Over the last one hundred years, the use of fossil fuel has grown thirty times, and industrial production has grown fifty times. More land has been cleared for settled cultivation than in all the previous centuries of human existence combined. Demand for wood and the over-farming of marginal land has resulted in erosion. Since 1950, the world has lost 20% of its topsoil from its agricultural land, and 20% from tropical forests. Soil is washed away during violent storms.
Although developing countries represent a greater proportion of the world's population and are responsible for significant environmental damage overall, it is the developed nations that have caused the most damage. The developed world makes up only 20% of the world's population, yet consumes 85% of its resources. The average person in the developed world uses forty times more energy than someone in the developing world. If the developing world were to demand equal energy consumption from the combustion of fossil fuels and access to the same level of resources, it is doubtful that the Earth would cope.
Growth in population means growth in consumption and a greater demand on natural resources for production. Even if consumption in the developed world can be reduced, population growth in the developing world will raise the level of consumption of these resources. Because natural resources such as fossil fuels, fresh water, minerals and agricultural land are finite, further demand will result in increased costs for everyone. Some essential minerals such as mercury or silver may run out altogether.
Unsustainable development in developing countries is linked to the sale of their natural resources to developed countries and the consumption of these resources by people in developed countries. The three causes of unsustainable development in developing countries are growth in world population, a rise in energy consumption in developed countries, and increased resource consumption in developed countries.
The solution is a combination of reduced consumerism in the developed world, and reducing population growth in the developing world. Improved management of resources is a necessity.
As consumers, we have the power in our pockets and purses to change the world. Each time we buy something, we are casting a vote. Each purchase is a direct encouragement to the manufacturers to make similar items. In addition, by avoiding products which are harmful to the planet, you are sending a clear message to their manufacturers which states, 'Either you make your product environmentally friendly or you'll go out of business!' By spending on green products, you are supporting better initiatives.
The production of goods often involves cruel, wasteful or damaging uses of resources. For example, factory-farmed meat, throwaway containers used in fast food cafes, over packaged goods and big petrol-guzzling cars. Use cotton handkerchiefs or cloth instead of paper kitchen rolls. If buying wood, ask the supplier if their products are from sustainably managed forests. Consume sustainable products of rainforests such as Brazil nuts. Obtain a sturdy shopping bag or re-use old plastic bags. If your cat or dog is neutered, it will cut down on the strays and unwanted animals which have such a destructive impact on nature.
What you can do
Write a letter or email to manufacturers, supermarket chains and shop owners. Let them know the changes that you would like to see, such as less packaging or more organic foods. If they don't have your opinion, they won't know where they are going wrong.
Write a letter or email your Government representative, urge him or her to introduce the proper labelling of the contents of products, and a standard for environmentally friendly products.
Write a letter or email to the editor of your local newspaper; urge him or her to publish your concerns about local consumption and recycling issues.
Buy recycled non-chlorine bleached paper products.
Go for the greenest product, but be aware, not every green product is necessarily the best thing for the planet. Products that have to be transported around the world may not be as environmentally friendly as products produced locally.
Buy in bulk. Buy organic food.
Be alert! Some manufacturers declare their products to be green when they are not.
Learn about the effect of advertising and marketing on yourself and your children. Critical thinking skills are taught at some universities and adult education centres. Critical thinking enables you to distinguish the truth from the lies and argue a point of view rationally.
Be a good example. Involve your children in creative activities. Teach your children about nature and our connection with the natural world. Explain where things come from; who made them; what they are made of. Restrict the use of television, or get rid of the TV altogether. As an alternative see plays, films and art exhibitions. Engage in creative, social and participatory activities such as storytelling, poetry or playing in a band. Have fun with play. Remove logos from clothes. Make things. Grow your own food. Get back to nature by going camping.
Think before buying goods. Don't buy unnecessary items or disposable goods.
Don't be wasteful with food, clothing, and energy - turn off lights.
Consume vegetarian food, or at least consider where your meat comes from. Buy in bulk to save on packaging. Use your laundry rinse water on the garden, and kitchen waste water if it is free of grease and toxic detergent. Health departments are sensitive about the re-use of bath and shower water for several reasons. Check with your local authority and ask what plans they have to introduce sophisticated grey water and sewage water recycling. Advocate safe and efficient recycling of more waste water.
Reside where you are not car-dependent or can reduce car travel.
Design and build your house for energy efficiency. Use solar panels or insulation, and appropriate materials. Reuse old items, and recycle wherever possible. In arid regions, install a water tank to collect rainwater and roof run-off.
If you are unsure about any products, telephone your local consumer organisation.
Search our database for the contact details of organizations that directly address Consumption
The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain in the late eighteenth century and marked the start of the movement away from a manual labour based economy towards one dominated by industry and machinery. Mass production suddenly became the cost effective option. This revolution quickly spread across many parts of the world, sparking massive socioeconomic and culture changes. Perhaps the most dramatic of these changes was a huge rise in the consumption of energy as steam power (fuelled mainly by coal) became increasingly popular.
