I’ve been challenged this week by an article in Nature Communications. It warns starkly how affluent consumption is the leading factor in environmental and social impact. And the major technological advances we are making are not enough to outweigh its effects and won’t ever be. Consumption levels have to change.
The paper describes the evidence from numerous studies showing consumption by affluent households worldwide is the strongest determinant and accelerator of global environmental and social damage. They argue that any transition to sustainability cannot be achieved by technology advancements or ‘greening’ of consumption. There has to be a significant reduction in inessential consumption by the affluent nations. The problem is that competitive market economies have a structural imperative for continuous growth based on ever increasing production and consumption. And our cultural norms and beliefs have now evolved around these.
We are currently witnessing this in real time with the Covid-19 pandemic. When you stop all inessential (but not essential note!) consumption, our economy and job market collapses. Then, when “inessential”(sic) shops re-open, the prime minister and the chancellor beg us all to “get out shopping” and spend on inessential consumables as our “civic duty” to get the economy back on its feet. In the past 24 hours, Rishi Sunak has twice stated that more than any country, our UK economy is based on consumption. Sadly, he is right given how our economy is currently structured. But Westminster shows no signs of recognising or planning for how we change our economic structures and consumer culture to meet the carbon reduction goals they have signed up to.
I hope that the appearance and traction of alternative economic models like Doughnut Economics and Universal Basic Income along with the stated ambition of countries like New Zealand to make the wellbeing of people and planet the goal of their economies will start to prove there are other ways of operating. As a Celtic resident, it’s encouraging that both Scotland and Wales have joined Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) partnership.
Leaving the considerable economic challenges of new operational models to the economists, I’m happier thinking about the psychology of consumers here on the ground. Can our affluent nations be weaned off inessential consumption into other less harmful ways (both environmentally and socially) to live enjoyable, stimulating, healthy and meaningful lives.
It’s not going to be easy but my own experience of research in consumer psychology makes me hopeful that this is not a regression to a hair-shirt, less prosperous existence. Here are my reasons:-
Our needs for a good life are independent of our current means of fulfilling them
Beyond our basic physical needs of food, shelter and protection from disease, we all share a set of fundamental psychological needs to live well and happily. These include: stimulation (physical, mental and emotional), connection with others and a sense of our own identity/worth. These are the things which release “well-being” chemicals into our system (serotonin, oxytocin, adrenalin etc) which give us that buzz of excitement, warmth or happiness and make life worth living. Unfortunately, in the last 50 years we have developed the cultural habit of looking to fulfil many of these through material consumption.
From time to time, I have analysed people’s language to uncover how consumer products have fulfilled one or other of these needs beyond the product’s utilitarian function. A mobile ‘phone is far more than a simple communication device and clothing is far more than something to keep us warm. The bad news is that we have developed a shared culture where inessential consumption is now accepted as the principal, if not the only, way to live well and be happy and the only way to create jobs and keep the economy going. This is despite research showing that we are actually less happy now than we were in the 1950’s when we had a fraction of the material goods we own and rely on today.
But the good news is that each of these wellbeing needs can be fulfilled in different ways … often more powerfully.
Experiences are more satisfying than material products
Spending on experiences, rather than products (e.g. restaurant meals, holidays, sports) has grown significantly over the past 30 years. A survey conducted by Harris Poll in 2014 found that 78% of Millenials would prefer to spend money on a desirable experience or event over a desirable object. Also, U.S. consumer expenditure on live events doubled between 1990 and 2010.
Research also shows that that experiences deliver more in terms of stimulation, happiness and self worth both in anticipation of their purchase and because their positive effects last longer after the purchase compared to material purchases. This is partly because of the enjoyment in relating the story of one’s experience to others.
From an environmental point of view, the good news is that experiences do not necessarily require any material production although some (most notably air travel) have a very high carbon footprint. But finding ways to meet our need for stimulation, human connection and identity through experiential rather than material consumption is definitely something to be encouraged wherever possible particularly if travel by aircraft can be avoided. Active, rather than passive experiences which enable consumers to shape the product through their own individual expression, skills or creativity deliver the biggest buzz.
Many of people’s enjoyable and meaningful activities have minimal environmental (or economic) impact
In 2017, I carried out a survey of 300 UK residents to discover what activities they had engaged in over the past month which they’d either enjoyed, found meaningful and/or had made a difference to something or someone. I was surprised and encouraged to find that most of the activities they described had minimal environmental impact (e.g. walking the dog, playing sport, gardening, reading, volunteering) and mostly involved no material consumption at all. Interestingly, shopping as an activity was rarely mentioned.
Where enjoyable activities made an economic contribution, it was either via services like gyms or clubs or entertainment events or via media content providers like books, TV and music. The activities they described often cost them little or nothing and personal income levels had little effect on what they did or how much they spent. This suggests that we are actually less hooked on inessential material consumption than maybe either we, our government or the media think we are. Unfortunately, because the government is locked in an economy and jobs market based on consumption, they require us to be hooked which is why they are currently begging and incentivising usback into the manufacture and consumption of inessential goods regardless of carbon targets.
It would be interesting to re-run my 2017 survey to explore what activities people engaged in during lockdown which they found enjoyable, meaningful or made a difference and how were these different given there was no inessential consumption – other than online. Results would be distorted because people suffered badly from the lack of contact with close family and friends which we know is a vital psychological need but, fortunately not one which requires material consumption of any kind.
So, as the Covid-19 rules are relaxed, will we get re-hooked into inessential consumption or will we look to other ways to fulfil our need for stimulation, social connectedness and identity? The planet meanwhile hangs in the balance.