26 August 2009

The Consumption Paradox

Although we are more materially well off than at any previous time in history, we are, on the whole, less satisfied and experiencing higher levels of anxiety and other impacts on our wellbeing.

We have more time saving devices than ever, but are somehow also still time poor. We work ever harder to make things easier for ourselves and our families. And debt is no longer a restraint, but an enabler of consumption...

Waste Management Association of Australia
Conference Presentation

Adelaide, July 2008

'Avoid' is the most preferable layer of the waste hierarchy, and can be defined as avoiding the need to produce materials or products that will become waste.

Avoid also means that in order to give full effect to the zero waste ethos, there needs to be a focus on consumption, as well as materials efficiency and recycling.

All of us are consumers - people who have credit cards are consumers. People who live in non-monetary economies, and who derive their living from subsistence farming are consumers, although nowhere as prolific as those who can wield plastic. All human beings want and need material resources both to survive and to enhance our lives.

The ABC recently screened a series called ‘Stuff’ which inquired into the relationship Australians have with their material possessions. Wendy Harmer, writer and presenter of the series, stated:

‘I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with the many books, newspaper columns and documentaries that finger-wag about the way we consume. We consume, they say, because we’re “greedy”, “unthinking”, to “show off” to “have power over others”.’ [1]

This humorous and insightful series questioned the contemporary notion that we have too much stuff, and that stuff doesn’t make us happy, noting that we all have possessions that are precious to us, that embody memories and sentiment (especially if they were gifts), and that give us pleasure.

Stuff means different things to different people, and we must be careful not to judge someone’s consumption by our own standards. I have a lot of books that I treasure, but to my sister – who would have read less than five books in her life – they don’t hold the same value.

Similarly, this person’s love of Nintendo toys seems at first glance to be an example of excessive consumption. But is it any better or worse than my books in terms of the enjoyment experienced by the consumer? Are my books a more noble use of financial and physical resources? Who says? And does the planet care to which end its resources are used?

It is true that we need to consume to survive, to meet our needs, to fulfil our wants and to enjoy our lives. There is nothing inherently bad about consumption. But if consumption is an end in itself - if it is the main focus of individuals or government policy - it can threaten the well-being of people and the environment.

As consumers and as citizens, we have a responsibility to ask - is there a point at which consumption can become pathological? Where is that point for ourselves as individuals, as a nation, as a species? What are the consequences? And what can we do about them?

In light of such a question, two of the dictionary definitions of consumption are intriguing:

con*sump*tion –noun [kuhn-suhmp-shuhn]
- the act of consuming, as by use, decay, or destruction
- pathology - progressive wasting of the body

In a few short decades since the end of World War II, the OECD nations have evolved consumer societies unprecedented in human history, powered by the availability of cheap fossil fuels and an abundance of resources.

In doing so, we have become the most effective species in the history of this planet in modifying landscapes to deliver the resources we need and want.

Although some gains have been made with recycling and resource efficient manufacturing approaches, the materials life cycle in human economies today is still largely based on a linear flow of resources and energy, the ‘take-make-waste’ model.

There is currently a great deal of concern about climate change, carbon targets, emissions trading and so on. But we have yet to make the link that possibly apart from electricity for lighting and heating, we are not burning the calorific legacy of fossil fuels as an end in itself.

We burn fossil fuels to grow, harvest, mine, transport, manufacture, use and dispose of stuff.

If we are going to successfully address both climate change and zero waste, we must focus on the link between greenhouse emissions, climate change, and addressing the higher half of the waste hierarchy.

And if we are going to do this, then we need to understand what the drives the ability and the desire to consume.

Because We Can…And Because Its Fun!

One of the reasons we consume beyond our needs is simply because we can - the average serf of the 15th century, farmer of the 17th century or factory worker of the 19th century could only dream of the material standard of living many of us enjoy today. If we have the means to consume – why wouldn’t we?

A close relative of ‘because we can’ is ‘because its fun’ – it is pleasurable to buy and have things, have a comfortable material standard of living, to be able to give to others, and to express our identity.

Humanity has done spectacularly well in fulfilling its material requirements and wants – although many people today still lack their basic needs, there is also an unprecedented number of people whose material living standards are higher than those of an average citizen at any previous time in history.

Planned Obsolescence: Made to Break

The concept of planned obsolescence means products are designed to either be disposable, superseded or break down and need replacing, thereby ensuring a future market.

