Consumerism, Red in Tooth and ClawPublished by Tony Juniper on Fri, 15/11/2013 - 12:00am
Oxford Street, London. Outside the Primark store near Marble Arch are crowds of aggressive-looking shoppers. Some are wide-eyed and agitated. They clutch bulging bagsa of super-cheap clothing. Some invisible force appears to have gripped them. They are obsessed with shopping. Bargains appear to be the only thing capable of attracting their attention.
Shipped by the retailer from the other side of the world, the product's rock-bottom prices depend on low wages and poor conditions suffered by textile workers in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Few customers question why Primark's goods are so cheap and crowds of ready buyers stream in and out of the packed shop.
This is consumerism red in tooth and claw. It is a phenomenon that has now spread across the globe and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. On the contrary, in India, China and other fast-emerging super-economies, the rise of a massive new consumer class has bolted superchargers to it.
The rise of mass-produced consumer goods has been one of the major drivers of economic and social change. It has contributed to economic growth and led to accessible comfort for billions of people. It has determined the economic strategy of entire countries (during the 1980s the UK shifted from manufacturing and heavy industry toward a more consumer-based service economy) and, in the era of globalisation, has reshaped international political relationships.
More than simply a practical means of meeting needs, however, consumerism touches people at their human core. That is why it has become such a powerful force. Archaeological evidence shows how 'the better off' in Ancient Egypt and across the Roman Empire consumed beyond their immediate needs, suggesting modern advertising campaigns that deliberately encourage over-consumption aren't solely to blame for our wasteful ways.
Now that most of us dwell in cities it is perhaps easy for us to forget that our brains evolved in wild Nature and the testing conditions of the Pleistocene. Living in small groups, survival depended on the success of an instinctive quest for security and comfort. Gaining control of the resources needed to meet essential needs was an all-pervading preoccupation. The feeling of 'enough' food, heat, tools and clothing would have been a rare experience, and the drive to have 'more than enough' brought distinct survival advantages.
When the basics for survival were in place, the next priority was a sense of place in social groups. Being social creatures, we care desperately what other people think of us and securing a place in the group was another primeval driver of behaviour. And with a sense of place came a desire for status. This had survival value too, with proximity to the elite securing access to information, food and security.
These prehistoric drivers of behaviour (comfort, belonging and status) are of course alive and well in our modern societies. This is no surprise when one considers the vast momentum of biological history, compared with the fleetingly brief moment that we have lived in cities, never mind been consumers in the modern sense. Even if one takes 200 years as the period in which humans have been urban and industrial (which is an over statement), then about 99.9 percent of human history was non-urban, non-industrial and non-consumerist.
The primal drive for 'more than enough' is alive and well, and is at the root of why consumerist culture is so pervasive. Two for one offers, money off bargains, more for less and all the rest hit us right where we like it. Thus the momentum of our evolutionary past drives us into the arms of the consumerist sales pitch: 'have more then enough, feel good doing it and look successful in the eyes of others'. And why not? After all, having more than enough nice stuff is better than being deprived and if it enables people to feel better while supporting jobs and economic growth, all the better. But before we declare consumerism a sweeping success, it is necessary to pause and reflect on its wider implications, for there are several less than positive impacts of consumerist culture and they are becoming ever more visible. One set of questions is linked to the impact on the natural environment.
All the products that arrive in the shops - and which, for the most part, make their way to landfill sites and incinerators - are derived from Mother Nature. Metals refined from ores, fossil fuels extracted from the Earth's crust and fibres and other plant- and animal-based materials all add pressure to different natural systems. The impact of this is reflected in the clearance and degradation of natural habitats, emissions of greenhouse gases and the release of toxic materials to air, water and land. With the consequences ranging from climate change to an ongoing extinction of animals and plants, and from the depletion of resources to impacts on human health, it is ever more apparent that consumerism is contributing to some of the most profound conundrums of modern times.
It is also driving social tensions and behaviour that leads, for example, some people in very poor financial circumstances to spend money on expensive brand sunglasses before they would invest in a toilet or freshwater connection. This kind of choice is driven by status and psychologists suggest that it arises from feelings of 'status anxiety'. This is the insecurity that accompanies constant exposure among the less well off to people who are apparently better off, and can drive behaviour that is described as 'positional consumption'. This is consumption that is not about meeting practical needs, but driven more by a desire to 'catch up' with people perceived to be of a higher status. Buying sunglasses before a toilet is one potential result.
The rise of new middle class consumers in developing countries is helping to increase the visibility of inequality, and so the spiral of consumerism grows tighter as the less well off try to catch up with those ahead. The latest car, mobile phone, jeans, designer glasses, shoes or shirts become the desirable badges of status and the comfort blankets of more than enough.
In some societies the reckless provision of credit by banks, shops and money lenders to people with limited (or no) ability to repay loans has created not only mountains of debt but also piles of human misery and stress. The whole thing is propelled along with increasingly sophisticated marketing and advertising techniques; top psychologists and communications experts are backed with vast resources to identify the optimal ways of pressing those primal buttons.
