Capitalism and consumption have led to devastating effects on the planet and people.
As the world steps into the new year, many people aim to leave behind bad habits and adopt healthier choices. Making these resolutions comes off the heels of the biggest season for spending, and it’s a time that can put a lot of strain on the environment. For 2023, choosing to cut down on consumption and shop responsibly can be a resolution that is better for both you and the planet. Out of all the major events in the United States, Americans spend the most money during the holidays. In 2017, a report published by Statistica1 estimated that 796 billion dollars were spent during the holiday season. In second place was back-to-school shopping, which came in at only 83 billion dollars by comparison.
Consumerism has been integrated into American culture for generations. People are encouraged to constantly buy new instead of repairing what breaks and keeping what still works. When consumers stop buying things, uneasiness settles over economists and business owners alike as they anticipate how lower consumption rates will affect the economy. Americans are taught that a healthy economy is one where goods are continually produced, and money is spent on purchasing them.
Unfortunately, the current rate of global consumption has placed a burden on Earth’s resources. Many existing infrastructures and industries rely on consumption, and yet, it has caused a host of environmental issues, from excessive waste to greenhouse gas pollution. Some look to eco-consumerism as a way to combat mindless spending. Adopting the habits of an eco-conscious shopper may be hard to instill for some, but it could be a crucial ingredient to fixing excessive consumption. Despite the temptations of two-day delivery and endless retail sales, there is still a way for everyone to successfully shift their shopping patterns.
The framework of capitalism requires people to buy constantly. Merriam-Webster defines capitalism as a system “characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods” and “the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.” In other words, capitalism consists of private property, freedom of choice, and limited government interference. A capitalist economy revolves around supply and demand. As a result, the consumption rate determines economic success or downturns. In a society where goods and services can be sold at any price, sellers are constantly competing, and consumers are needed to continue the drive of sales.
Because capitalism relies on consumers, businesses must find a way to convince people to buy their goods and services. Marketing tactics have been used for decades to conflate a product with a certain lifestyle in order to encourage consumption. A vendor’s advertisement strategy does more than just showcase their product; it gives the potential buyer a life to aspire to. The concern regarding overconsumption and pressure to buy existed long before online shopping and fast fashion as they’re known today. Professor and author Juliet B. Schor emphasized the importance of separating the quality of life from possessions in her essay, The New Politics of Consumption. Published in 1999, she analyzed the phenomenon of American consumption being fueled heavily by the desire for an upgraded lifestyle.
“Social comparison and its dynamic manifestation—the need to “keep up”— have long been part of American culture,” she explains. Schor coined this condition as “competitive consumption,” and capitalism is at the root of it. As consumers work more jobs and longer hours to afford more luxuries, more resources are extracted to feed the demand. Premium items like high-end clothing, sports cars, the latest electronics, and the biggest homes require energy, water, and chemical use that deplete and harm the planet.
Corporations receive huge profits at the expense of Earth’s natural and limited resources. Without government interference, a private corporation has the ability to keep using these resources to grow and monopolize the market. Monopolies are only beneficial to the company that has killed off its other competitors. Just this year, complaints have risen over Ticketmaster2 and its dominance over all major events, from concerts to sporting games. Not only does it mean higher prices for consumers, but it also gives the dominating company total control over its market. Without other options to choose from, shoppers are left with just one vendor who can operate a business without any supervision on how goods are priced and how customers are served. In such a situation, a company with that much power can accumulate massive wealth that will only continue to grow. That is what capitalism is in its purest form: infinite growth and infinite profit. In order to achieve continual growth, there needs to be continual consumption.
In 2020 Amazon had a global revenue of 386.06B3, and the following year, that revenue increased to 469.82B. Walmart, another massive retail corporation, brought in $138.836B in 2021. Its revenue for 2022 is also expected to increase from last year. As time goes on, retailers seem to rake in more profits each year with no signs of stopping. However, limitless consumption is not something the environment can handle. Water, energy, and land space are limited. Currently, humans are using resources faster than they can be replenished. There is also limited space for the amount of trash that accumulates from shopping. Plastic packaging, bubble wrap, cardboard boxes, and any returned items that can’t be resold end up in landfills.
In the United States, the population has grown 60% over the course of fifty years.4 These increased rates are very similar to other countries. On top of that, spending has soared by 400% in the same time frame. Such an extreme jump is likely due to the emergence of online shopping, which only stepped onto the scene in the mid-late 1990s. Even then, using the internet to purchase goods only made up 6% of retail spending by the year 2010.5 Fast forward ten years, and online shopping has been made faster and easier for the average shopper, leading to a larger portion of purchases occurring via the internet. To encourage more spending, companies often eliminate shipping fees and give shoppers the option for expedited delivery. E-commerce businesses, in particular, have exploded, and countless companies no longer need brick-and-mortar stores to sell their products. In the United Kingdom, online purchases made up 2.8% of sales in November 2006. By April 2020, online sales made up 30% of all purchases, largely due to the pandemic.
Regrettably, the consequence of this phenomenon is the carbon footprint left behind by shipping and delivery. From cargo planes to package vans, the evolution of consumption has led to the prevalence of goods ordered online and shipped across the world. Amazon’s carbon emissions have been the center of many conversations that argue the need for corporate accountability.
