amount of resources. This 130 fold reduction would still likely generate unwanted environmental consequences however would be dramatically less destructive than what the current projected outcomes if production, growth, and emission continue on the trajectory they are on. It’s useful to note these calculations are fairly conservative, other scientists are more pessimistic and predict anywhere from 2 to even 5 degrees in temperature increase with the status quo.19
To understand more clearly how consumption affects the environment it is useful to look at a case study. Jennifer Clapp and Linda Swanston completed a revealing study in 2009 analyzing the impact of seemingly small consumer products on the global production structure. In 2009 the world used an estimated 1 trillion plastic bags.20 The production in the US alone of their 100 billion plastic bags required 12 million barrels of oil; globally, even conservative estimates could place the amount of oil needed to create all the plastic bags at beyond 100 million barrels a year.21 To further stress the intense level of consumption, the production of plastic bags is only a fraction of the total use of plastics, and the production of plastics is still only a fraction of the total use of oil.22 Many plastics producers downplayed this level of production by stressing that it was recyclable; evidence finds however that plastic bag recycling globally is as low as 5%.23 This gigantic use of oil, and therefor both the C02 emissions and also contributions to pollution, are staggering.
This problem with consumption is daunting and to reverse the damage done at present levels is undeniably difficult. Unfortunately the problem gets substantially worse. The world has not peaked its population or consumption levels, and all evidence is to suggest that the stress on the natural environment is going to substantially increase. By mid-century, there will be an expected 30% growth in global population, as well as an even more daunting 300% growth in affluence.24 The world population is getting richer; billions of people are moving beyond crippling poverty and entering the global market as new consumers, especially in places such as India, China, and Bangladesh. These new consumers are “striving to attain a Western standard of living” and since they are mimicking Western standards, the consequences of this for the already exacerbated global consumption problem will propel the Earth’s capacity to meet the needs of humans into a breaking point.25 This is further stressed by the fact that hundreds of millions of people have not even met their basic level of consumption needed to maintain health, sanitation, and social stability. The over-consumption is disproportionately on the advanced countries.26 Simply put, due to the present levels of consumption already surpassing levels of unsustainability, and due to the level of growth expected in the next 50 years, it will be impossible for the planet to continue on this trend.
Debated in academic circles is who is ultimately responsible for fixing this crisis. Two main camps exist: groups who argue that it is the consumer’s responsibility, and groups who argue it is the responsibility of governments, non-government actors, and businesses. Those in favor of consumer sovereignty argue for the freedom of consumption. They argue that the decision to buy more or less products, or to learn about sustainable products lies on consumers.27 Consumers choose what to buy, and therefor have power to influence the competing interests of businesses, and therefore indirectly have the power to change the economy to lead to sustainability.28 There is some truth to this, such as consumers generally being in favor of “green” products and increasingly becoming aware of important environmental issues.29
There are however serious problems with this. It implies that consumers are both rationally willing, but also have access to the information to responsibility make decisions that are needed to dramatically improve issues in sustainability. Consumers would be required to make rational educated decisions that might directly put them in a disadvantage and hinder their personal utility (Example: selling your car to buy a bike) in order to help with environmental problems which they can not directly see or be immediately affected by.30 Doris A. Fuchs and Sylvia Lorek note that “consumers generally only make minimal sacrifices, societal and economic trends still support and encourage unsustainable consumption.”31 Consumers generally also dislike radical changes in consumption in relation to government policy.32 Furthermore, it is very difficult for consumers to accurately know what consequences their actions are resulting in, and also complications are added due to the fact that the products they buy are “drowned in discourses on financial responsibility, political responsibility and aesthetical norms. This situation creates discursive confusion and inactivity with regard to sustainable consumption.”33 A case study in Hungary found that consumers who consider themselves above average in their level of “green” consumption actually did not have much of a smaller environmental footprint than those who do not actively attempt to be more environmentally friendly.34