Thus the close weave of economic fundamentals, human nature, ecology and culture is manifested in consumerism, propelling us towards ecological crisis while exacerbating social divisions.
All of this has been known for some time and has become a familiar lament among greens, who have correctly come to regard consumerist culture as one of the barriers to the sustainable lifestyles demanded by a mounting pile of science and analysis. But the big question is what to do about it.
One thing that probably won't work, at least with most of us, is a message imploring us to consume less. The cultural momentum is too strong, while the case for doing so is, for the majority of people, far from clear. Most statistics about climate change, species loss or unfair trade evidently have limited impact too. And when it comes to campaigns of guilt, not only will they not work, but they will most likely have the opposite effect to that desired and intended. Some of the recent popular denial about climate change probably stems from this.
More positively, some campaigners have sought to embed 'green consumerism' as a cultural trend. With some people this has met with success, for example in leading to more household recycling, and to some companies adopting consumer-facing labelling programmes, on wood and fish products for instance.
While greening the way in which consumers and companies use and produce products has been positive, it has unfortunately achieved nowhere near the impact needed. With the number of middle-class high consumers expected to more than double (to about five billion) by the 2030s, how to ramp up progress is a far from academic question. By then the impacts of climate change, ecosystem damage and resource depletion will be even more advanced, and it is vital that workable strategies to reduce and reverse these trends are adopted as soon as possible.
So if different appeals to companies and individuals won't work at the scale needed, what will? I am not the first person to reach the conclusion that the changes needed are systemic and structural. The place to begin is with economics. A growth economy, in large part based on more energy and resources being used by more people, cannot continue if we are to manage the critical trends in play. Fortunately, the job of changing how our economic system works is not a hopeless endeavour.
In this area there has recently been intense activity in seeking to understand how best to bridge the still vast chasms that lie between consumption patterns and how we sustain natural systems. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), national programmes such as the ULK's Ecosystem Markets Task Force and actions from individual companies, such as Puma's presentation of Environment Profit ans Loss accounts, have begun to reshape the debate on how we measure Nature and reflect natural values in different spheres of life, including consumer products.
This is of course not without very considerable difficulties, at both a technical and philosophical level. Major challenges exist in the availability of data, and some argue that Nature should not be subjected to economic valuation at all, and should instead be protected and nurtured for its own sake. While many greens will have sympathy with the latter point of view, even the most determined advocate for ethics over economics must concede that this remains a minority perspective. If we are to achieve impact at scale, then engaging with mainstream economics is vital. Practicality must triumph ideology and cut across the political spectrum.
Ending the economic invisibility of Nature and building price signals into consumer products would be an historic turning point, if it can be made to work. But it will need voter and consumer support, and to rally sufficient backing will require cultural shifts as well as more comprehensive balance sheets. It can be done, of course, and pioneering companies and initiatives are already signalling how it could work. If this kind of approach becomes more embedded and then underpinned by laws requiring all companies to do the same, then new drivers could lead to different outcomes for consumerism.
But what would ending the economic invisibility of Nature mean in practice? One hope is that we begin a transition to a circular economy, whereby fewer resources are needed from the environment because much of what is needed will be made from waste. Metals, plastics and fibres being sent to landfill would be a historic anomaly. Governments could use a variety of tools to help companies drive down the impact they are measuring and reporting, with waste minimisation laws and ecological taxes, for example.
Of course this approach, based on changing how ecology meets economics, need not contradict other cultural approaches that seek to encourage people to consume more responsibly. In fact, the two threads must work together, not least because the cultural acceptance of ideas (even if not translated into behaviour change) often blazes trails that lead to different political goals and company strategies. But what should that cultural reshaping be based upon?
The answer to that is the massive elephant sitting in the corner, the driver of so much consumerist excess:inequality. As has been shown by several authors, notably Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level, inequality is a strong correlate with many social ills, not just consumer debt. While the case for reducing inequality is very strong, how to close the gaps between the haves and have-nots in an ever more polarised world is a massive challenge for many societies.
Presenting greater equality as a prerequisite for sustainable societies is politically controversial, however, and needs to be handled carefully. One way is to use evidence to reveal how more equal societies do better, for example on crime, mental health, suicide and overall levels of contentment. While there is good reason to be sceptical about politicians' claims to favour evidence-based policy choices, the argument for more equality has great strength. If politicians acknowledge the facts, than perhaps there will be some hope that we can travel in more sustainable directions, with our animal consumer instincts at least a little tamer.
Consumerism is a reflection of our economic system and cultural values, the manifestation of vested interests and perhaps most importantly of all, a mirror image of us as human beings. There are ways through its contradictions, but those of us seeking to navigate them need a clear map. The time for bemoaning consumerist values from green ivory towers is over. The problems we face are now too big and too urgent. Solutions that will work in our imperfect real world are needed.
This article was first published by Green Spirit November 2013.