The Reality of Consumerism

Consumerism is a problem. To resist climate change, we have to talk more about consumer accountability. While governmental policy and business regulation have their place, it’s essential to understand consumption within the complex scheme of the global economy and its effect on the environment. Consumerism is an essential part, if not the most important, to the system that burns down forests, produces excessive emissions, exploits natural resources, pollutes the environment, and rids our planet of biodiversity. Consumers everywhere need to be more aware of the effect consumption has on global ecological trends. In response, we should all make conscious efforts to consume less.

Consumption promotes the incentive for business. A perceived demand for products drives businesses to match consumers with a supply. This demand is essentially consumption, indicated by the purchasing of products. When you buy, you consume. When you buy, businesses derive patterns of consumer behavior and respond accordingly. When businesses meet the demands of consumers, they affect processes that directly contribute to negative environmental trends. It is the processes related to businesses meeting the demands of consumers that directly contribute to negative environmental trends. The more money we give to destructive businesses, the more resources and incentives they have to perpetuate their practices. 

In “Visualizing Environmental Science”, writers David Hassenzahl, Mary Hager, and Linda Berg describe how the economic system that we deal with to get our snacks, clothes, etc. depends on unsustainably draining the earth of its resources, directly causing the trends that strengthen climate change. This includes harvesting processes like deforestation, which annually rids us of over 14,800 square miles (almost the size of Switzerland) of forest, releasing 8-10% of human emissions yearly. It also includes oil drilling, mining, and agriculture, as well as the by-products of fertilizer and pesticide usage, which contribute to water pollution and the drying up of rivers. 

After cultivation, manufacturing industries produce one-fifth of annual emissions making the products. The process of transporting the products requires a combustion of diesel fuel so that 200,000 ton cargo ships can cross oceans and semi-trucks can trek continents, resulting in a substantial carbon footprint

After products are made and used, industrial waste and pollution contribute to increased emissions, water and soil pollution, and biodiversity loss as ecosystems are made uninhabitable. All of this destruction results from the great toll the Earth takes as nearly eight billion people pursue either just a meal for the day or maximum comfort throughout. The pursuit of profit, rewarded by our purchasing, and unconsciously made permissible by our lack of concern and awareness, is the fuel for this destructive engine. If we care about the environment, we must have the courage to hold ourselves accountable to consume less—to buy less palm oil, spare that extra snack, and let go of single-use plastics. 

However, the consumer isn’t entirely to blame. Advertising communicates to consumers that our happiness lies within the purchasing of more products. Advertising actively toils to convince us that we need far more than we really do, but there are consequences to wanting so much. In highly-developed countries, individual demands on natural resources far exceed their requirement for survival. Highly-developed countries consume significantly more per person relative to other countries, which happens to be more than 80% of the world’s population. The United States has an excessively high ecological footprint per capita of 8.04 hectares (China is 3.71 hectares per capita). An ecological footprint indicates how many global hectares are required to support an individual. Therefore, to shrink the capacity businesses have to continue and expand their harmful processes, consumers must be resilient in the face of advertising. This response requires cutting down our comfort purchases at least until we see real shifts in corporations’ practices of recycling, waste management, fuel efficiency, etc. We can resist lifestyles that assume we can’t create our own happiness without acquiring some product. 

By working individually to leave behind unsustainable products, consumers can help shift the industrial paradigm. If we take our consumption more seriously and give more attention to sustainable products, businesses, guided by money, should inevitably see the pattern. Consumers, therefore, should try as much as possible to buy things that are recyclable, sustainably produced, and reusable. The cost of sustainable products may very well go down over time the more we incentivize businesses to compete for a place in the market we create.

To consume less and reduce our individual ecological footprints, we can benefit from practicing self-sufficiency and personal sustainability. We can plant our own gardens, shop local, thrift, recycle more, use less energy, buy more energy efficient products, resist comfort purchases, and reduce buying single-use plastics. Other practices listed in many articles online have good tips regarding lowering ecological footprints like homestolove and cleansd. Another side to this is supporting our lifestyles to fix problems with long-term solutions. Instead of buying plastic water bottles, buy a water filter. Instead of buying individual meals, buy bulk groceries. Instead of driving, bike or use public transport. It is about whether or not we have the courage to hold ourselves accountable and the principle to suppress our own consumer urges. The world has never needed more individual resilience then now. 

You may question whether or not buying a water bottle to avoid using plastic water bottles will save the world, but this is exactly what needs to happen. Consumers must better understand their place in the aggregate. Marginal improvements can be vast if taken up by more and more people on their own principle, finally living up to our claims that we care for the environment. If we all sit, immobilized by the free-rider problem, continuing to incentivize the processes we claim to despise that make our world uglier and less habitable, then we can’t claim to care about our world. Yes, not everybody will change their consumption habits, but why should this stand in the way of you resisting purchases that you don’t need? Just because someone else isn’t doing the right thing, doesn’t mean we all should follow suit. Always think of the marginal improvements to be made and realize that a single purchase disregarded by a million people can go a long way. 

A major misconception regarding climate action is that we are inclined to rely on the government for direction. First off, if we wait for the government to restrict negative business practices, whatever this may look like, we’re still giving into environmental destruction until then. Voting will be essential in the fight for climate change, but consumers must know that the effect they want to have can be expedited by their agency. Additionally, policy will have to be rigidly defined to restrict businesses from certain practices and therefore lower productivity, which seems almost impossible considering the current political climate. If the government imposes a tax, it could mean that the practices will still be happening and that the wealthiest corporations can get away with it. Ultimately whether the government starts first, or we do, there will have to be some changes made to consumer habits in order to actually stop the practices that are hurting the environment. Business won’t suddenly become sustainable overnight just because governments say so. Consumers will have to change their habits, whether or not the government acts. Businesses like ExxonMobil have made it clear through rigorous lobbying that they won’t go out without a fight. 

Consumerism is now on trial. If we care about the environment, it’s simply contradictory to continue supplying the existence of those entities that destroy it. Are we really going to watch our planet crumble as corporations actively spend a quarter of a trillion dollars yearly for marketing to convince us to gratify their greed? Change won’t be easy, but it is absolutely necessary, as a test of our individual autonomy, to make businesses respond to our concerns. If we consider our consumption as a direct test of our care, the question may be asked: how much do you care?

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