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Inconspicuous consumption

Sometime over the past century, we’ve become overconsumers. A recent report claims we’re now in “overshoot”, overtaxing the planet’s ability to regenerate by 25%. We talk to a researcher about what one can do to turn things around.

In the past few decades, we’ve developed a culture of consumerism complete with a new set of vocabulary: shop ’til you drop, retail therapy, impulse buys, binge buyers, conspicuous consumption, etcetera. And a new set of addictions: compulsive shopping, shopaholics, addictive spending, shopping binges.

While for some it’s a real problem, few of us are immune. A European Union survey found that 33% of consumers displayed a “high level of addiction to rash or unnecessary consumption“. In the United States, there are more cars than drivers and a percentage polled by the Pew Research Center consider an iPod and a flat screen tv necessities.

Our consumption is taking its toll. Since 1961, according to the World Wildlife Federation’s (WWF) Living Planet Report 2006, our impact on the planet has more than tripled. For the past 20 years, we have been in what the Living Planet authors call “overshoot” meaning that we are using resources faster than they can be renewed.

Currently, we’re overshooting the earth’s regenerative abilities by 25%, but the report authors claim that if we follow the United Nations projections for growth, by midcentury we will be overshooting by 50%.

They warn that if we don’t reexamine how we consume, soon it will be too late. “We must balance our consumption with the natural world’s capacity to regenerate and absorb our wastes. If we do not, we risk irreversible damage.”

The US environmental group Worldwatch Institute puts much of the blame on rich nations, like Europe and especially the US. “Calculations show that the planet has available 1.9 hectares of biologically productive land per person to supply resources and absorb wastes—yet the average person on Earth already uses 2.3 hectares worth. These “ecological footprints” range from the 9.7 hectares claimed by the average American to the 0.47 hectares used by the average Mozambican.”

No one is asking us to give up our worldly goods, but researchers all seem to agree, we need to change the way we consume. We met up with the Worldwatch Institute’s director of research Gary Gardner in San Francisco, to talk more about the trends and about how we can continue shopping with a much smaller ecological footprint.

faircompanies: It seems we have a problem with consumption. What have you found in your research?

Gary Gardner: When we talk about sustainability we often talk about population as a problem and it certainly is in many parts of the world, but in many parts of the world population has stabilized or is falling. In no part of the world is consumption falling. Consumerism is clearly a huge problem that we need to wrestle with.

“There’s no doubt that we are big consumers in the United States. We have less than 5% of the world’s population and yet we use roughly 25% of the energy and some of the major materials for our economy today. Take the average American house, for example, 38% larger today than it was in 1975 when most of us were living pretty comfortably. It almost seems like a trend with no end.”

“Consumption seems to be the way that more and more of us define ourselves in the world today; to the point that some people have said that consumption is the first global religion; that’s where we find our salvation and that’s where we find our greatest temples, the malls.

Priesthood has grown up around consumption, the advertisers, and economists, for example. There are a lot of folks in the United States today who suffer from a lot of credit card debt, thousands and thousands of dollars per family of credit card debt. Our net savings rate in the United States is below zero compared to 10-20% in some other countries. We’re living increasingly on borrowed time, borrowed money.”

Beyond the issue of debt, why is overconsumption so problematic?

Well, increasingly much of the consumption that we’re engaged in is environmentally unsustainable. We buy all sorts of goods and materials that are used only once and then thrown away. Something like more than 80% of all materials we use today are used once and then thrown away.

It has a huge environmental impact. There’s a different consciousness, it seems to me, around consumption that’s needed to lower the environmental impact, but also increase our quality of life.

“There’s a quality of life price that we pay from overconsumption. In terms of the material it takes to produce a good that we buy today, a huge percentage of that is material that is only used once, and then it ends up in the landfill. A lot of it is packaging that is used for a very short period of time and then thrown in the landfill. But some may be used for a long time, for example, buildings.”

“We need to be finding different ways to deliver a lifestyle that is meeting people’s needs with a much lower environmental impact. It’s a challenge for business. And that’s the challenge of sustainability for this century. It’s a challenge for business because businesses need to adopt a different mindset so they’re thinking about how to deliver what people need not just delivering a particular good.”

