Our Consumption Model Is Broken. Here’s How To Build A New One.


Imagining a better consumption model is key to a good future.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

On August 2, 2017, we started using more from nature than our planet can renew in the whole year. Every natural resource we used from that day onward resulted in “ecological overspending.” Think of it as your bank account. For the first 7 months of the year, you lived on your regular salary. After that, you started using your savings and increasing your credit card debt. Currently, humanity lives at credit and consumes resources equal to that of 1.7 planets a year. That’s compared to 1.4 a decade ago and 0.8 in 1963. If population and consumption trends continue, this figure will rise to 2 planets by 2030. This puts us — and our children — on an unsustainable path.

The Climate Crisis Is Embedded in Our Consumerist Culture

This ecological overspending contributes to the warming of our planet. It accelerated in the past 35 years — 2016 was the hottest year since record-keeping began. Most scientists agree that the leading cause of the warming is human pollution. The burning of fossil fuels and the clearing of forests are the main contributors. Clean energy and protecting our forests are critical parts of the solution. But we must look at the challenge in a more holistic manner. The climate crisis is rooted in our modern lifestyle, and in the economic model that supports it.

A recent study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology looked at the impact of consumption. It calculated that, in 2007, consumers contributed to more than 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. They also contributed between 50 and 80 percent of total land, material, and water use. US households alone contributed to a quarter of global emissions. Only 20 percent were direct emissions from the use of public transport and household fuel. The bigger part was indirect emissions from consumption of products and services. These included housing, transportation, food, manufactured products, and clothing.

To appreciate how much this relates to lifestyle, take food, for example. As income rises, people consume more dairy and meat products. These are the food categories with the highest environmental footprint. In fact, the global livestock industry produces more emissions than all cars, planes, trains, and ships combined. A study by Oxford University calculated that a global shift to a vegan diet would reduce food-related emission by 70 percent by 2050. The picture is similar for our use of resources like water. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. Beef is the second most popular meat in the US. It is also one of the most water-intensive foods (to produce one pound of beef requires 1,800 gallons of water).

Clothing is another case of our lifestyle destroying our environment. In recent decades, the fashion industry nurtured our appetite for cheap clothes and kept increasing production. The world now consumes 400 percent more clothes than two decades ago. According to the World Bank, textile processing causes 20 percent of water pollution globally. Cotton, the “thirsty crop,” makes up about half of our clothes and requires 5,300 gallons of water to produce 1kg of cotton. This can have devastating effects as seen with the drying up of the Aral Sea.

As we consume we also generate a lot of waste. Especially plastic waste, which accounts for about half of all human waste. Only 9 percent of all plastic waste produced since the 1950s has been recycled. The rest ends up in landfills or polluting our environment. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation projects that, by 2050, oceans will contain more plastic than fish.

The point is: A big part of the problem is ingrained in the fabric of our lifestyle, our daily choices and habits. It is not only the car we drive, the food we eat, or the clothes we wear. The changes needed, from adopting new diets to breaking buying and throwaway habits, go beyond what products we choose. We need to redesign our behaviors: why and how we consume.

We Need Things Consumed, Burned Up, Worn Out

We are all consumers. In a sense, we always have been, satisfying our human needs and cravings. But consumption took a different turn at the offset of the second industrial revolution. Since then, consumerism moved to the center stage of our modern lifestyle. Today, consumption accounts for 70 percent of US GDP. The average American household holds more than $8,000 in credit card debt.

The rise of consumerism started early in the 20th century, in a particular context. Energy from fossil fuels became abundant and cheap. The assembly line production model, first adopted in the automotive industry, began to spread. The production and use of petrochemicals, in turn, expanded. Combined, these developments resulted in a massive increase in our manufacturing capacity. This led to an overproduction problem with too many goods chasing too few buyers. Corporations needed a larger market of consumers. As depicted by historian Stuart Ewen in Captains of Consciousness (1976):

“Consumerism, the mass participation in the values of the mass-industrial market . . . emerged in the 1920s not as a smooth progression from earlier and less ‘developed’ patterns of consumption, but rather as an aggressive device of corporate survival.”