Placing responsibility on the consumers fails to significantly affect the environment in any real form. It also shifts the focus away from the actors who can create serious change, the governments, non-government actors, and businesses. Wishful thinking that the market will fix itself and provide its own optimal solutions is naïve and evidently false. Putting an emphasis on consumer sovereignty places a barrier in front of legislation and fundamental policy change which could lead to sustainability.35 Doing so also neglects to put pressure on companies that encourage rampant consumerism. When a company like Coca Cola brands its image to be a necessity of life, and reinforces the concept of identity for consumers through their products, (like in their recent advertisement campaigns36), they share responsibility in consumption of their product, in the narrative they create, and in their drive for sales and increasing growth. Influencing consumers and the choices consumers make is important. However the significant capability, responsibility, and feasibility to affect real change lies on the hands of legislators and businesses. Environmental sustainability issues are transnational and transgenerational, to solve them effectively requires broad and encompassing initiatives. Many issues directly related to consumption are occurring beyond the borders of the actual consumers.37 To create real change will require far more than local initiatives, a comprehensive global restructuring is necessary. Powerful states and companies externalize the environmental and social consequences into regions where the direct consumers often are not, this leaves consumers unaware and corporations largely unaccounted for.38 Global consumption is a problem of the communes, it is a problem that connects every country, and the consequences of which affect every person, therefore it is a problem which demands global governance.
There are two ways to reduce consumption: increase efficiency, or enact structural changes.39 Increasing product efficiency is positive and encouraging however its effects are miniscule. Efficiency increases and “green” products can undoubtedly have positive effects, for example with regulation S02 causing acid rain has been nearly entirely eliminated in industrialized countries.40 However, there is a misconception that simple efficiency increase is enough. Peter Dauvernge gives the example of heavy electronics such as TVs and refrigerators which have become more energy efficient over the decades.41 This is a positive trend however falls short of even making a fraction of reduction in total consumption usage. Similar statistics exist for energy, “although there has been a decline in average energy intensity (by $ spent) by 33% since 1970, global GDP and population growth have each risen 60–70% over this period.”42 The problem is the same in China where energy intensities declined “from 8 kg CO2 per $ of GDP to 3 kg over 1980–2008. The problem is however that the increase in efficiency does not come close to accounting for the increase in the size of the economy.”43 Products are becoming more efficient, and energy usage is becoming more efficient, but the total amount of consumption has increased. The past two decades have focused on short term relief with a focus on symptoms, few changes occurred or were seriously attempted which aimed to change the root causes of over-consumption.44 Most research and implementation has been trivial, such as “green products” or recycling soda bottles, these do not drastically reduce resource intensity in Western lifestyles, more serious approaches are marginal and ignored.45 Potentially the largest group which could influence change is the OECD countries. The OECD countries contain 19% of the world population but consume 80% of the world’s resources.46 Their main policy focuses have been on economic growth and increasing efficiencies, but hardly on fundamental changes. The 1999 Rio Earth Summit was the first large pledge for more sustainable consumption but this also fell short on serious changes.47 The Commission on Sustainable Development in the UN has been very successful in gathering research and establishing an early structure for communication however failed in any real implementation, mostly due to lack of support.48 There has been a significant amount of research, debates, commissions, reports, and world conferences, but little actual change.49
What is needed then is evidently clear. To seriously tackle the issue of over consumption requires two actions: the acknowledgment that the problem is global and will require committed global governance, and secondly that the changes necessary are more than just efficiencies but will require radical, fundamental, and sweeping changes to consumption, the economy, self-identity, city structure, energy extraction, and lifestyle. Radical changes, have for understandable reasons, been neglected. They are politically controversial and require transnational commitment and agreement. Ignoring these changes will however evidently have dire consequences. An example of a radical change would be restructuring major cities to no longer use vehicles for transportation, but focus on localized communal living, and importantly on extensive public transportation systems, such as advanced light rail/subway systems powered by renewable energy sources. These changes are not easy or without controversy, but they are necessary for the survival of our species and for the protection of the planet.