Planned obsolescence is evident everywhere in our throwaway society. It is frustratingly apparent every time we are told it is cheaper to buy a new one than it would be to repair our current one, and when technology is superseded – remember buying the CDs of all the records you already had? DVDs to replace your video tapes? Sure, the technology improves, but it still drives demand for resources and generates waste. In five years, analogue television will no longer be available, requiring millions of set top boxes, and rendering millions of TV sets useless.

What about ‘green’ products? Can we shop our way out of the ecological crisis we now face, which is a crisis of not only peak oil, but ‘peak everything’ – species extinction, declining water supplies, climate change?

Personal consumption decisions may create some practical change, and the impact of a lot of personal consumption decisions may influence supply chains to respond to their markets. However to leave this change-making to the purchasing power of the individual, who may have neither the time, the inclination or the ability to buy anything other than the cheapest product – let alone critically interpret media messages - is nothing short of negligent.

UK journalist and commentator George Monbiot stated:

‘Green consumerism is a substitute for collective action. No political challenge can be met by shopping.’ [2]

Perceived Obsolescence: Selling Dissatisfaction

Perceived obsolescence is the discarding of a product not because it has reached the end of its life, but because it is no longer the latest and most fashionable, or no longer satisfies in some way.

This approach was thrust on an unsuspecting public as a deliberate strategy as far back as World War II, when retailing analyst Victor Lebow famously articulated:

‘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 satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.’ [3]

Marketing and advertising is of course no longer just about promoting a product.

In many cases, its about selling an identity, a lifestyle and ensuring people are kept dissatisfied with what they have, so that they continue to consume more - the newest, the bigger, the better. It is critical to understand that waste is a psychological and social issue, not an engineering problem.

The anxiety and dissatisfaction generated by the gap between the actual self and the desired self, as constructed through the media and advertising, must be maintained to sustain this kind of consumption.

The advertising industry has been successful in keeping consumers in the richest societies in history feeling perpetually deprived.

Hooked on Credit, aka ‘Debt’

Debt - also known as credit - is now itself a consumer good, and is marketed by an increasing number and variety of lenders.

Debt has facilitated the emergence of consumer societies. Offers such as interest free periods, no deposit and no repayments for twelve months allow consumers to ‘fast forward’ the consumption for which they might have had to wait.

Debt enables us to not only consume more, but to do so at a faster rate, and allows us to yield to the constant pressures driven by the strategy of perceived obsolescence.

Debt does not restrict an individual’s consumption as it has done through most of human history – debt now enables more consumption.

Hard Wired to Acquire?

Through the ages, the game for most of humanity (and for many people still today) has been to increase their material standard of living. For generations, acquisitiveness has meant increasing one’s position of power, and survival during lean times. Arguably, our collective conditioning has hard wired us to acquire.

Our elders who lived through the Depression and War years hoarded everything, because things were hard to get, or expensive.

Now there are people who make a living from teaching us how to manage or let go of our clutter. Today in the United States, there is now over 2 billion square feet of storage space (excluding space in private homes), a total of 80 square miles, an area equivalent to three Manhattan Islands.

In a recent survey of over 1,000 Australians, 20% of respondents (who had self-identified as having problems with clutter), said they had built a shed or garage to keep or store things, and one in eight had moved house to accommodate their superfluous ‘stuff’.

One in five people said that the clutter was a source of conflict with their partner or family. Another survey revealed that the average Australian household spent just over $1,200 a year on items that were purchased but never used. Extrapolated nationally, this equates to $10.5 billion, the amount that Australian governments spent on universities and roads combined in the same period. [4]

Cultural Myths

Although high levels of personal debt are an increasing concern for those in debt and the nation as a whole, the associated consumption adds to GDP and makes the economy look good, an overriding concern for governments of all flavours.

However GDP is an indicator that simply adds up the throughput of the economy – counting every car accident, heart attack and break-in as ‘growth’, and omitting the significant and crucial contributions of volunteer and domestic work. It has been described as a ‘Mad Hatter’s’ accounting system.

In a recent survey, 1,000 Australians were asked to respond to the statement ‘A government’s prime objective should be achieving the greatest happiness of the people, not the greatest wealth’. The percentage of people who agreed with this statement was between 73% and 93% in every group when split by both household income and by political affiliation. [5]

Numerous studies show that, above a certain level, increases in income show little or no effect on well-being, yet the pursuit of more may come at the cost of personal relationships, social cohesion, job security and the quality of the environment, all of which do add to personal and national happiness. [6]

It is true that the story of human history has been one of trying to satisfy basic needs, and that ‘…we built up considerable velocity trying to escape the gravitational pull of poverty.’ [7]

But why are we persisting with something that doesn’t seem to be working once material living standards reach a certain point, and certainly won’t work with billions of people who aspire to improve their material living standard on a finite planet?