From that time the developed world has continued to consume at a ferocious rate. The opening of the first department store can be traced back to the 1850’s and as their popularity spread the era of mass consumption and consumerism had begun!
Consumerism is the equation of personal happiness with the purchasing of material pleasures and consumption. Consumerism has become increasingly widespread during the twentieth century, especially in recent decades as citizens of developed countries have become increasingly wealthy.
Historically governments have always measured the success of a country in terms of the economic growth. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this may not actually reflect the well being of the citizens at all. Recent surveys have found that the Australian public are increasingly dissatisfied and unhappy, despite the booming economy of recent years. Indeed it seems that by concentrating upon, and even obsessing over economic growth, the governments of the world have jeopardised the well being of their citizens by losing sight of more meaningful community and relationship orientated values which have long been the mainstay of human society.
With the full encouragement of their governments the developed world has essentially started to embrace consumerism and greed as though they were religious doctrines. However, ironically it appears that in creating a society with infinite wants, we have also created a society which can never be satisfied.
The shape of our towns and cities has changed dramatically. The independent and local shops have long since disappeared to be replaced by large out of town “shopping experiences”. The media is continually bombarding us with messages about the latest “must have” item. We have allowed ourselves to be defined by material objects. People have become increasingly isolated, and are losing their connections to their friends, families and neighbours, and ultimately to themselves, and then attempting to replace the resulting emptiness with material things. We all need to stand up to consumerism and realise that we are not our cars, or our clothes. A handbag or pair of shoes says nothing about who we really are.
As consumers we can now vote with our wallets as our purchases make a statement to manufacturers about how we want them to behave. “Green” products are alternatives to standard products that can be considered less damaging to the environment. Increasingly we are able to purchase not just green products, but ethical products – ones that go beyond minimising environmental impact and also look to encourage responsible trade and abolish the exploitation of others.
However it has become apparent that green is big business. Consumers appear to be getting what they demanded, with an ever increasing number of companies touting the green-ness or ethical nature of their products and services. But this is in fact an extremely worrying situation as so far consumers have little in the way of evidence to back up these green claims. Whilst some companies are genuinely making huge strides forward in terms of recognising their responsibilities and minimising their impacts on the planet and its inhabitants, others are simply jumping on the green bandwagon; they may make a lot of claims but do not necessarily live up to them. This is what is known as greenwash. Carbon offsetting or neutralising is perhaps the area which is suffering most from greenwash. As awareness of climate change increases there are a growing number of people who wish to do something to reduce their impacts and minimise their carbon footprints. These people are willing to pay to have some, or all, of their annual carbon footprint offset by the planting of trees or the development of renewable energy. However consumers have little guarantee that their money is going to the right place and not just lining the pockets of a greedy company. The problems surrounding bogus green products or offset schemes are two fold. Firstly, people are being duped into selecting these goods or services over other potentially more environmentally friendly choices, and secondly there is a danger that people simply feel absolved of responsibility by selecting green items or offsetting their carbon output. Perhaps the real solution needs to be a more radical approach. Instead of continuing with the consumerist, resource greedy lifestyle that we are accustomed to and then paying for someone to plant some trees somewhere to make us ease our conscience, we should really start to address what is actually important.
The costs of excessive consumption of the world’s resources are huge. Some resources are in finite supply and could simply run out. The vast amounts of energy required to drive the consumerist lifestyle of the developed world is producing large amounts of carbon dioxide which is having, and will continue to have, an extremely detrimental impact on the earth. Our constant demand for more is damaging the planet in countless ways. Precious agricultural land in the developing world is being used to grown so called cash crops such as coffee, tea, cotton and cocoa for the developed world, instead of being used sustainably to feed the local communities. The mass production of all our materialistic desires is using large amounts of energy, creating large amounts of pollution, and in many cases, exploiting many of the world’s poorest workers.
Towns and cities in the developed world generate huge amounts of waste. An increasing amount of this waste comprises of unnecessary packaging, which we have all become accustomed to, as well as items that we now consider to de disposable. Our evolving throw away society creates the perfect consumerist market. Everything is temporary and we constantly seek to replace items with ones that are bigger, better, faster, or even just newer. Interestingly, we seem to have lost all sense of where things come from and just where things are going when we throw them “away”. This “away” is a real place, probably not too far from where you live.
An additional cost of consumerism is that more and more people are becoming trapped on a vicious cycle. They are working increasingly long hours to earn more money to buy more things, which ultimately aren’t making them feel any happier. By demanding less and renouncing the materialistic society we would not have to work nearly as hard and so would have more time to enjoy life and more freedom to be happy.