“For example, we see car sharing growing in Europe and the United States. This is the way to give people the private transportation that they need without it being necessary that everyone have an extra car. It’s a wonderful idea. It’s providing a service rather than a good so you can give people the same quality of life that they’ve become accustomed to, but it doesn’t require the same resources to deliver it.”

Do you see a solution, or a better alternative, to the way we have become accustomed to consuming?

The great challenge, I think, for the 21st century is how to design economies that deliver what people will need and what they want in a way that lowers the environmental impact. That doesn’t mean a life of deprivation.

“Psychologists tell us that people have some basic needs: security, good relationships, and the possibility of becoming the person they were born to be and the way that we consume actually retards the way we advance on some of those fronts. For example, if we’re working long hours, concerned about getting more money so we can pay our high mortgage or buy a new car we may well be sacrificing relationships. We may not be having the kind of relationships with our neighbors or our family that really would make us happy.”

“It’s really fascinating that in the United States there’s a graph that shows the increase in wealth over time and adjusted for inflation. And on this basis it shows that people are more than twice as wealthy today as they were in 1957 when the graph began to be charted. But at the same time the level of happiness, the number of people who say they’re very happy, has been flat. So you have this strange anomaly where we’re richer and richer and yet no happier.”

“We’ve lived in the 20th century in an era where business did not have to think particularly imaginatively about how to deliver what people need because we had so much fuel; we had so many materials we didn’t have to think in terms of constraints. Now we do so you find businesses like BMW or Mercedes manufacturing their cars to be remanufactured at the end of their life so that parts are labeled with barcodes. You know what can be recycled and what can’t be. You know what can be reused in a new machine. Xerox does the same thing with its copy machines. These are wonderfully imaginative ways to provide the same service that people have been accustomed to, but using a much lower level of material.”

“So we’re seeing businesses stepping up and trying to be imaginative. Another example is Interface Carpets which has a program where it does not just supply carpet to businesses. It supplies a floor covering service that gives you carpet tiles and when those carpet tiles wear out they will replace them so you’re paying them for a service.

They own the carpet from cradle to grave. They are responsible for recycling that carpet. Suddenly they have an incentive to produce a carpet that is recyclable because they know they are going to have to deal with the waste. This is another example of imaginative business practice, to meet people’s needs with a lower level of material requirement.”

That’s a great example. What kind of advice would you give to individuals about how we can consume more sustainably?

In terms of consumers it seems to me that one of the things we need to do is to think about expenditures in terms of whether it’s investment or gratification. That is, I’m putting out an expenditure that’s going to give me returns over time and it’s going to help me be a better person. I’m going to learn to play the piano, for example, learn a language or invest in a local charity.

Those are examples of investments whereas more and more of our expenditures have become expenditures of gratification where we’re constantly gratifying ourselves and there’s nothing wrong with that to a point.

“It’s just a question of balance; so favoring investment as much as gratification is a start. And then when we do consume because we all have to consume, to buy products, it’s important to be looking for green labels, to be looking for evidence that the product is recycled and recyclable. It is a helpful principle to imagine ways in which we can reduce the amount that we need to buy so that we could for example use used goods, where possible or to borrow goods.”

“The city of Berkeley has an interesting program, an interesting take on libraries, where they have a tool library. When you buy a chain saw you might use it once a year, at most. You don’t really need that chain saw. Isn’t it wonderful to have a service that you can go to and make use of and then return it so someone else who can use it; another way to reduce material use without affecting your quality of life?”

“Many people have investments today, and yet only about 10% of all the managed investments in the United States are socially responsible investments. That is, these are investments that are screened to ensure that they are, at least, not supporting a business that is going to do more harm to the environment. We have tremendous leverage through our investment choices as we do through our consumption choices and I think that is a huge area of potential growth that we need to be paying more attention to.”

How does downshifting fit into this different vision of consumption, this less impactful vision of consumption? To begin with, how would you define downshifting?

Downshifting is basically deciding consciously that one is not going to get caught up in the rat race in the drive for ever higher pay and the drive for greater consumption. It’s a conscious decision to live more simply and I think that helps many people to have a higher quality of life.