One myth worth unraveling in the discussion on radical social changes of the capitalist consumer system is that over-consumption has significantly contributed to people’s happiness and well-being, and that consumption and life satisfaction go hand in hand. In a comprehensive analysis of 189 countries it became clear that there is an early relationship between quality of life and consumption, but this is only true for the immediate and initial satisfaction of life goods.50 Consumption very quickly has diminishing returns in terms of life satisfaction and well-being. This information is important because it exposes a myth within neoclassical economics that a constant growth in consumption and affluence increases well-being, this increase is over emphasized.51 (See Appendix 1) In countries such as Japan, the UK, and the US, following the 1950s, their continual economic growth has not coincided with improvements to mean life satisfaction.52 (See Appendix 2) A change in perspective is vital to understand that over consumption and the demand of economists preaching infinite growth and consumption among consumers is BOTH detrimental to the environment, but also definitively not necessary for human happiness and well-being.
This has been described as the “stagnant life-satisfaction paradox”; people are comfortable with that they have as long as their essential needs are met. An increase in affluence does not correspond with an increase in satisfaction, the rate stagnates.53 The present levels of consumption are destroying the planet, but also have little real increase in personal life satisfaction. Fundamental restructuring in economic systems (as long as needs are met) would not require a loss in well-being. Radical change, while daunting and difficult, could restructure advanced industrial societies to consume less while still enjoying life with the same satisfaction.54 This is not to suggest that fundamental changes would be easy, but it is to suggest that it is possible, and that the results would not entail a society that is less happy or with lower life satisfaction. A society’s happiness would remain similar with a reduction in consumption, as long as mental, social, and health needs are being met.
While it would be undoubtedly expensive (and by no means easy) to implement vast structural changes, many argue it would surprisingly be cheaper than doing nothing. One example of economic value in early initiatives is with greenhouse gases. The cost to stabilize all green house gas emissions would be 1% of global GDP (2007 USD), however the costs of managing and dealing with the long term consequences of not reducing emissions would result in annual costs of 5-20% global GDP.55 It is cheaper to act now and avoid the consequences, than to continue the status quo and financially pay for the consequences later.
W. R. Stahel outlines 5 different key points for the world to become more sustainable. First, there needs to be Nature Conservation, protecting the life on Earth both regionally and globally including protecting the atmosphere and oceans. Second there needs to be protections for Health & Safety, these include non-toxicology, qualitative human and animal health, and the protection of forests. Third there must be a reduction in Flow of Resources, such as reducing C02 emissions. Fourth there must be a stable Social Ecology, structures for employment, security, reductions in warfare, and the establishment of responsible economic systems. Lastly, there must be Cultural Ecology, a desire for a national and transnational community, and the expansion of education and knowledge about world consumption, production, and consequences.56 Only by combining these points can humans successfully build a global civilization, that is healthy, happy, and sustainable.
In conclusion, the planet is currently reaching a crisis point due to the unsustainable levels of production and consumption. This level of consumption, if continues as is, will lead to catastrophic consequences to the environment and to the human species. There have been noble attempts to reduce levels of consumption such as “green” products, however these barely remove even a small fraction from the global consumption rates. Due to their size, access to wealth, access to knowledge, and capability the responsibility primarily lies on governments, non-government actors, and businesses. What is required is radical changes in the economic system, ones that fundamentally alter our “basic institutions and structures of contemporary capitalism.”57 These changes, while difficult and controversial, will not reduce our long term life-satisfaction, will protect future generations, will ensure the survival of millions of animals, forests, and ecosystems, and will even save money in the long term by investing in preventative measures, rather than paying for the even costlier consequences. To save the global environment and ensure the safety of billions of people, immediate, committed, passionate, and radical change is needed.
