The human species’ growth and level of consumption is 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 exploiting the natural world in ways that are unsustainable. This problem is severely draining natural resources and dramatically damaging the environment. Furthermore we are releasing unsustainable levels of greenhouse gases. 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 necessary 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 that 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 humans, but also of the entire natural world. 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 Or the exploitation of natural environments leading to the destruction of ecosystems and the loss of life, such as the cutting down of rain forests. The second area of importance is that over-consumption creates significant 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 ballooning statistics are encouraging for our species, but the problem is that this growth has destabilized the global environment and resulted in exhaustive resource depletion.
Consumption is important to people. It is symbolic and allows for the creation of a self-image. 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 reduction 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 in 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 it would be dramatically less destructive than what the current projected outcomes would be if production, growth, and emission continue on the trajectory that 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 revealing research 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 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 highlight this intense level of consumption consider that 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; however evidence finds that plastic bag recycling globally is as low as 5%.23 This gigantic use of oil, and therefor gigantic level of C02 emissions and also gigantic amount of pollution, is staggering.
This problem with consumption is daunting and to reverse the damage done is undeniably difficult. Unfortunately the problem gets worse. The world has not peaked its population or consumption levels. 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 to 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 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.
There is an ongoing debate as to 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 that 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 they have the power to influence the competing interests of businesses, therefore they indirectly have the power to shift the economy into sustainability.28 There is some truth to this. Consumers are often in favor of “green” products, are willing to make some changes, and are becoming more aware of important environmental issues.29
But of course, there are problems with this. It implies that consumers will be rationally willing to do this. It also implies that they will have access to accurate information that will allow them to make decisions that are necessary to improve sustainability. Consumers would be required to make decisions that put them in a disadvantage and hinder their personal utility. Such as selling their car to buy a bike in order to help with environmental problems that 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 dictated by government policy.32 Furthermore, it is very difficult for consumers to accurately know what consequences their actions are resulting in, and also further complications arise 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 consumer fails to create and meaningful impact. 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 false. Putting an emphasis on consumer sovereignty places a barrier in front of legislation and policy.35 Doing so also neglects to put pressure on companies that encourage rampant consumerism. When a company like Coca Cola brands its product to be a necessity of life, like in their recent advertising campaigns36, they share responsibility in the consumption of their product. 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 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. Real change will require far more than local initiatives. A comprehensive global restructuring is necessary.
There are two ways to reduce consumption: increase efficiency or enact structural change.39 Increasing product efficiency is encouraging however its effects are minuscule. An increase in efficiency helped reduce S02, but it was not until the implementation of regulation that S02 saw dramatic declines causing acid rain to be nearly eliminated in industrialized countries.40 There is a misconception that increasing efficiency is enough to make a difference. Peter Dauvernge in his work demonstrates that heavy electronics, such as TVs and appliances, have become more energy efficient.41 However this positive trend falls short of making even a fraction of reduction in total consumption usage. Similar statistics exist for energy usage. “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. Few changes occurred or were even attempted which aimed to change the root causes of over-consumption.44 Most implementation has been trivial, such as “green” products or recycling soda bottles. These do not drastically reduce resource consumption and more serious approaches are often marginal and ignored.45 The largest group that 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 efficiency, but hardly on fundamental changes. The 1999 Rio Earth Summit was the first large pledge for more sustainable consumption but this also fell short.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 studies, debates, commissions, reports, and world conferences, but little actual change.49
What we need is clear. The problem of over consumption demands two immediate actions. First the acknowledgment that the problem is global and will require committed global governance. Second that the changes necessary go beyond efficiencies and will require radical, fundamental, and sweeping changes to consumption, the economy, self-identity, city structure, energy extraction, and lifestyle. Radical changes have been neglected for understandable reasons. They are politically controversial and require transnational commitment and agreement. However ignoring these changes will have dire consequences. An example of a radical change would be restructuring major cities to no longer use vehicles for transportation. Instead a focus would be placed on localized communal living and on extensive public transportation systems, such as advanced light rail/subway systems powered by renewable energy. 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 is that over-consumption and life satisfaction go hand in hand. In a comprehensive analysis of 189 countries it was revealed 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 for 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 exaggerated.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 mantra of infinite growth 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 generally 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 level of consumption is not only destroying the planet but is also barely increasing personal life satisfaction. Fundamental restructuring of economic systems (as long as needs are met) would not require a loss in well-being. Radical change, while daunting and difficult, could restructure societies to consume less while still enjoying life with the same satisfaction.54
While it would be undoubtedly expensive to implement vast structural changes, many argue that it would actually be cheaper than doing nothing. One example of an economic incentive to acting early 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 pay for the damages later.
W. R. Stahel outlines 5 key points for the world to become 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 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 attempts to reduce consumption through avenues such as “green” products. These efforts have had negligible results. Due to their size, access to wealth, access to knowledge, and capability, the responsibility to resolve this problem primarily lies on governments, non-government actors, and businesses. What is required is radical changes to 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. Furthermore these changes 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, Edited June 2018)
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.