Modern industrial society believes it is no longer bound by myth, because we equate myth with superstition and the unscientific beliefs of so-called ‘primitive’ peoples. However myth-making is universal to all societies, and plays a role in the stories of every culture.

‘All our great cultural stories - our myths – are…concoctions of fact, belief, and shared-illusion, shaped and polished by frequent repetition and ritualistic affirmation.’ [8]

We love to hold on to our cherished myths, because they have worked for us, and we find it hard to let go when circumstances change.

We have, up until very recently in the human journey, been able to prosper with frontier economics in a world abundant with natural resources. But the world is getting smaller, and more and more people want a share of a shrinking pie.

Drowning in Debt

Financial debt is the most evident, direct cost of consumption.

The personal debt of Australians (excluding housing debt) doubled between 2001 and 2004, and has increased fourfold since 1996. The proportion of people filing for bankruptcy who cite excessive use of credit doubled to 21% between 1999 and 2004. And in the decade to 2002, the ratio of average household debt to income rose from 56% to 125%. [9]

In addition to the direct financial costs in our own society, it must be remembered that some of the costs are also borne by other people along the supply chains.

Consuming the Earth

Consumption impacts on our natural as well as financial capital. All of our consumption patterns generate demand for resources. Even in a service economy, equipment, infrastructure and supplies are still needed to provide the service – and the people providing the service still need to eat.

Wherever our resources come from, we must always remember that highly complex, specialised societies can only evolve and be maintained by the availability of an agricultural surplus.

Population is one element of consumption globally - there are currently just over 6 billion people on the planet, approximately 1.7 billion of whom belong to the ‘global consumer class’, which includes the more affluent citizens of developing nations. Even optimistic projections by the United Nations shows the Earth will have a population of 9 billion people by 2050.

Affluence and technology are equally critical elements influencing consumption, as both enable us to access more of nature’s capacity, and at a faster rate.

There are increasingly loud warnings not only from climate scientists in relation to global warming, but from biologists about species loss and ecosystem collapse, and from resource economists concerning increasing scarcity of everything from coltan to copper.

Most of the global consumer class live in urban areas and can buy in resources from around the world. We are both physically and psychologically divorced from daily dependence on nature, and are not faced with the immediate consequences of our actions.

However if we assume we can continue on our present course - that our consumption patterns can be replicated by the billions of people who are justifiably aspiring to increased material standards of living - we may find ourselves added to the long list of collapsed civilisations that litter history, although this time it could be on a global scale.

Time Consuming

Ironically, part of the reason consumer societies are increasingly time-poor is their stuff. High levels of consumption not only require a lot of money (or debt), but also a lot of time. The ‘joy-to-stuff’ ratio is the time a person has to enjoy life versus the time a person spends accumulating material goods. [10]

Beyond a certain number, things steal time…(they) must be chosen, bought, set up, used, experienced, maintained, tidied away, dusted, repaired, stored, and disposed of. They unavoidably gnaw away at the most restricted of all resources: time. The number of possibilities has exploded in affluent societies, but the day…continues to have only 24 hours. Shortage of time is the nemesis, the revenge, of affluence.[11]

Is there a correlation between high levels of consumer debt and people being increasingly time-poor?

what are you doing to save time?

We have equated more, bigger and faster with ‘good’, and less, smaller and slower with ‘bad’. It could well be our biggest delusion.

The emergence of ‘slow food’, ideas of downshifting, and work-life balance indicates that people are yearning for a gentler pace, and more connectedness to their place and the people in their lives.

Consuming Health & Wellbeing

There is a direct correlation between the volume and type food we consume, sedentary lifestyles where we don’t have time to exercise, and concerns with levels of obesity in our society.

According to 2005 National Health Survey data, 7.4 million Australians are overweight, with 30% of this group categorised as obese. [12] The proportion of adults classified as overweight or obese increased by 10% over the last ten years. [13]

It is no coincidence that the explosion in the rate of obesity has occurred at a time when food, particularly the calorie dense, nutritionally deficient kind – is available 24/7 and continuously marketed.

Financial debt and time poverty associated with high levels of material consumption also take a toll on the mental and emotional health of individuals, families and society.