While the compulsion to shop is present throughout the calendar year, during the holidays, shopping and marketing tactics are raised an extra notch. The added pressure of shopping for others and wanting to give the very best may have some people spending more than they intended to. It’s not uncommon to end up buying things for oneself while trying to find gifts for loved ones. During the month of December, nearly every industry places markdowns on their products. From the moment Thanksgiving is over and all the way through Christmas, corporations bring in huge profits. While large corporations like Amazon have a responsibility to combat these carbon emissions, customers can also take steps to refrain from purchasing unessential items.
Eco-consumerism or green consumerism encompasses a collection of practices that are meant to transition away from purchasing products that are both unsustainable and unnecessary. This can include investing in cleaning products that don’t contain toxic chemicals, using products that aren’t packaged in plastics, and shopping with a mindset that does not overindulge in luxury goods that are depleting the planet. Criticism of the effects of fast fashion also falls in line with the philosophy of eco-consumerism. Making these changes on an individual level may feel small, but shopping consciously sends a message to corporations about what their current and potential customers value. As mentioned, there is no supply without demand, and there is no successful capitalist economy without consumers. Applying pressure on suppliers by withholding one’s wallet can be the ripple effect that’s needed to shift how goods are produced.
Eco-consumerism doesn’t have to look one way, either. Buying green products is one strategy to fight against irresponsible production, but choosing to stop buying unnecessary items is another avenue to explore. Consumer goods aren’t just harmful because of what they’re made with; they’re also a problem because there are too many things being produced too often. In fact, clothing consumption has increased by 400% in the last two decades. With 80 billion pieces of clothing bought each year globally, we need sustainable fashion and less consumption. Without this, clothes will continue to be made cheaply with too many chemicals, and the carbon footprint from international shipping will continue to climb. Instead of buying new clothing multiple times throughout the year, shoppers can choose to purchase long-lasting, quality items just once or twice a year. Alternatively, we can choose to opt for secondhand, thrifted clothing rather than giving our dollars to another fast fashion company. Slowing the demand for new clothing and other items in these ways signals to manufacturers to slow down production.
Minimalism falls nicely into the conversation of green consumerism. The motives behind minimalism include removing dependency on shopping, eliminating clutter, taking away the importance of material goods, and choosing better for the planet.
American author Joshua Becker states, “Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from it.” To be a minimalist is to intentionally live with few possessions, and this lifestyle goes hand in hand with spending less money on nonessential items. Minimalism can also help former shopaholics refocus on the importance of nonmaterial aspects of life like relationships, health, and nature.
At the heart of eco-consumerism is the preservation of our planet’s resources and wildlife. What often wreaks havoc on ecosystems is done in the name of corporate greed. The global production of consumer goods has all but destroyed habitats that were once thriving. Palm oil plantations, for example, contribute to a large percentage of deforestation. Beyond food, palm oil is used for packaged goods like makeup and personal care items. Reducing shopping down to the essentials helps us combat overconsumption and the demand for continued deforestation. In the fashion industry, clothing made of synthetic fibers releases microplastics that can leach into our bodies, the bodies of wildlife, water, and even air. In fact, 35% of these tiny plastics come from clothing.
They are so prominent that they have now been found in our food systems. Polyester, nylon, polyamide, and acrylic are all common synthetic fibers that shed microfibers. In the washing machine, microfibers shed off clothing and into the water, where it’ll eventually make its way into the environment. Being an eco-consumer and choosing sustainable retailers can curb damages done to the planet. Brands that operate with the environment in mind often make decisions like using recycled materials, recycled water and only making products to order so they can avoid waste. Some eco-conscious companies run on solar power and are often local, smaller businesses. Businesses that are local tend to have a smaller carbon footprint than larger companies with a global presence. Choosing to shop with a brand that is local to your area already reduces a lot of emissions used in transportation.
Capitalism has convinced many that aspiration for more material things can lead to a life of happiness. It is this mindset that keeps people overworked and contributes to feelings of dissatisfaction and envy. In fact, working more to spend more does not automatically equate to more happiness. This is known as the Easterlin paradox6, which theorizes that while initially, more income can bring contentment, over time, more money can not continue to bring more happiness. Once basic needs and comforts are met, it is human nature to seek new luxuries. Comparing our haves and have-nots to others turns into an endless cycle that can’t be solved by buying more things. By decentering material items, we can prioritize wellness and other aspects of life that will bring inner fulfillment. Beyond our health and the health of our ecosystems, adopting eco-consumerism can save many from financial stress and burdens. Liberating ourselves from the need to buy gives us more financial freedom to save and invest instead of spend.
The biggest challenge for some is distinguishing wants from needs. Forbes author Toby Mathis explains that knowing the difference between the two is the key to financial freedom. Needs are the basic necessities that keep a person safe and alive. Food, water, shelter, and clothing are all basic needs. However, it is often the type of clothing or the type of shelter that can turn necessities and luxuries. The items we want or desire are things of preference rather than absolute necessity. Becoming an eco-conscious consumer means reevaluating the wants and needs in your life and determining which of those aren’t necessary, and finding better, sustainable alternatives. Choosing to buy less, buy sustainably, and shop locally can be the difference needed to alleviate the burden overconsumption has placed on the planet.
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