Advertising and consumer lending then developed as very effective tools to create new consumers. By the 1950s, consumerism was a core part of the American way of life. In 1955, economist Victor Lebow wrote in the Journal of Retailing:

“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 satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns (…) We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing pace.”


Excess, clutter, and waste are now everywhere. The average American home has tripled in size since 1950. It contains 300,000 items and over $3,100 worth of unused goods. And still, 1 out of every 10 Americans rent offsite storage, one of the fastest growing segments of the commercial real estate industry. Sixty percent of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year. Only 3.1 percent of the world’s children live in America, but they own 40 percent of the toys consumed globally. Nearly 40 percent of food in America goes to waste. Each year, Americans throw away 70 pounds of clothing per person (equal to more than 200 men’s T-shirt).

Something Has To Give: The Ethics of Consumerism

Companies need to maintain a supply of new and cheap products. They look for ways to increase the volume and speed of production while decreasing costs. This often means using cheap material and labor. The Global Slavery Index estimates that 46 million people are in some form of slavery. Many earn very low wages to produce consumer goods for Western markets.

Large fashion retailers have adopted this model aggressively in the last three decades. In 1900, a US household spent 15 percent of its income on clothing. In 1950, it was still 12 percent but, by 2010, it was less than 3 percent. This happened as brands kept pushing prices and costs down. To do that, they moved production to countries with the lowest wages, the least regulation and the least protections for workers. While in 1960 almost all clothes purchased in the US were also made in the US, today it’s less than 2 percent.

For decades, clothing collections were produced twice a year. Now, fast fashion brands launch new collections every week or two. This ultra-fast schedule governs vast, opaque and fragmented supply chains. It creates the context for human rights violation, precarious and unsafe working conditions. A tragic example happened on 24 April 2013. Over 1,130 people were killed and 2,500 injured when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The Same Excess That Hurts Our Planet Hurts Us

Chronic diseases — such as heart attacks, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s — are the leading cause of disability and death in the US. They have been increasing at an alarming rate and claim 90 percent of the US healthcare spending. As of 2012, about half of all adult Americans had one or more chronic health conditions. We can prevent, treat or reverse these conditions with lifestyle and dietary changes like eating less meat and junk foods.

In recent years, scientists found toxic chemicals in most of our consumer products. More than 80,000 chemicals are used in commerce in the US, but the vast majority is not tested for health effects. They are used everywhere, including in our food, clothes, furniture, electronics, and cosmetics. Chemicals used in our clothes, for example, can be absorbed by the skin, our largest organ. Half of our clothes are made of cotton, a crop that accounts for 24 percent and 11 percent of the global use of insecticide and pesticides. The other half is mainly made of polyester and other petroleum-derived fibers. About a quarter of the chemicals produced globally are reportedly used in textile. Wrinkle-free clothes, for example, are often treated with formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Studies found widespread use of phthalates—linked to asthma, diabetes, and autism—in children clothing.

A report for the European Parliament reviewed the latest science on organic food and human health. It highlighted the impact of pesticide exposure during pregnancy on children’s brain development:

“Three long-term birth cohort studies in the U.S. suggest that pesticides are harming children’s brains. In these studies, researchers found that women’s exposure to pesticides during pregnancy ( . . . ) was associated with negative impacts on their children’s IQ and neurobehavioral development, as well as with ADHD diagnoses.”

The impact is greater on children because the brain develops during pregnancy and in the first two years. Exposure during this phase can cause brain injury at low levels that would have little or no effect in an adult. Parents report that 1 in 6 children in the US, 17 percent more than a decade ago, have a developmental disability. In 2015, a group of leading scientists, medical experts, and children’s health advocates formed Project TENDR. They published a scientific statement to warn against chemicals that can harm children.

“The science is in. The science is clear and sufficient and substantial, and what it shows is that toxic chemicals are increasing American children risks for neurodevelopmental disorder including autism, ADHD and intellectual impairment ( . . . ) These include chemicals that are used extensively in consumer products and that have become widespread in the environment.”

Waste, too, comes around. Plastic waste finds its way into the human food chain through contaminated seafood. Recent studies showed it also contaminates air and tap water. A recent investigation found microplastic particles in 94 percent of tap water samples from the US. It was the highest rate of any country in the study.

