Overconsumption explained | popular science
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Last year, more than 20 billion pairs of shoes were produced globally. Nearly 300 million of them end up in landfills in the United States each year.
The shoes are made of rubber, which many producers source from trees in Thailand, Indonesia, China and West Africa. The industry relies on millions of workers to keep up with demand, which translates into the production of over 13 million metric tons of rubber in 2020.
These trees are now fragile, but that’s only part of the problem. Shoes stay in landfills much longer than expected. On average, it takes 30 to 40 years for a pair to break down. A material often used in sneakers – a synthetic chemical composition called ethylene vinyl acetate – can persist for up to 1,000 years in landfills.
Shoes are just one of the many products that we tend to overconsume. Overconsumption – using more stuff than the planet can make – can affect virtually any industry. Excessive demand for food, energy, gadgets, clothes, etc. contributes to nullifying our chances of combating climate change.
Although gluttony is not a new invention, for most of human history the slowness with which goods were produced meant that most people consumed in moderation. It was almost never worth buying things remotely, let alone based on want rather than need. But that gradually changed as the industry grew and the world became more interconnected. With the American Industrial Revolution, which lasted from around 1760 until just before World War I, factories and railroads made goods that were relatively cheap and easy to ship. Since then, consumption has been on an upward trend.
This has only become more evident in recent decades. During the 1960s, for example, the average American bought less than 25 pieces of clothing a year. Fast forward 60 years, they buy nearly 70 pieces of clothing a year, or more than one new item a week. This has consequences: overconsumption can exacerbate a range of environmental problems, says lvaro Castano Garcia, a PhD student at Sheffield Hallam University’s Center for Regional Economic and Social Research, including global warming, ecosystem collapse and loss of biodiversity.
“The things we buy and the activities we do contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The higher the consumption, the higher the emissions associated with our lifestyles that compound other environmental problems,” says Garcia.
According to resource accounting group Global Footprint Network, if every person on Earth lived like the average American, we would need five Earths in total just to sustain everyone’s way of life. And it’s not ultra-luxury living: These hypothetical humans would each have an average GDP of more than $60,000, but in reality, about 10% of Americans own 70% of the country’s wealth.
Nearly 20% of the world’s population is responsible for the consumption of 80% of natural resources. Director of the Princeton Environmental Institute at Princeton University, Stephen Pacala, even calculated that the richest 500 million people emit half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The richest countries consume up to 10 times more natural resources than those of the poorest countries. Typically, social inequalities in the global north fuel higher pollution levels, increased meat and fish consumption, more purchased flights, greater domestic water use and more waste dumping. household.
“A lot of people in the North tend to think it’s their right and it’s okay to consume the amount we consume today,” says Vivian Frick, a sustainability researcher at the Institute for Health Research. ecological economy in Germany. “They often completely forget that the level of consumption we have depends on the exploitation of other countries, the availability of cheap resources from other countries and cheap labor. Prices would be actually very different if they were fair.
[Related: Energy costs hit low-income Americans the hardest.]
Nor is our obsession with commodities examined as much as other supposed drivers of environmental collapse. For example, cities were credited for increasing emissions with data points on how they account for over 70% of CO2 emissions emitted worldwide by fossil fuels. But as urbanization increases across the world, our understanding of what this means for climate change has changed over the years. Recent research shows how growing cities in the Global South are not necessarily huge emitters. A 2016 study shows how urban development in the tropics, where many “megacities” are beginning to take shape, contributes only 5% of annual global emissions from land-use change.
Take the example of Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. According to the work of Kala Seetharam Sridhar, a professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Change in Bangalore, India, the rapidly developing region has not seen an increase in carbon emissions between 2010 and 2011. On the contrary, Sridhar found that urbanization leads to increased literacy rates and labor force participation. Both of these factors, she found, correlated with carbon emissions.
“These are the perfectly desirable characteristics that we would like to see in any growing, urbanizing, income-raising economy,” says Sridar. Another study reported similar results when analyzing 93 developing countries. The takeaway was that wealth contributed more to rising emissions than urbanization.
Research dating back to the 1980s has also consistently shown that the systematically poorer groups in American society are often more exposed to environmental risks resulting from these actions. In the United States, more than a million African Americans live within a mile of oil and gas facilities, which emit toxic air pollutants. As a result, these communities often suffer from higher rates of cancer and asthma.
When we zoom out, Sridhar said, a similar pattern is playing out in the global south, where regional populations suffer more from the waste coming from the global north. Since the 1980s, countries in the North have been polluting countries in the South by transporting waste that can degrade the environment and expose communities to health risks. Since then, new demands for justice have emerged from the Global South, with countries like Malaysia and the Philippines implementing waste return initiatives. This, in turn, has forced the adoption of new international measures for waste management.
What can (and should) be done to limit environmentally degrading shopping habits
As wealth and purchasing power increase, habits of overconsumption (and disastrous environmental outcomes) can certainly follow. But why do we continue to crave the latest technology, the newest clothes, and the flashiest fashions even when we know what they’re costing the planet?
“I don’t think consumers are behaving in a weird way,” Garcia says. “The system enables and enhances this behavior so that it seems not only acceptable, but desirable for many people to reach certain levels of high drinking.”
Frick also points out that even well-meaning shoppers are often driven to seek out new things. While some people salivate over trendy gadgets, for example, others simply deal with software that is doomed to become obsolete and devices that are made to break easily and are difficult to repair.
The problem, Frick and Garcia agree, goes beyond consumer behavior. Overconsumption is an integral part of our institutions, and the low price of a new gadget or a stay at an all-inclusive resort barely represents its true environmental impact.
“The whole system is just plain wrong,” Frick says. “It’s not normal that you can buy a flight for 20 euros which has a much higher environmental and social cost.”
Consumers have very little market power, she continues, because they don’t have much control over how the goods and services they buy are made. This is one of the major challenges in getting individuals to adopt sustainable consumption patterns, which requires limiting purchasing habits so as not to harm others and deplete resources.
[Related: Why is it so expensive to eat sustainably?]
The problem can only be solved through long-term institutional reforms and industry-wide revolutions, adds Frick. Transitioning to a low-carbon society capable of extracting fewer natural resources to meet only necessary production demands would restore biodiversity loss, prevent further pollution and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change .
The system is clearly broken, but that doesn’t mean people can’t fight the urge to keep buying more and more. Whenever you make a new purchase, try to imagine where the item will end up after you throw it away. Can it be composted, reused or recycled responsibly? Or would it likely end up in a landfill or body of water? Viewing the full lifecycle of an item can help you make decisions that are as sustainable as possible.
You can take an even broader approach and take stock of your daily habits. The German Competence Center for Sustainable Consumption advises individuals to list ‘highlights’ or measures that have a particularly large impact on their ecological footprint. Limiting some big emitters, like driving or eating meat, can save around half a ton of CO₂ per person per year.
Another personal step is to recognize disparities in global consumption levels. For Sridhar, spreading information about the negative environmental effects of consumption, wealth and our lifestyles could make a big impression.
“I think it’s the best way to make people realize that you’re leaving a very, very poor environment for future generations and your offspring if you continue to pollute the environment,” she says.
Simple wisdom prevails no matter who you are: the most durable product is the one you never bought in the first place.