According to the Brundtland Report, 1987, Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. To put it this way, my personal point of view as a citizen and a consumer is that the less we consume in our times, the less harm we will do to our earth and our environment therefore a healthier planet with more resources can be reserved for our kids and grand kids and their kids and their grand kids.
But why is the health of our earth and environment so inextricably linked to our consumption? I’m sure that you’ll be able to grasp the idea from this illustration below.
Our entire economy is based on this take-make-waste linear model. This linear system exists not only because we need to consume in order to live our lives but also because companies need us to consume so that they can live their “lives”. From the very beginning of “extraction” all the way to the very end of “landfill”, there are impacts on our earth and environment everywhere along the whole process, be it CO2 emission, water pollution, deforestation, habitat destruction, resource depletion, ocean acidification you name it. Every impact is in one way or another linked to human consumption.
I was born and raised in China. I had been working in Kenya for 3 years and now I have been in France for more than 2 years. I have seen through my own eyes the different levels of consumption in the three different countries and their associated environmental impacts.
While I was in Kenya, I have seen so many Kenyans spend less than 1 euro for lunch almost every day. I had spent less than 1 euro having lunch with them, too. At lunch hour, there is this guy who comes with a bucket of boiled eggs. He cracks open the eggshell then peels it off carefully with the thin edge of the spoon. He then cuts the egg open in the middle then he will put inside some stuffing made of chopped tomato and pepper. After adding a bit of salt, my egg lunch is ready. You can have a look at his fine techniques from this video below. I actually spent 45 shillings for three eggs, which in euro is less than 50 cents.
Take a second to refer back to the linear model illustrated above and think about this question: how much of global warming can be attributed to this eggman and to those Kenyans who spend less than 1 euro for lunch? A great number of them walk to work, which means no CO2 emission in this respect. They can only afford food that is locally produced through traditional farming which has a minimum level of CO2 emission resulted from growing, processing and transporting the food. Now think about this question: how much of global warming can be attributed to the rich nations where the level of consumption is the highest. People move by cars. They travel by planes constantly. They have biggest houses with all sorts of electrical appliances that consume huge amount of energy. Even many food they eat have traveled across the globe before they reach their tables. Their level of consumption is not only sustained by their high discretionary income but also aided by advanced credit and loan schemes that will keep them consuming.
Generally speaking, people from the developed nations have far greater environmental impact than the rest of the world due to their high level of consumption, who therefore are the major contributors to environmental issues such as global warming. However, when Africans get rich, they tend to consume the same way as people from the rich nations do. As more and more Chinese are getting richer, I’m sure that a great number of us have already surpassed the level of consumption of a European or an American. Not to mention that my country, on national level, is the world’s biggest GHG emitter. Consumption and its associated environmental impact, no matter how big or small, is a matter of human problem regardless of nationality, though unfortunately it is always the developing nations who suffer the most from it.
In order to reduce environmental impact, conserve natural resources, and of course to sustain economic growth, governments and big corporations in the developed world are actively engaged in designing and testing out a new model. They have already began to steer their economic system away from the linear model toward a circular one, for example, the EU Action Plan for The Circular Economy that will “contribute to ‘closing the loop’ of product life cycles through greater recycling and re-use, and bring benefits for both the environment and the economy”.
The ultimate goal as I understand it is that in this circular model, there will be eventually no extraction of new natural resources from the earth and that all existing resources will be kept inside the loop for reuse indefinitely and that all wastes can be properly recycled and turned into new resources, too. As far as the conservation of resources go, I have no doubt about the enormous amount of resources that we will be able to save for our future generations.
Nonetheless, I have to beg the question: does this model comprehensively address all major problems that are blighting our our earth and environment? Does it provide the most effective solutions to reduce the environmental impact resulted from all our human activities? And in this regard, my answer is “no”.
As I have explained earlier, every impact is in one way or another linked to human consumption. Our consumption is inevitable so as to at least sustain our living which already has a huge environmental impact, let alone excessive consumption. Therefore, whatever consumption there may be, it must be reasonable and sustainable. Regardless of the model being linear or circular, human consumption must be effectively addressed. Will the circular model work if we continue to consume way beyond our actual needs? Is it really so hard to understand that actually reducing our consumption to a reasonable level is the most effective way to not only reduce our environmental impact but also conserve resources for future generations?
Unfortunately, in political and economic arena, you get to hear very rarely consumption problem being addressed. Consumption seems to be an indisputable rule that can never be debated or challenged. Consumption is encouraged by both governments and companies to sustain economic growth.
How often do you hear government officials or corporate responsables talk about excessive consumption that is using up even faster the natural resources thus creating even greater environmental impact? At this very moment, I am trying really really hard to recall all the news that I have watched over the years. Unfortunately I have thought of no one. Instead, US ex-president George W. Bush has jumped out of my mind. He encouraged American citizens to go shopping more.
Actually, this is not the first precedence in American history. Going shopping was considered as a patriotic duty and now probably still is in some cases. In 1961, when the then US President Eisenhower was asked what Americans could do to get the countries out of economic depression. Here is how the dialogue went:
– “Buy what?”
To justify the credibility of this information, both books “The Waste Makers” and “Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping” have mentioned this exact same dialogue.
If you are a regular viewer of major international news, I don’t think that you have missed the headline that our Chinese government has ended the “One Child Policy” just last year. And think this: why developed countries do not have legislation to limit national population? Do we really need to become economists to figure out the connection between increased production, consumption and economic growth resulted from increased population? Consumption is the cherry on top. It is what all nations want to sustain their national economy. And the environmental motive behind that? None, nope, Nada!