By Daniel Govedar (Winter 2016)
1. Pretty, Jules. 2013. “The Consumption of a Finite Planet: Well-being, Convergence, Divergence and the Nascent Green Economy.” Environmental and Resource Economics 55 (4): 478
2. Pretty, Jules. 2013. “The Consumption of a Finite Planet: Well-being, Convergence, Divergence and the Nascent Green Economy.” Environmental and Resource Economics 55 (4): 482
- Changes in per capita GDP and life satisfaction: Japan (1952–2011).
- Changes in per capita GDP and life satisfaction: UK (1946-2011).
- Changes in per capita GDP and life satisfaction: USA (1946-2011).
- Slezak, Michael., and Carrington, Damian. “February breaks global temperature records by ‘shocking’ amount”. The Guardian. Published March 14 2016. Accessed March 14 2016.
- Jevrejeva, S., et al. 2014. “Upper Limit for Sea Level Projects by 2100.” IOP Science. Environment Research Letters 9: 2
- Millman, Oliver. “13 million along US coast could see homes swamped by 2100, study finds.” The Guardian. Published March 14 2016. Accessed March 14 2016.
- Fuchs, Doris A. and Sylvia Lorek. 2005. “Sustainable Consumption Governance: A History of Promises and Failures.” Journal of Consumer Policy28 (3): pg. 261
- Clapp, Jennifer and Linda Swanston. 2009. “Doing Away with Plastic Shopping Bags: International Patterns of Norm Emergence and Policy Implementation.” Environmental Politics18 (3): pg. 319
- Dauvergne, Peter. 2010. “The Problem of Consumption.” Global Environmental Politics 10 (2): pg. 1
- Clapp, Jennifer and Linda Swanston. pg. 320
- Pretty, Jules. 2013. “The Consumption of a Finite Planet: Well-being, Convergence, Divergence and the Nascent Green Economy.” Environmental and Resource Economics55 (4): pg. 475
- Pretty, Jules. pg. 476
- Hansen, Ursula and Schrader, Ulf. 1997. “A Modern Model of Consumption for a Sustainable Society.” Journal of Consumer Policy20 (4): pg. 444
- Pretty, Jules. pg. 476
- Lorek, Sylvia and Joachim H. Spangenberg. 2014. “Sustainable Consumption within a Sustainable Economy – Beyond Green Growth and Green Economies.” Journal of Cleaner Production63 (Complete): pg. 35
- Pretty, Jules. pg. 484
- Pretty, Jules. pg. 488
- Clapp, Jennifer and Linda Swanston. pg. 317
- Clapp, Jennifer and Linda Swanston. pg. 318
- Clapp, Jennifer and Linda Swanston. pg. 317
- Clapp, Jennifer and Linda Swanston. pg. 318
- Lorek, Sylvia and Joachim H. Spangenberg. pg. 35
- Heiskanen, Eva and Mika Pantzar. 1997. “Toward Sustainable Consumption: Two New Perspectives.” Journal of Consumer Policy20 (4): pg. 410
- Pretty, Jules. pg. 477
- Hansen, Ursula and Schrader, Ulf. pg. 447
- Fuchs, Doris A. and Sylvia Lorek. pg. 278
- Hansen, Ursula and Schrader, Ulf. pg. 447
- Fuchs, Doris A. and Sylvia Lorek. pg. 279
- Lorek, Sylvia and Joachim H. Spangenberg. pg. 40
- Thøgersen, John and Ulf Schrader. 2012. “From Knowledge to Action—New Paths Towards Sustainable Consumption.” Journal of Consumer Policy35 (1): pg. 4
- Hansen, Ursula and Ulf Schrader. pg. 447
- “Anthem.” Coca Cola. YouTube. Published Jan 19 2016. Web. https://youtu.be/-AmKP9VE2Ms
- Dauvergne, Peter. pg. 2
- Dauvergne, Peter. pg. 3
- Fuchs, Doris A. and Sylvia Lorek. pg. 262
- Lorek, Sylvia and Joachim H. Spangenberg. pg. 35
- Dauvergne, Peter. pg. 2
- Pretty, Jules. pg. 476
- Lorek, Sylvia and Joachim H. Spangenberg. pg. 34