Research into the incidence of modern day psychological and mental health problems such as anxiety, stress and depression has unearthed a range of predisposing factors.

These include being unemployed, impoverished or living in a dysfunctional family, along with broader social changes such as geographic mobility, urbanisation, changes in family structure. But the foremost factor and common denominator is social isolation.[14]

Consumption promotes the definition of individual identity and focuses our attention on what we are doing to maximise our consumption and generating the income to sustain it.

While people are busy concentrating on the pursuit of individual lifestyles, there is a corresponding retreat from involvement in civic and community life, and a weakening of the social cohesion that has been part of life for centuries.

A 2001 OECD study noted that formal membership and levels of participation in organisations in industrialised countries is waning, particularly in the US and Australia. There is also a decline in informal social interaction, especially with neighbours.[15]

A prominent US social researcher has identified three features of American society which in total may account for at least half of this decline and which have a close link to consumption[16]:
  • time pressures, which are partly or largely associated with working longer hours to support consumption habits
  • urban sprawl, which is a product of car dependence and the desire for larger homes (also related to time pressures of commuting; an hour commute each way is two hours’ less time for other activities each day)
  • extensive television viewing, which promotes consumption through exposure to advertising
In addition, a range of goods and services have been commodified - we now have to pay for things that used to occur as a transaction of trust and friendship, from how we entertain ourselves to how we care for children. Often these commodities – such as child care and fast food - are bought because people are time-pressed from working longer hours.

In a profound departure from the integrated community life, spontaneous social contact and support of extended family, friends and neighbours that has characterised human lifestyles thorough the generations, more affluent societies have begun leading lives that are increasingly privatised and segregated.

The Consumption Paradox

The consumption paradox has many facets – although we are more materially well off than at any previous time in history, we are, on the whole, less satisfied and experiencing higher levels of anxiety and other impacts on our wellbeing.

We have more time saving devices than ever, but are somehow also still time poor.

We work ever harder to make things easier for ourselves and our families.

And debt is no longer a restraint, but an enabler of consumption.

Resolving the consumption paradox will not be easy - our society promotes and celebrates consumption through both our economic system and social constructs.

Here are a couple of approaches we could consider.

The Whole Story

Our key indicators, on which so much decision making is based, are not telling us the whole story. There are numerous indicators on all sorts of issues, but they do not have the pre-eminence our major economic indicators are afforded.

We don’t see the nation’s suicide statistics, the number of households who had their homes repossessed, or how many people helped out with Meals on Wheels this week on the news in between the sport and weather. We see the price of gold and the exchange rate and what the stock market is doing today.

We never see the whole picture, only selected parts. What if we made other important concerns – such as the social and environmental costs of consumption - as visible?

We can get a truer picture of national well-being by adjusting the GDP to include a value on those activities that add to well-being (such as voluntary work) and those which detract (such as the costs of illness, crime, environmental degradation).

There has already been some work done on this, both in Australia and overseas. The government of Bhutan has established an indicator called ‘Gross National Happiness’,[17] which would seem to respond more to the concerns of Australians than GDP.

We can track our use of the resources we consume using indicators such as the Ecological Footprint.

It is critical that our indicators are not leaving us tunnel-visioned, that we are not solving one problem and unwittingly creating another.

Built to Last

We can shift our approach from a culture of quantity and disposability to one focussed on a culture of quality and durability.

In terms of the built environment, the infrastructure we build today can determine levels of consumption for generations to come. We are building today’s resource consumption profile right now.

Palm Jumeirah, Dubai

We need to ensure that we are not building resource traps for ourselves and our children, and that what we build will stand the test of time.

Applied to products, durable design can also help reduce waste, increase resource efficiency, and ensure materials have a longer useful life.

In 2005, a new product was launched every 3.5 minutes, (and) 80 per cent of the environmental impact of a product, service or system is determined at the design stage…[18]

It has been estimated that only 1% of materials flowing through the US economy are still in use within the year of manufacture. [19]

We could also consider how to make design ‘emotionally durable’ – how to design objects we want to keep rather than discard.

Why is it that we can keep a childhood teddy bear or a favourite pair of old jeans, but discard toasters and mobile phones without a second thought?