Your Latest Trick

As consumption patterns accelerated, the act of buying itself took a cultural dimension. Around the world, shopping has become a frequent pastime accessible to all. This has contributed to a rise in materialistic values in our societies. As fields like psychology and neurosciences progressed, researchers started re-visiting the happiness question. What makes us happy? And what happens to our mental health when we live a big part of our life as a consumer?

The answers confirm ancient wisdom and common sense. Once we have enough to cover our essential needs, further material gains have little to do with our well-being. They even tend to come in the way of true happiness. In The High Price of Materialism (2002), Tim Kasser offers this conclusion:

“What stands out across the studies is a simple fact: people who strongly value the pursuit of wealth and possessions report lower psychological well-being than those who are less concerned with such aims ( . . . ) The American dream has a dark side, and the pursuit of wealth and possessions might actually be undermining our well-being”.

Courtesy of Envisioning The American Dream (source)

Other studies found that, above a certain income, material gains or possessions do not increase happiness. An ongoing 75-years long adult development study led by Harvard tracked the well-being of 724 men and their families. Generations of researchers analyzed brain scans, blood samples, surveys and direct interactions. They recently started to share their findings:

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period”

This sounds obvious. Yet, we spend a disproportionate amount of time and resources on activities that do not increase well-being or undermine it. If common sense and science both show it, then why are we still so consumed with consumption?

Part of the response relates to how our brain works. Neuroscientists have revealed many biases that trick our brain into making short-term decisions. These biases strongly influence our consumption behaviors. They include survival instinct, forming habits, setting goals, and chasing rewards. Often, they make us choose instant gratification over long-term rewards. Brands are experts at stimulating these instincts through advertising and commercial tactics. Sales, discounts, and coupons trick us into seeking temporary satisfaction from the pursuit of a new desired object. This disconnect between the act of shopping and its outcome (owning a product) results in overspending, clutter, and waste.

Do The Evolution

The word “consumption” first appeared in the 14th century to describe any potentially fatal disease that “consumed” the body.

We know we need to transition to sustainable modes of consumption. Our challenge goes beyond fixing the current model, it is one of imagining a new one. Approaches that focus on fixing the current model exist in reaction to it and don’t offer a new way of doing things. Alternatives such as ethical consumerism or minimalism are unlikely to impact enough people. They often underestimate how deep consumption behaviors are embedded into our culture and habits. Choosing sustainable options requires an investment in time and money that only a small minority of people can afford.

We can imagine a new, higher form of consumption where we are not just sorting through the good and the bad but rediscovering why and how we consume. When we do that, we create endless opportunities to re-imagine and improve our lives. We can start with a few principles:

  1. Start with people, not product. The last century of mass consumption was first driven by the ability to produce at large scale. Once we became able to produce so much, we had to make people consume so much. A more evolved system starts with what people need and want, focusing on when and how we use a product (from pay-to-own to pay-to-use).
  2. Design for efficiency and low/no waste. On a planet with finite resources, it does not make sense to produce and consume things in a linear way, from extracting new resources to waste. We need to move to a circular system where we design products to last and be recovered. That way, we also limit the need for new materials (from planned obsolescence to lifetime value).
  3. Design for impact. We need solutions that everyone can afford and enjoy, beyond a happy few. We should design services that solve for joy, convenience, sustainability, and affordability. New business and distribution models can unlock this impact (from single users to multi-user networks).
  4. Design for trust. Digital tools allow us to re-invent almost any user experience. But this has been dominated by advertising-driven models that monetize people’s attention. Often, they serve brands more than users. We need companies with the courage and creativity to build trust by serving the user first.

We should ask ourselves: What societies do we want for us and for future generations? How do we want to spend our time? How much do we want to spend on activities that fulfill us and contribute to our well-being? How do we reconcile with nature and with ourselves?

As we answer these questions, we should rise to the challenge of health and sustainability, and start building pathways to the future we want.

Read the second part of this story: We’re Building a New Consumption Model and it Starts at the Beginning: Babies

Ali is the Founder and CEO of UpChoose PBC, a startup on a mission to activate consumers’ role in transitioning to a sustainable future.

Learn more on www.upchoose.com

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