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Our consumption model is broken. Here's how to build a new one.


August 1, 2018, marks the date we started using more from nature than our planet can renew in the whole year. Every natural resource we used from that day onward resulted in “ecological overspending.” Imagining a better consumption model is key to a good future.

Our consumption model is broken. Here's how to build a new one.

2 weeks ago


By Ali El Idrissi

The Climate Crisis Is Embedded in Our Consumerist Culture

Currently, humanity lives at credit and consumes resources equal to that of 1.7 planets a year. That’s compared to 1.4 a decade ago and 0.8 in 1963. If population and consumption trends continue, this figure will rise to 2 planets by 2030. Ecological overspending contributes to the warming of our planet. It accelerated in the past 35 years , with 2016 as the hottest year since record-keeping began. Most scientists agree that the leading cause of the warming is human pollution.

A recent study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology looked at the impact of consumption. It calculated that, in 2007, consumers contributed to more than 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. They also contributed between 50 and 80 percent of total land, material and water use. U.S. households alone contributed to a quarter of global emissions.

In October this year, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest scientific report calling on individuals and governments to take action to avoid disastrous levels of global warming. The IPCC says that would require "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” The IPCC's models emphasize the need for people to change their lifestyle and consumption patterns to more sustainable alternatives. Lifestyle changes can make a big difference, said Dr Debra Roberts, the IPCC's co-chair.

To appreciate how much this relates to lifestyle, take food, for example. As income rises, people consume more dairy and meat products, the food categories with the highest environmental footprint. A recent study by Oxford University found that eating a vegan diet could be the “single biggest way” to reduce our environmental impact on earth.

Clothing is another case of our lifestyle destroying our environment. In recent decades, the fashion industry nurtured our appetite for cheap clothes and kept increasing production. The world now consumes 400 percent more clothes than two decades ago. This can have devastating effects as seen with the drying up of the Aral Sea.

As we consume, we generate a lot of waste, especially plastic waste, which accounts for about half of all human waste. Only 9 percent of plastic waste produced since the 1950s has been recycled. The rest ends up in landfills or polluting our environment. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation projects that by 2050, oceans will contain more plastic than fish.

The changes needed, from adopting new diets to breaking buying and throwaway habits, go beyond what products we choose. We need to redesign our behaviors: why and how we consume.

Consumption As A Way Of Life

The rise of consumerism started early in the 20th century, in a particular context. Cheap energy from fossil fuels, expansion in the use of petrochemicals, and advances in the assembly line production model resulted in a massive increase in manufacturing capacity. Corporations needed a larger market of consumers, so advertising and consumer lending developed in response. By the 1950s, consumerism was a core part of the American way of life. In 1955, economist Victor Lebow wrote in the Journal of Retailing that, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption.”

Today, overconsumption and waste have become the norm. Online shopping and cheap prices are pushing Americans to purchase and accumulate more and more stuff. Consumption accounts for 70 percent of US GDP. The average American home has tripled in size since 1950. It contains 300,000 items and over $3,100 worth of unused goods. Only 3.1 percent of the world’s children live in America, but they own 40 percent of the toys consumed globally. Nearly 40 percent of food in America goes to waste. Sixty percent of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year.

Excess That Hurts Our Planet Hurts Us

Chronic diseases — such as heart attacks, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s — are the leading cause of disability and death in the US. As of 2012, about half of all adult Americans had one or more chronic health conditions. We can prevent, treat or reverse these conditions with lifestyle and dietary changes like eating less meat and junk foods.

In recent years, scientists found toxic chemicals in most of our consumer products. They are used everywhere, including in our food, clothes, furniture, electronics, and cosmetics. Studies found widespread use of chemicals like phthalates—linked to asthma, diabetes, and autism—in children clothing.

The impact is greater on children because the brain develops during pregnancy and in the first two years of life. In 2015, a group of leading scientists, medical experts, and children’s health advocates published a scientific statement to warn against chemicals that can harm children:

“The science is clear and sufficient and substantial...it shows is that toxic chemicals are increasing American children risks for neurodevelopmental disorder...these include chemicals that are used extensively in consumer products...”

Your Latest Trick

As consumption patterns accelerated, the act of buying took on a cultural dimension. Around the world, shopping has become a frequent pastime accessible to all. Researchers started re-visiting “The Happiness Question.” What makes us happy? And what happens to our mental health when we live a big part of our life as a consumer?

An ongoing 75-years-long adult development study led by Harvard tracks the well-being of 724 men and their families. Generations of researchers analyzed brain scans, blood samples, surveys and direct interactions. They recently started to share their findings that, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Yet, we spend a disproportionate amount of time and resources on activities that do not increase well-being or undermine it. Why? Part of the response relates to how our brain works. Neuroscientists have revealed many biases that trick us into making short-term decisions. They include survival instinct, forming habits, setting goals, and chasing rewards. Sales, discounts, and coupons trick us into seeking temporary satisfaction from the pursuit of a new desired object. This disconnect between the act of shopping and its outcome (owning a product) results in overspending, clutter, and waste.

Do The Evolution

The word “consumption” first appeared in the 14th century to describe any potentially fatal disease that “consumed” the body.

We know we need to transition to sustainable modes of consumption. Our challenge goes beyond fixing the current model--we must imagine a new one. Alternatives such as ethical consumerism or minimalism are unlikely to impact enough people. It is often underestimated how deep consumption behaviors are embedded into our culture and habits.

We have to organize new ways to provide everyday products and services. We can start with a few principles:

  1. Start with people, not product. Reconnect with what we need and want, focusing on how we use a product and putting our health at the centre

  2. Design for efficiency and low/no waste. Adopt circular systems where products are designed to last and be recovered.

  3. Design for impact. Build alternatives that everyone can afford and enjoy, beyond a happy few. New business and distribution models can unlock this impact.We should ask ourselves: What societies do we want for us and for future generations? How do we want to spend our time? We can innovate a new, higher form of consumption. When we do that, we create endless opportunities to re-imagine and improve our lives.

To see how these principles are applied to create real life solutions, read the second part of this story: We’re Building A New Consumption Model. And It Starts At The Beginning: Birth.

Ali El Idrissi is the Founder and CEO of UpChoose PBC, a startup on a mission to activate consumers’ role in transitioning to a sustainable future.

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