The Problem of Consumerism
The unseen Price tag
– By Prithviraj Lingayat
SALE, OFFER, BUY, 100% CASHBACK, HURRY, REWARDS, PREMIUM, LIMITED, FREE, EXCLUSIVE and ENDS FAST. Do these words look familiar to you? So, do they always appear on your mobile apps, social media accounts, newspapers, TV, billboards, etc.? If yes, then welcome to the club of consumers, a worldwide group with billions of members, all targets of multi-national companies, who are trying to convince you that your ultimate happiness only lies in buying, accumulating things which you don’t need (with money you don’t have).
We are Consumers, we’re the by-products of a lifestyle obsession — Tyler Durden (Fight club)
Modern Consumerism can simply be understood as ‘promoting consumption of products and goods in excess of one’s needs’. Global market tries to innovate and make products which can reduce the efforts of humans and increase the comforts. Such products are branded in a way that we start believing that ‘this product was the only thing missing from my life, buying this will complete me!’.
This consumer culture has been a boon for economies, but what happens when these advertisements and promotions start encroaching in your daily life, creating issues of privacy and mental health? It was assumed that a free-market economy puts the consumers in the driver’s seat, but do you feel like you are the driver of your decisions, or are you influenced? Are we supposed to overlook the compelling data and assume this modern consumerism is good for us just because it promises economic growth? Even if we decide to overlook the impact on our minds, we surely cannot overlook one thing- The impact on the Environment…
Nearly every new possession has a carbon footprint. All the products we buy or use, essentially originate from the Earth. Every stage in the product’s life cycle requires earth resources in various forms. For starters, in order to run giant factories, energy is required in the forms of heat, gas, oil or electricity. The flashy digital advertisement billboards, data centres, marketing campaigns all require high amounts of energy too. This energy is obtained from fossil fuels. Fossil fuel emissions are the biggest culprits of climate change.
When we fall prey to the flashy advertisements, we buy things, and the lack of mindfulness in buying decisions makes us partners of this exploitative culture. Such ‘business models’ have a huge price tag on Earth. The impact is so big that the ‘Earth overshoot day’ of 2020 was on 22nd August, which implies for rest of the 4 months we borrowed from our future (even the lockdowns could not help us to keep our resource use within earth’s regenerative capacity).
Today, in this global economy we ‘the people’ seem to have shifted from being the citizens of this Earth to becoming just the consumers of this Earth. Our seemingly insignificant actions also contribute to climate change. One might say that ‘using a petrol car for commute every day won’t destroy the earth’, but when billions of people around the globe take the same casual approach, the impact is humungous. To control climate change we must focus on ‘Demand Reduction’ immediately. Making conscious choices, using eco-friendly or recycled products whenever possible and consuming only what you need, not all that you want, can help reduce the problem of extravagant consumerism at the individual level. But it’s not just the job of the individuals.
Shifting business models to using renewable energy, innovating with green technology and making eco-friendly products is in the hands of companies. Consumption is the goal, but production is the means. Addressing consumerism from the production side will help forge a greater impact. Governments will have the role of making policies which focus on demand reduction, promotion of green products and renewable technology roll-outs for the transition in the energy sector.
Our economy today operates in a linear pattern, where we ‘exploit — use — dispose’. A transition to Circular Economy is the need of the hour. It is a responsible economic model in which manufacturers close the material cycles of most of the raw materials by designing products to be reusable/recyclable. A conscious effort is made to keep the materials flowing within the economy and not create wastages. ex: Denim Jeans from PET bottles.
Individual actions coupled with systemic changes in governance and business models can limit excessive consumerism and climate change to an extent where all life forms can thrive in peace. But stopping consumerism is not just for the environment, what more is at stake?
Our current consumerist model has resulted in startling anomalies. Worldwatch report estimates that the worldwide annual expenditure for cosmetics amounts to total $18 billion; the estimate for annual expenditure required to eliminate global hunger and malnutrition is $19 billion. Estimated expenditure on pet food in the United States and Europe totals $17 billion a year; the estimated cost of immunizing every child, providing clean drinking water for all, and achieving universal literacy is $16.3 billion.
Consumerism has reached such a point today, that it is challenging our social foundations. Owing to the consumerist culture, more and more people associate social status to products and brands. This often creates new classes in the society, every individual feels unsatisfied and wants to jump up into the class above him, and this jumping is not subject to an end. So, a materialistic society may give newer dimensions to the disparity in our society and social harmony may become a distant dream. Further, the resource crunch will widen the socio-economic gap even more. Humanistic and distributive policies which encourage the human well-being in general over just economic growth must be focused upon if we wish to avoid such societal disruptions.
It is true that consumerism culture has led to numerous innovations which have rapidly changed the face of our society. Consumption of products by individuals is almost a necessity for economic growth, many developing economies have grown at a rapid pace, thanks to consumerism. When a greater proportion of citizens buy goods and services in excess of their needs, they consume more, they spend more, and that creates a cycle of demand leading to greater production and to greater employment.
Consumption is necessary for economic growth, but not human well-being. If our current economic model promotes unsustainable consumerism, it is time to rethink and restructure. At an individual level, we must understand that Happiness, comfort, luxury is not necessarily synonymous to buying or consuming.
When buying, we must realize that beyond the ‘seen’ price tags, there are many ‘unseen’ price tags in terms of consequences. So, we must consciously address consumerism for our self-interest as well as the greater good of limiting climate change. In the upcoming Holiday Seasons, we have an opportunity to make conscious decisions. The change must start from ourselves.
Prithviraj, currently a student of Garware College of Commerce wants to design innovative solutions for real-world problems and find better models of development which synergise social harmony, environment and economics… He works as a policy research intern with CCP.