- Heiskanen, Eva and Mika Pantzar. pg. 411
- Fuchs, Doris A. and Sylvia Lorek. pg. 270
- Cohen, Maurie J. 2006. “Sustainable Consumption Research as Democratic Expertise.” Journal of Consumer Policy29 (1): pg. 67
- Fuchs, Doris A. and Sylvia Lorek. pg. 266
- Fuchs, Doris A. and Sylvia Lorek. pg. 273
- Pretty, Jules. pg. 478
- Pretty, Jules. pg. 479
- Pretty, Jules. pg. 482
- Pretty, Jules. pg. 494
- Stahel, W. R.. 1997. “The Service Economy: ‘Wealth Without Resource Consumption’?”. Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences355 (1728). The Royal Society: pg. 1311
- White, Rob. 2002. “Environmental Harm and the Political Economy of Consumption”. Social Justice29 (1/2 (87-88)). Social Justice/Global Options: pg. 82
“Anthem.” Coca Cola. YouTube. Published Jan 19 2016. Web. https://youtu.be/-AmKP9VE2Ms
International Energy Agency. OECD. Accessed Jan 22 2016. Web. http://www.iea.org/
Millman, Oliver. “13 million along US coast could see homes swamped by 2100, study finds.” The Guardian. Published March 14 2016. Accessed March 14 2016.
“The Multilateral Trading System and Climate Change: Introduction.” World Trade Organization. Accessed Jan 23 2016. Web. https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/envir_e/climate_intro_e.htm
Slezak, Michael., and Carrington, Damian. “February breaks global temperature records by ‘shocking’ amount”. The Guardian. Published March 14 2016. Accessed March 14 2016.
Clapp, Jennifer and Linda Swanston. 2009. “Doing Away with Plastic Shopping Bags: International Patterns of Norm Emergence and Policy Implementation.” Environmental Politics 18 (3): 315-332.
Cohen, Maurie J. 2006. “Sustainable Consumption Research as Democratic Expertise.” Journal of Consumer Policy 29 (1): 67-77.
Dauvergne, Peter. 2010. “The Problem of Consumption.” Global Environmental Politics 10 (2): 1-10.
Fuchs, Doris A. and Sylvia Lorek. 2005. “Sustainable Consumption Governance: A History of Promises and Failures.” Journal of Consumer Policy 28 (3): 261-288.
Hansen, Ursula and Ulf Schrader. 1997. “A Modern Model of Consumption for a Sustainable Society.” Journal of Consumer Policy 20 (4): 443-468.
Heiskanen, Eva and Mika Pantzar. 1997. “Toward Sustainable Consumption: Two New Perspectives.” Journal of Consumer Policy 20 (4): 409-442.
Jevrejeva, S., et al. 2014. “Upper Limit for Sea Level Projects by 2100.” IOP Science. Environment Research Letters 9: 1-9
Lorek, Sylvia and Joachim H. Spangenberg. 2014. “Sustainable Consumption within a Sustainable Economy – Beyond Green Growth and Green Economies.” Journal of Cleaner Production 63 (Complete): 33-44.
Pretty, Jules. 2013. “The Consumption of a Finite Planet: Well-being, Convergence, Divergence and the Nascent Green Economy.” Environmental and Resource Economics 55 (4): 475-499.
Stahel, W. R.. 1997. “The Service Economy: ‘Wealth Without Resource Consumption’?”. Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 355 (1728). The Royal Society: 1309–19.
Thøgersen, John and Ulf Schrader. 2012. “From Knowledge to Action—New Paths Towards Sustainable Consumption.” Journal of Consumer Policy 35 (1): 1-5.
White, Rob. 2002. “Environmental Harm and the Political Economy of Consumption”. Social Justice 29 (1/2 (87-88)). Social Justice/Global Options: 82–102.