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15 Apr 2021

Is consumerism the biggest threat to our planet?

Luke Baker

So much of the modern society we all experience today is built around this idea of consumerism. In short, consumerism says it is good for us to buy and use a large quantity of goods and services. But is this ideology one of the biggest threats our planet faces today?

Nowhere has consumerism been welcomed with open arms more than the home of Black Friday; the United States. In fact, household consumption in the U.S. is on average $38,000 p/a, that is a whopping $10,000 more than the next major economy; Switzerland.

But does this expenditure correspond with the types of ecological issues we would expect? One measure we can look at is the average carbon footprints per person by country and it is not pretty. The U.S. has one of the highest carbon footprints of large countries in the developed world at 16.16 tonnes CO2e per person p/a. In comparison, countries in the developing world like Ethiopia whose household consumption is a mere $1,043 p/a produce just 0.15 tonnes of CO2e per person p/a.

This also seems to be reflected within the U.S., a household’s carbon footprint generally increases with its income and consumption, with a range of 19.3 to 91.5 tons of CO2-equivalent annually. So we’ve learnt so far that if the consumerist ideology was a person and the chair they were sat down on was the earth, it would be putting some serious strain on those chair legs.

Here in the U.K., we’ve seen in 2019 (pre-covid) a drop of 45% in emissions since 1990 whilst consumption increased from $19k p/a to $28k per person today. So where has this dramatic emissions reduction come from?

According to Carbon Brief around 90% of this decline has come from three distinct areas with very little to do with consumption: 

  • Our electricity supplies moving away from coal (~40%)

  • Cleaner industry (~40%) - manufacturing and waste industry emission controls on landfill emissions and a move away from carbon-intensive manufacturing

  • A smaller and cleaner fossil fuel supply industry (~10%) 

There is more to this story however, the UK economy has in fact gone through a huge transition over the last thirty years from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based one. Economists have even given this a name; the Kuznets curve, which basically says that as economies achieve economic growth they will reach a point where the environmental impact of that growth will tail off. You can check out this phenomenon here across a range of countries.

The big problem with this theory, whilst the environmental impact of these developed countries does decrease, a large part of those emissions is simply moved to developing countries where the products are manufactured due to labour being cheaper. And unfortunately, the climate crisis is not something you can simply shift to other countries. One of the reasons why China is such a high emitter of CO2 is because it is bearing the brunt of the West’s consumption. 

Nowhere is this shown better than in the UK; between 1990 and 2016 the UK's accounting methods reported a 41% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions within the UK's national borders. Over the same period, the UK's consumption-based emissions (carbon footprint) declined by 15%.

What this tells us is that there are definitely ways in which we can reduce our carbon footprint without cutting consumption. In fact, it’s estimated that 40% of emissions can be reduced through energy efficiency gains alone. However, that still leaves an awful lot of emissions that are simply down to the high consumption lifestyles of the developed world. If we are to factor in goods and services that we consume from around the world then the UK remains one of the world’s largest net importers of CO2 emissions

The number of consumers living over and above their basic needs on our planet is growing at a rapid pace as well. It’s estimated that there will be 5.6 billion people able to purchase goods and services past their basic needs by 2030 (it was 3.5 billion in 2017). Of course, this is great news for humanity as they are lifting themselves out of abject poverty and into better standards of living. It’s also been shown that raising the welfare of people has knock-on effects, such as education levels being boosted, women becoming more empowered and birth rates decreasing. This will be one of the key reasons our population is likely to tail off at 10.9 billion by 2100

So can the impact of that consumption be mitigated completely? That is what the business world is starting to innovate towards, from the adoption of more circular economy models from the likes of To be Frank and BEEN in the fashion industry to longer-lasting products from Le Creuset all supported by emission-free transportation from emerging companies like Arrival.

The good news is, no matter how you want to make a difference through your purchases you can find great brands everywhere. From products that last a lifetime from Buy Me Once to Sustainable fashion from Compare Ethics and a whole range of products from My Green Pod.

And at Reset Connect we are working tirelessly to bring together these innovators to accelerate this change. It’s however going to be vital that this sits alongside real consumption reductions, to allow us to hit net zero, not just close to it. And with the ever-growing numbers of people with disposable incomes, it becomes all the more important for developed countries to lead the way in this policy and behavioural change.

If you’d like to learn more about the innovators that are redefining the industries we purchase goods and services from, sign up for the Reset Connect newsletter here.