“The downshifting movement is a wonderful example, for people who can do that or for people who can adopt parts of that philosophy, where I really don’t need as much as I thought I needed so I can cut my consumption. I can, perhaps, cut the number of hours I’m working.

I can get a lower salary because I have in mind a different understanding of what quality of life is; it’s not about chasing a higher paycheck; it’s not about having more goods; it’s not about having a bigger house or a newer car; it’s about the relationships I have with the people around me. That’s really important and if people discover that they need to work less to be able to achieve those relationships that can make a big difference to them.”

“One trend that we’ve found that is very interesting is in the mid nineties when people in the United States were asked, ‘Would you rather have a pay raise or would you rather have more free time?’ People answered, ‘More free time’. That seems to me to be a very serious indicator that people are looking for a different kind of life, a higher quality of life, that could come through lower consumption. So trends like that are very important to us.

Can downshifting be seen as a solution?

We looked at downshifting in 2004 and it tended to be marginal, but what seems marginal may have the kernel of a much larger movement as more and more people see the wisdom in that kernel and begin to adopt pieces of it as appropriate for their own lives.

“Do you know what I find fascinating about the Amish, the group in Pennsylvania that lives very very simply and, of course, for many people would not be a model, but what is a model it seems to me from the way that they live is it’s not that they live simply per se, it’s that they have control over their consumption decisions. Like they will allow cell phones to be part of the community for awhile and the community will see if this helps them become a stronger community. ‘Does this bring us together or is it pulling us apart?’ And then they will make a decision about whether cell phone should be allowed. That kind of discriminating process, analysis of consumption, it seems to me, ought to be part of all of our lives, whether we go to the Amish extreme or not.”

Beyond what we can do as individuals when we shop, do you see the business world changing as well to provide a different marketplace for consumers?

It seems to me that companies today are increasingly interested in going green themselves and sort of trying to green their operations and green the products that they offer to consumers.

“We see business schools now that are dedicated entirely to sustainable business. Bainbridge, in Washington, the Presidio School of Management, here in San Francisco and companies increasingly are looking for graduates from these places because they know that there’s tremendous opportunity for profit to be made in green business.”

“Ray Anderson who is the head of Interface, the carpet company that uses carpet tiles and leases them rather than sells them, is around the country talking about the opportunities that are inherent in green business today. One of the tenets of capitalism is that it’s a very efficient system and yet what I think what we’re discovering now is that even with all the efficiencies we’ve seen in the capitalist model in the 20th century much much more efficiency is possible because we’re beginning to think from a green perspective. So companies are finding that it can make them more profitable to be cutting waste that they never recognized before now.”

“The venture capital community, for example, is increasingly recognizing the opportunities of green business. Kleiner Perkins, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm that helped to get some of the major Internet firms started, has dedicated 100 million dollars trying to identify the next google, the ‘Green Google’ if you will, because they know that there’s tremendous opportunity out there. Goldman Sachs in New York is doing the same thing, 100 million dollars for renewable energy technologies.”

“To the extent that a green approach to business offers a competitive advantage it could be very challenging for more traditional, perhaps smaller, businesses that have not come along to stay in business. So in a sense there’s a real stimulus, it seems to me, for some businesses to be succeeding because they’re green.”

“It’s important also to note that green is not all of sustainability, that is the environmental piece of sustainability is only part of sustainability. So that a company like Wal-Mart which is doing wonderful things in terms of its environmental practices still has a lot to do in terms of its social practices: the way it gets its goods from workers overseas who may be paid a substandard wage, for example. That continues to be a real challenge for many businesses.”

“Many businesses today are increasingly interested in greening themselves and many of them are taking on the mantra of corporate social responsibility, but for some that’s just greenwashing. Some are really not on board with that and they’re just trying to follow the market trend, but many companies today are using, for example, the global reporting initiative to help them report their business practices from an environmental perspective to show where they really are green and where they’re not and the best companies are quite transparent about that. We’re looking increasingly to mechanisms like that kind of reporting to help sort the good companies from the bad.

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