The latter has been characterised as ‘adulterous consumption’ - making a commitment to one product, and then quickly becoming distracted by a newer model. Perhaps this is because:

‘For most of human history we had an intimate relationship with the objects we used or treasured. Often we made them ourselves, or family members passed them on to us. For more specialist objects, we relied on expert manufacturers living close by, whom we would know personally. All this gave objects a history - a "narrative" - and an emotional connection that today's mass-produced goods cannot possibly match.’ [20]

For effective durable design, it is important to discover how people relate to objects, what causes people to develop empathy with them, how to embed them with meaning.


Ultimately, we could also ask ourselves ‘what is enough’? According to this graph, it’s not too far over on the x axis, and somewhere between comfort and luxury on the y axis.

We can also ask what there is to gain from diverting some of our energy from the pursuit of material consumption to other sources of fulfillment and a quality of life.


Reining in excessive consumption does not mean sacrifice or a step backward – in fact, we may find greater wealth in an improved quality of life. We can choose to make a good material standard of living one part of the overall picture.

We invented the economic and social systems in which we operate, and we can change them so that they better meet the needs of all human beings, so that they enhance our quality of life, and so our demand on nature’s goods and services is within the scope of our planet’s ability to provide them.

We can re-emerge first and foremost as citizens again, not consumers, not rational economic man, if there ever was such a creature.

How to do this is perhaps the most complex challenge human beings have ever faced. We need the awareness, the will and the creative energy of each sector of society, each nation, each individual, to bring about this change.

Sharon Ede

‘One step ahead, one step behind/Now you got to run to get even...'

'...the more things you get, the more you want/Just trade in one for another

Working so hard to make it easy/Got to turn this thing around...’

'Right Now', Van Halen (1992)

[1] www.abc.net.au/stuff
[2] www.monbiot.com
[3] Victor Lebow, Journal of Retailing, 1944
[4] ‘Stuff Happens – Unused Things Cluttering Up Our Homes’ (2008) Josh Fear www.tai.org.au
[5] ‘The Attitudes of Australians to Happiness and Social Well-being’ (2006) Clive Hamilton & Emma Rush www.tai.org.au
[6] ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ (2003) Michael Bond, New Scientist www.newscientist.com/article/mg18024155.100-the-pursuit-of-happiness.html; Growth Fetish (2003) Clive Hamilton
[7] Deep Economy (2008) Bill McKibben www.billmckibben.com
[8] ‘Is Humanity Fatally Successful?’ (2002) Dr William Rees, Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis
[9] Reserve Bank of Australia in Affluenza (2005) Clive Hamilton & Richard Denniss
[10] www.wordspy.com
[11] ‘Sustainable Germany: A Contribution To Sustainable Global Development’ http://wtp.org/archive/papers/sustainable_ger.html
[12] ‘AIHW Urges Caution on ‘Fattest Nation in the World’ Claims (2008) Media Release www.aihw.gov.au/mediacentre/2008/mr20080624b.cfm
[13] 2004-05 National Health Survey: Summary of Results (2006) Australian Bureau of Statistics, Cat 4364.0 www.ausstats.abs.gov.au
[14] Growth Fetish (2003) Clive Hamilton
[15] The Well Being of Nations: The Role of Human and Social Capital (2001) OECD www.oecd.org/dataoecd/48/22/1870573.pdf
[16] Putnam in State of the World: Progress Towards a Sustainable Society (2004) Worldwatch Institute; Robert Putnam is Professor of Public Policy at Harvard and author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
[17] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_national_happiness
[18] ‘Better By Design: Battling the Throwaway Culture (2007) Ed Douglas New Scientist
[19] Natural Capitalism: The Next Industrial Revolution (1999) Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins & L Hunter Lovins www.natcap.org
[20] ‘Better By Design: Battling the Throwaway Culture (2007) Ed Douglas New Scientist

1 comment:

  1. This is a truly interesting and spot on post.

    A lot of great ideas to chew over while going about your daily chores.

    I do believe that our culture built around consumption has gotten out of hand. However, changing people's attitudes won't work unless they want to change themselves.

    Sentimentality is a huge factor in why people cling on to things. It's a physical memento of a memory.

    As for collections, I love collections, but only well edited ones.

    Like in your Nintendo example above, it's just a bunch of random toys to me.

    If it was properly displayed and cherished in a glass cabinet, or with a couple of key toys rather than the whole collection, I'd see it less as clutter or junk, and more of a collection.

    Nevertheless, our love affair with stuff is live and well.


Please leave your comment here. Please note these stories are posted for information rather than for debate; if you wish to disagree with something posted, no problem, but since I post both things that I do and don't support, it would be appreciated if the criticism was about the issue.