What about companies? When was the last time when you ever heard companies talk about consumption problem? All big companies now issue CSR reports annually. They talk about triple bottom line all the time. The sustainability of their business must be equally constructed upon social, environmental and economic pillars. Should it be part of their corporate social responsibility to educate their customers about their unsustainable and unreasonable consumption? More often than not, most companies in the world do not want their consumers to make rational buying decisions. In today’s context, they may educate you to buy their “green/sustainable products”. However, the reality is that, green or not, they always want you to consume incessantly their products regardless of whether your consumption has gone too far beyond your actual needs or not. I’m sure you must have had the same experience that many times when you go to a shopping mall, a supermarket, a depot or a store, you always end up buying more stuff than what you initially wanted. One reason is that all these places are purposely designed to lure you into buying more than you need. I daresay that if they can make it happen, the following two photos are what they’d love to see everyday in their store. Do they really think about their environmental impact while they are busy swiping the credit cards of their fanatic customers?
You may beg to differ and cite for me a long list of best practices of companies being leaders in sustainability. Indeed, I have no doubt that many companies have made great strides in sustainability by investing in renewable energies thus becoming energy independent, by reducing CO2 emission as well as by mitigating other environmental impacts. Companies are not only making great effort to green their own operations. They are also helping their business partners to green the whole supply chain through collaboration. Bur really really, put them under the microscope, are they really addressing the fundamental problem, i.e. consumption itself?
Though many companies are promoting “green/sustainable consumption”. But beware green-washing and the “rebound effect”!! “Green/sustainable consumption” does not address the fundamental problem of consumption itself. Conversely, as more people rush to buying greener products, the environmental impact may become even higher. For example, as more people choose to buy greener cars, their individual level of CO2 emission may come down while the total CO2 emission into the atmosphere continue to rise. Owners of a fuel-efficient car might tend to drive further thus produce more CO2 emission. Same logic, buying sustainable product does not necessarily mean that your are living sustainably. Being sustainable or not is measured by the overall impact that you have on the earth and environment. Say…you have a huge mansion that are built with all sustainable materials. All interior wood furniture are from Forest Stewardship Certified sources. You have dozens of computers that are Energy Star labeled. All your lamps are LED. Your dishwasher, microwave, coffee machine, toaster, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, hairdryer, electric razor, television, stereo, lawn mower etc. all of them are energy-saving appliances. All your cars are equipped with the most advanced fuel-efficient technology. Are you really living a sustainable life? Or is it that companies have green-washed you to make you think that you are living a sustainable life while in fact you are not.
I believe that everyone of us has bought some stuff that we don’t actually need. What if we altogether stop buying them online for one day, how much CO2 emission we would help reduce as there will be less activities in the warehouses and less delivery trucks on the road for that same day? Now, still the same day, we pass our orders online, companies prepare our orders and load our stuff onto a fuel-efficient truck retrofitted with improved aerodynamics that produce way lower CO2 emission per truck load. Which one is more effective in reducing environmental impact? Yes~companies now have lower CO2 emission per truck load, great!! But are they actually helping reduce the overall CO2 emission? By no means do they want you to decrease your consumption even though that reduction is reasonable and sustainable.
Industries and companies spend billions in advertising and public relationships in order to turn citizens into fanatic and loyal consumers. Is it time that they invest some decent money educating their customers? Is this what a real socially responsible company should do? It’s really frustrating to learn that companies talk about triple bottom line all the time but in reality they are always leaning toward economic gain.
What I find even more frustrating is that in our current resource scarce world, companies are still cultivating, more discreetly than inadvertently, the habit for their customers to throw away. This is what I call the “old for new scheme”. How it works is that companies encourage you to bring back your old dishware, your computer, your cellphone, even your furniture and your car etc etc. In exchange, you’ll get a voucher or a coupon for you to buy new stuff at a discounted price. There is nothing wrong with wanting new things in our lives. Companies and advertising agencies have taken advantage of just that. They promise to take care of your returned stuff through recycling programs so that you won’t feel guilty of throwing them away. They give you a voucher to make you think that you are saving money but they actually encourage you to consume more. One fact about the old for new scheme is that a lot of the returned stuff are still in good condition and fully functional. In some cases, companies that receive your returned stuff explicitly request that the returned stuff be still usable. They make you throw your stuff away through planned obsolescence of function, quality and desirability. The obsolescence of desirability is the ultimate villain. Even though your stuff are still perfectly fine, they make you think that they are old, that you are old-fashioned, unattractive, that you’ll be embarrassed in front of your friends if you keep using your stuff. The values that shape an individual have somehow been distorted, and people judge each other by what they have. Yes, there is nothing wrong with wanting new things for our lives, but does it necessarily have to come from incessant material consumption?
“Material consumption will never disappear, so whatever consumption there is must be sustainable”. Our current consumption should be educated, rationalized, controlled and even discouraged so that it can be restored to a sustainable level. The most effective measure to reduce environmental impact is for every one of us to consume less and consume better. Any company in the world that encourages endless material consumption way beyond people’s needs cannot be regarded as sustainable. Yet how many of them have the actual desire and boldness to tell their customers to consume less of their products without fearing the loss of their profit and growth. How many of them are truly earning ethical and sustainable profit? Though they are promoting green/sustainable consumption, they are not dealing with the fundamental problem of consumption itself. I would like to emphasize that “green/sustainable consumption” does not address the problem of consumption itself, one of the reasons being that as global population is increasing exponentially each and every day, we are consuming faster than our earth can reproduce itself.
As human beings, our well-being do not necessarily come from endless material consumption. We should consume less, consume better and consume sustainably. As individuals, we should reexamine the value for all the stuff that we currently have, think before we buy. Though governments and companies have failed to do their job in educating us, as someone who really cares about our earth, environment and future generation, let us be a member of the generation that makes the real difference. Change starts from you and it starts now.