Consumerism is fueling our constant need for newer and better products. While its nice to treat yourself to a new tech gadget every so often, our collective lifestyle has had a detrimental impact on the global ecosystem. We’re going to take a look at how our consumerism is destroying the environment.
What is Consumerism?
Consumerism is the idea that people benefit from buying goods and services in increasing amounts. Consumers are constantly purchase these goods and services, whether or not they are a necessity. Companies are always releasing new variations of old products, or adding new features, to entice consumers to keep coming back. For the consumer, keeping up with trends may carry significance in terms of social status among their peers.
Major concepts behind consumerism are supply and demand, advertising, planned obsolescence, and brand loyalty. These ideas help companies manipulate the demand for their products on a massive scale. A great example of this is during the holidays. Between October and January, consumerism kicks into high gear. Candy companies begin advertising for Halloween, as do major food brands for Thanksgiving. Tech and video game companies also tend to release their new products just in time for Christmas.
How it Affects the Environment
Consumerism relies on infinite growth, which is unrealistic given the Earth’s limited resources. While consumers may benefit in the short term, consumerism has an overall negative effect on our psyche, cultural values, and most of all, the environment.
Water & Natural Resources
Since consumerism necessitates constant growth, it requires an ever-increasing supply of natural resources. Mining companies tear open huge swaths of the Earth to extract precious metals and minerals, which our technology depends on, and the mining doesn’t stop until the precious metals are depleted. Popular products like coffee and bananas require a tropical climate. Rainforests in South America are cut down to make room for plantations, destroying a vital resource for regulating the Earth’s climate.
Freshwater is humanity’s most basic necessity, but that doesn’t make it safe from exploitation. Over half of our freshwater is used for irrigation in agriculture. Much of this water either evaporates or ends up as runoff, polluting nearby waterways. Mines, manufacturing plants, and paper mills are also significant uses of freshwater. These processes often discharge the wastewater back into the environment, causing water pollution. An extreme example of freshwater exploitation is the Aral Sea. Once a massive inland lake in Central Asia, decades of failed irrigation projects lead to the lake drying up.
The high-demand nature of consumerism creates a culture that turns a blind-eye to pollution. Products often end up polluting the ecosystems after being discarded. This is especially the case with plastic pollution, which ends up contaminating rivers and oceans. Countless cigarette butts, grocery bags, and used packaging can be spotted floating around in waterways all over the world. Despite the efforts of several governments to reduce or outright ban single-use plastics, increasing consumption means that plastic use is growing around the world.
Making these products also pollutes the environment. Fossil fuels are used to power the plants that process raw materials into our favorite products. This releases greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change. But it’s not just about carbon emissions, many of these plants release toxic byproducts like sulfur dioxide and smog into the air. If they’re located near water, these plants can be sources of water pollution. Toxic wastewater is responsible for countless incidents of fish die-offs and groundwater contamination across the globe.
The excesses of consumerism breed tons of waste. Uneaten food, plastic packaging, and unsold products are side effects of excess consumption. A constant oversupply of goods exists to ensure that demand is always satisfied, leading to extreme levels of waste. Around a third of all available food in the US is thrown out. Considering the level of food insecurity across the world, even in the United States itself, this should be seen as a completely preventable situation.
Consumerism necessitates lots of packaging. This packaging sometimes takes up as much space as the product itself, and is thrown away almost immediately after purchase. Online deliveries leave behind cardboard boxes and styrofoam. Takeout food orders spawn plastic wrappers, straws, and soda bottles. Every new generation of technology leaves us with a wave of obsolete smartphones and laptops. This wastes ends up in our landfills, or worse, contributes to pollution in oceans and rivers.
Ecosystems & Wildlife
The combination of resource exploitation, pollution, and waste has wreaked havoc on our planet. In places like Indonesia, which is known for its biodiversity, ecosystems have reached a critical point. The island nation faces some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, with about half of its rainforests having been cleared. Some islands, like Bali, are notorious for plastic pollution as well. It’s not uncommon to stumble upon beaches or waterways that are littered with plastic waste.
This has a staggering effect on wildlife. Ocean-bound plastics end up being eaten by animals. Fish, sharks, and turtles have all been found with trash in their digestive system. Microplastics also interfere with the ability of plankton to photosynthesize and regulate CO2 in the oceans. On land, habitat destruction is pushing wildlife to the brink. Just in the past century, hundreds of species have gone extinct, and thousands more remain endangered. As deforestation accelerates in places like Brazil, we can expect to lose several more species if the trend continues.
Can Ethical Consumerism Save the Planet?
Ethical consumerism can help mitigate the damage, but it can’t stop it. After all, it’s still consumerism, which relies on a constant consumption of resources. Yet, if all our products were ethical, it would be safe to say that environmental destruction would be drastically reduced. Concepts like regenerative farming, the circular economy, and renewable energy would be the norm. Most of our products would be recyclable and reusable, which greatly reduces waste. We would also consume less overall, both on the supply and demand side. Companies would require fewer resources to manufacture and distribute their products, and consumers would buy fewer products at a lower frequency.
The largest change would be within the companies themselves. Ethical companies devote much of their profit towards giving back to the environment. Much of their expenses would be dedicated to restoring lost resources, cleaning up environmental damages, and paying a living wage. They would focus less on revenue growth and instead focus on provided consumers with goods in a sustainable manner. So while ethical consumerism would still impact the environment, we can say that the effects would be more positive.
Consumerism is the idea that people stand to benefit from buying goods and services, but the effect on the environment will only hurt humanity in the long-term. It requires a constant supply of resources to satisfy the increasing demand of consumers. Given the finite nature of the Earth’s natural resources, this has lead to an ecological disaster on a global scale.
- Consumerism is a major driver of plastic pollution in the oceans, with grocery bags, food wrappers, and cigarette butts being common items found along beaches.
- The overuse of natural resources can be attributed to consumerism. For example, cash crops like coffee and palm oil are large contributors to deforestation.
- Consumerism creates lots of waste. In the US alone, over a third of all available food is goes uneaten.
- The combination of pollution and habitat destruction is wreaking havoc on global ecosystems, as thousands of species are at risk of extinction.