We can rethink the consumer society

It has long been argued that the rich world consumes too much, yet there are no signs of the pattern being broken. Perhaps we need to start thinking about making small changes in our personal habits that can have big effects

Home Life Lifestyle We can rethink the consumer society

Who would disagree that Western consumer society has got out of control? From excess waste generation and environmental pollution to carbon emissions caused by making things we don't need but buy anyway. From dangerous working conditions to in-work poverty and even modern slavery in economies that are making cheap products for developed-world consumers. The long consumer boom has a lot to answer for.

No one is rushing to take responsibility for all these bad effects. We may know that consumers worldwide produce at least 3.5 million tonnes of plastic and similar waste every day, and that at least 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped at sea every year, but for most people it is someone else's responsibility.

We may also know that it takes around 23kg of greenhouse gases to make just 1kg of fabric, according to the consultancy McKinsey, and that at least 50 per cent of fast-fashion items are thrown away within a year. But do people stop buying cheap clothes? Most don't give it a second thought.

Who's responsible?

Could it be that, in an era of big commitments from companies and governments to be more responsible, people are tempted to believe that all of these effects of over-consumption are being dealt with by someone else? So as individuals we don't really have to worry too much? After all, what difference does one more single-use plastic bag make when the United Nations (UN) estimates that 5 trillion are used every year?

But if we don't know the difference we can make, we ought to. “Sustainable consumption and production” is one of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, and the organisation says that sustainable consumption is quite possible if we find ways of doing more – and better – with less.

Perhaps one way to approach this would be to take inspiration from the concept of mindfulness, which at its simplest means being aware of where we are and what we are doing. Translating that into a greater awareness of the implications of our behaviour would mean thinking harder about the way we spend and consume, and the real effects of all that consumption.

Individuals can make a difference

A good place to start is the list of critical trends the UN highlights as part of its sustainable consumption goal. It points out that transport is the fastest growing contributor to carbon emissions, followed by commercial and residential energy use, and that agriculture and textiles are the biggest polluters of clean water.

Those are all areas where individuals can make a difference. So why not leave the car at home when you can take a bus or, even better, a bicycle? Why not get around to looking into low- or no-carbon energy in the home, change those inefficient lightbulbs, and finally get the insulation done while you are at it?

But these are just the start. How about changing some more fundamental things about the way you spend? Do you really have to go out armed with a credit card every day? Do you really have to buy things like foods and clothes that may have travelled halfway round the world? Many of us have wardrobes full of clothes that have travelled further than we ever will, and fridges stocked with food from farms that are thousands of miles away. Yet if you look for produce from closer to home, you will surely find it.

The goal of zero waste 

And if you still think these are very small ways to deal with a very large problem, then consider whether it is possible to adopt more radical changes in consumption behaviour. There is a growing community of people who have decided to take one aspect of responsible consumption into their own hands and cut the amount of waste they produce to as close to zero as possible.

That certainly isn't easy. The average person in the UK produces 463kg of waste a year. In Germany it is 609kg, and in Denmark 844kg. Yet zero-waste followers aim to reduce that to one kilo or less per year: no more unrecyclable waste than can fit in a 240ml jam jar. That means less waste going to open dumps and landfill – only 15 per cent of most forms of waste ever gets recycled. And it means less water use. And fewer carbon emissions from producing packaging and short-life products in the first place.

One kilo of waste per person per year would mean cutting your average waste output by 99.8 per cent, based on European per capita figures – a revolutionary change for a person, and a massive impact on the environment if everyone did it. It would mean thinking through the environmental implications of every single consumption decision you make.

Yet the evidence is that it is possible. And, as one zero-waste evangelist says, it goes way beyond the question of trash to thinking about what else you might be wasting in your life – from money to time to well-being.