"What even is consumerism?" a woman thinks to herself as she walks around a crowded mall, searching for the perfect pair of shoes to accompany her other "perfect shoes," sitting unworn at her home. Well, consumerism is a social and economic order which encourages the acquisition of goods and services in significantly increasing amounts, with linkage to a person's wellbeing and happiness. Consumerism is at the root of many financial and mental issues, along with environmental concerns. Consumption patterns are increasing at detrimental rates, directly correlating to ecological degradation and rising carbon dioxide levels. Consumption patterns are not only affecting the levels of carbon dioxide in the air; they are also affecting pollution in waterways, habitat and biodiversity loss, and overall environmental issues.
However, humans have the power to change these unnecessary consumption patterns and participate in green consumerism, leading to more sustainable actions and the promotion of environmental awareness. It is known that the United States produces more solid waste than any other country in the world. This waste would equal the average American producing over four and a half pounds of garbage per day. These consumption patterns include waste created in manufacturing, packaging, and shipping of all of the products you consume and purchase, on top of the items you physically throw out yourself (such as food waste, wrapping, boxes, and other single-use items). (Scott et al., 2016).
Consumerism has grown out of control, to the point where many people do not even realize the effects of their actions and are causing themselves to suffer financially due to their purchasing patterns. Society has found a way to engrave in our brains that we need an excess amount of clothing, excess electronics, and even an excess amount of accessories for our electronics. We build on our consumption patterns, to the point where we think we might die if we don't own the newest, fastest phone, which will be old news six months later. A study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology shows that the items we consume, ranging from food to stuff in general, is responsible for up to 60% of greenhouse gas emissions and between 50 and 80% of total land, water, and material use. It is also thought that consumerism and affluence are linked to a lesser amount of happiness in comparison to older generations who did not consume and produce nearly as much as we do in today's world.
Some people most definitely develop stronger materialistic and consumption patterns than others, which has a significant background. "Research suggests that when people grow up in unfortunate social situations--where they're not treated very nicely by their parents or when they experience poverty or even the threat of death," says Kasser, "they become more materialistic as a way to adapt," (DeAngeles, 2004). Consumption patterns in general are most relevant in Western societies and are harming the environment and health of developing countries. However, nearly half of global consumers reside in these developing countries such as China and India, with expanding markets and needs. While this can be thought of as a good thing for developing countries' economies, the overall consumption increase undermines Earth's natural systems. It leads to dumping and other environmental issues in these countries (Mayell, 2004).
A report from the World Watch Institute on the state of the world addresses the direct consequences of consumerism on Earth's water supplies, natural resources, and ecosystems. "Most of the environmental issues we see today can be linked to consumption," said Gary Gardner, director of research for World Watch. "As just one small example, there was a story in the newspaper just the other day saying that 37 percent of species could become extinct due to climate change, which is very directly related to consumption," (Mayell, 2004). The idea of globalization is also a considerable driver in consumption and materialistic obsessions. Items such as cell phones, computers, and air conditioning are now seen as necessities when they were once seen as luxuries. This is where the problem seems to have been created. People believe they absolutely need certain items as if their lives depend on them. They will spend whatever it takes to acquire these goods, even if it is negatively affecting their financial status and, more importantly, the Earth's health status.
Many companies have pledged to reduce their packaging, cut excess waste, and even become carbon neutral in ten or twenty years. However, how much is this helping our planet currently? One report states that "The volume of packaging is still vast and growing. Globally, consumer goods are encased in about 207 million tons of packaging each year, worth $384 billion, estimated a 2013 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, using analysis by McKinsey & Co. consultants. Packaging could increase by 47 percent by 2025... In the United States, packaging makes up about 30 percent of all municipal solid waste, down from 36 percent in 1970, said Susan Selke, interim director of Michigan State University's School of Packaging. The overall amount of municipal waste has more than doubled in that time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says. "Industry is paying attention, but not enough attention yet," Ms. Selke said, "(New York Times, 2014). While industries are growing rapidly, these reports and stats are critical to understanding the impacts of consumption on the environment and the future of our planet. It is most important to educate society on these effects because many do not realize the consequences of their actions. Education is not an easy thing to conquer in a small amount of time. While the concept of educating humans on these environmental effects of their actions and seeing instant changes in consumption patterns seems like a hopeful approach to the issue, it is most likely not that simple. It is no secret that humans love their stuff and do not want to part with it. Imagine being told that you must keep the same cell phone or laptop for ten years, even if it might stop working. Or being told that you must change your whole perspective of purchasing to analyze every single item you buy and consider whether it is critical to your life or not. These are not easy changes to make, and many people simply care more about their purchases than the planet's health.
One positive approach to this puzzle is called green consumerism. Green consumerism plays a vital role in promoting environmental awareness while also reducing per capita greenhouse gas emissions. "The latest report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that changes in lifestyle, diet, and reduced energy consumption can have a substantial impact on mitigating environmental degradation . However, as the past half-century of psychological, economic, and behavioral research on prosocial behavior has shown, this sort of change is easier said than done," (Sachdeva et al., 2015). Green consumerism is an accessible way to engage in pro-environmental, sustainable behavior. It considers social norms and structural factors by searching for a balance between sustainable expectations and realistic actions/changes in consumption patterns.
One example of green consumerism could be engaging in the push for urban food growing, as opposed to purchasing organic food at an individual level. This balance and inclusion of an entire community would lead to a more (realistic) sustainable society. It is difficult to determine one solution to reducing the ecological footprint of humans, as overconsumption is all we have known our whole lives. However, it is significantly essential to recognize and understand what consumerism is and how it has been negatively impacting our planet. It is much more than just plastic waste; it is also greenhouse gasses, habitat loss and degradation, water issues, and an overall depletion of our planet. The next time I go shopping, I will think to myself, "Do I really need this item? Is it going to last me a lifetime, or will I get bored of it and throw it away? Does it have a fundamental purpose in my life, or am I purchasing it for other unnecessary reasons?"
These are just a few of many questions to be asked when purchasing, and I encourage everyone to ask themselves these questions as well. Consumerism is a psychological issue, with an environmental consequence that humans have the power to change.