Overconsumption: Uncovering the Dark Side of Economic Growth
Today, with just a tap of a finger, we can buy anything - anywhere and anytime. Adidas shoes on sale? Too good of a deal to pass up. An influencer’s Instagram post featuring a cute summer dress caught your eye? That would be perfect to wear to the beach. New iPhone coming out? That's perfect, I've been wanting a better camera for a while now.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, our minds constantly want new things – inevitably leading to the rise in overconsumption. In fact, our entire economy is powered by the consumption of goods by individuals. Work, earn, consume, repeat - a mantra personified by so many of us today. Clothes, cars, electronics, food, you name it – we are driven by an irresistible desire to purchase anything that piques our interest even slightly.
As consumers, we are rewarded for shopping – it is common for companies to create loyalty programs incentivising customers to shop more frequently. Marketing strategies and FOMO compel us to empty out our wallets in exchange for a fleeting taste of happiness, leaving us with another item we probably didn’t need.
There is no doubt economic growth has not only increased our standard of living, but it has also fuelled materialistic consumption. While consumption is essential for survival, the issue arises when our greed for material “stuff” causes alarming deforestation, pollutes the ocean, drives species to extinction and puts extra burden on resources that are already scarce.
Most of us are not aware of the severity of this overconsumption crisis. After all, when you’re bombarded with Facebook ads on the latest online shopping frenzy, it is hard to think about the cost of consumption - apart from its retail dollar value. Have you ever thought about where the resources to make the device you’re using right now come from? Straight from the Earth, using resources cobalt, copper, aluminium, and several other natural minerals.
Mining these resources creates greenhouse gases and destroys ecosystems. To give an example, gold mining for tech companies is one of the key drivers of deforestation in the Amazon. What’s worse is that devices like phones are designed to be replaced every 2-3 years, making you buy another one down the track. And then another – depleting natural resources and polluting the environment at an unimaginable rate.
Now multiply that with 3.5 billion, the estimated amount of people who use phones.
The resources are finite, but they are mostly consumed in high-income countries, which enjoy greater wealth and a better standard of living. Collectively, developed nations consume 32 times more than the rest of the world. One need only look at the disparity between the Global North (such as Europe, North America, Japan), and the Global South (largely comprised of Africa, Asia and South America) to observe the unequal impacts of overconsumption.
The Global North’s materialistic consumption is unsustainable and largely unequal. Almost 700 million people around the world (mainly in the Global South) go to bed hungry every night, but much of the developed world is plagued by obesity – a direct consequence of overconsumption of food. According to Lester Brown, former President of the Earth Policy Institute, “it would take 1.5 Earths to sustain our present level of consumption. Environmentally, the world is in an overshoot mode.”
Here in Australia, we are guilty of sending 6,000 kg of clothing to landfill every 10 minutes. Perhaps to truly see the extent of our overconsumption, we need not look further than charities, which are becoming overwhelmed with unwanted donations and are spending more than $13 million a year to manage waste.
We need to open our eyes to the consequences of overconsumption, before it consumes us.
Governments around the world obsessively fawn over economic growth, boasting about their accomplishments to other nations. But how do we reach that delicate balance between achieving sustainable growth and preserving our environment? Former Greenpeace activist Annie Leonard shared in an interview: “Too often the environment is seen as one small piece of the economy. But it's not just one little thing, it's what every single thing in our life depends upon."
It is 2021. Our landfills are spilling at the seams. Our houses are crammed from floor to ceiling with purchases we’ve made, whether they were used or not. Our forests are shrinking from excessive deforestation.
And yet, we continue to line up for Boxing Day sales, eager to fill the gaping holes in our lives with materialistic happiness. But at what cost?
Is it finally time to stop and say enough is enough?