There are many adaptation strategies to be employed to combat climate change and to better prepare us to endure and recover from disasters that strike. I’ve grouped them into eight major categories (see below). These all generally relate to adaptations to be deployed by individuals.
- Reduce waste
- Manage demand
- Support remanufacture
- Appropriate technology
- Support local
This blog singles out one of the adaptations – managing our personal wants and needs – and goes into detail on what that means and what part we play.
Is What We Need, What We Want?
This is a tricky, sticky area to address. Nobody wants to be told they cannot or should not do something. We have free enterprise over ourselves, right? I am not going to try to define how you should live your life. What is important to understand and digest in our individual way, is this idea of consumerism and how it very definitely negatively impacts our environment.
Consumerism: Is It Bad?
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a ‘consumer’ as “one that consumes”. Ok. We all need goods and services to live our lives. But what is consumerism? How is that different than buying and utilizing what we need to live our lives? Again leaning on Merriam-Webster for a precise definition, ‘consumerism’ is defined as “the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable”. A further articulation of that definition is stated as “a preoccupation with and an inclination towards the buying of consumer goods”. A pretty interesting definition don’t you think? The key word to highlight is “theory” in that, consumerism was conjured up by someone or some entity – who or what? – and determined that purchasing behavior that increases over time is good for an economy. If we take that definition at face-value, we have to wonder then, who or what is driving our want to purchase material goods over and above what we require for healthy living.
The Economic Paradigm We Live Under in the U.S.
First, we have to consider the economic system under which we live. In the U.S., we operate under a capitalist system one based on the theories of neoclassical economics which is based on the equilibrium of supply and demand. Ultimately, companies that make goods and services will regulate themselves to meet the demands of the marketplace – businesses and individuals looking for the products and services they require to live, grow, and succeed – and will make a sufficient amount of goods to satisfy the market. If supply is too low (or when market demand is greater) products will be scarce and prices will rise. Ultimately though, suppliers will make more of the product until demand is met, bringing down the price of goods to a fair price. Similarly, is there is too much supply and it exceeds market demand, then the price of goods will decrease until the point at which all extra goods are bought and where supply is in equilibrium with demand. The theory behind capitalism is that only goods and services that are wanted or desired in the marketplace will be produced. Nothing extraneous will be made. That is the theory.
Moving From Developing Products Based on Need, to Products Based on Want
Second, we have a global paradigm that was developed at the end of World War II (WWII) that essentially tied human well-being to economic output. It was decided at the Bretton Woods Conference in the mid-1940’s by 44 allied nations of the U.S., that continuous economic growth, analytically measured by growing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was the correct driver to the betterment of human social wellbeing. In part this was adopted because the U.S. and Britain had put into hyper-drive industrial production in support of the war. Now that WWII was ending, the U.S. needed some way to avoid an economic “let-down” (a.k.a. economic recession) and persuaded other nations that by fueling economic production – goods – in the name of improving the lives of individuals – everyone wins: nations, economies, businesses, and individuals. Thus, economic production in support of the war effort, which created very necessary goods and products for the military to conduct its activities, became economic production just for the sake of production. Goods produced were not entirely necessary anymore. So there became a need to convince individuals that the goods being produced while not necessary, were desirable and thus, needed for the sake of it.
Advertising Creates and Drives Our Insatiable Wants
Third, was the birth of the Advertising industry. Advertising’s main incentive was and is to make products sexy, desirable and wanted so that individuals feel compelled to buy what they see and are convinced that all kinds of products will make their life fuller, better, happier…. you insert the best adjective here. In recounting the history of Advertising, AdAge states that “the postwar abundance of the 1950s continued into the early ‘60s, providing a profusion of mass-produced goods for eager consumers…” AdAge goes on to reveal that “advertising provided the information and incentive to keep consumption at an all-time high…”181 during this period in U.S. history.
The Birth of Consumerism
These three drivers – capitalism, a drive for continuous GDP growth, and relentless product advertising – have in a very large way brainwashed individuals into believing that buying more, having more, making more, and even desiring more is the way to realize ultimate human happiness. And where new technologies and product innovation was pursued during the war years to overcome challenges to ultimately win battles and bring finality to the fighting, now, technological advancement and innovations are often pursued not to solve problems but just to create an unrealized demand for new gadgets, that nobody knew they needed or wanted.
How Just-in-Time Manufacturing Supports Consumerism
The evolution of the Japanese manufacturing concept just-in-time (JIT) is fascinating and quite relevant to consumerism. Developed in the 1970s by Toyota, the automobile manufacturer, JIT was designed to cut unnecessary waste and inventory in the production of automobiles. JIT inevitably spread to other manufacturing processes, namely to the production of apparel and textiles. It became a mechanism to speed-up and increase clothing production runs from four times a year to the introduction of new “seasonal” clothing collections every three weeks or so. JIT was a very detailed waste reduction and resource management philosophy from the East that in some ways, has been bastardized by the capitalist West to increase consumerism. Today in textile manufacturing we call it “fast fashion”. The business model behind fast fashion is a continuous introduction of low quality but high volume merchandise into stores to keep consumers excited and wanting more. What makes fast fashion effective is how inexpensive the products are. Consumerism thrives on easily accessible products, ever-changing, and cheap so we keep coming back for more.
That Other Consumerism “Baddie”: Planned Breakage
A second methodology companies use to drive consumerism is “planned obsolescence”. It is a well-known insider business strategy within the technology and consumer product industries: ensuring products break, die, or stop working so they get replaced. The pro-consumer argument by industry argues that this “strategy” is for the benefit of consumers. They don’t have to toil with old, sup-optimally working products. They can have the latest and greatest in technology and products that are new, more efficient, effective and relevant. The pro-industry argument is that the shorter the lifespan of products, the more need for new or replacement products is and this business strategy supports continuous, every-growing revenue growth. The truth likely falls somewhere between the two above competing arguments. Either way, though, planned obsolescence is a strong engine driving consumerism. Who wants to be stuck with an old version of some hot technology? Some technology devices that are older than three years often are no longer system supported by their very manufacturers, making the devices slow to run and often to experience persistent system crashes with extremely sub-optimal user experiences. Planned obsolescence with consumer devices such as light-bulbs, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners and the like, is more a nuisance rather than owning something that is not the latest-greatest model. These consumer products are not expensive but often necessary to individuals living in developed countries and therefore, time and money spent replacing them seems to serve the purpose of the manufacturers making them.
Is What We Are Told We Need, Serving Us?
Putting consumerism in this light, we need to ask ourselves how our wants and needs for material goods, personal gadgets, and consumer devices are driven by these external forces, exacting pressure on the choices we make with are wallets. How many pairs of jeans and shoes do we need? Just how many different types of socks, handbags, belts and jackets are necessary to be comfortable? How often do we need to replace our personal electronic devices and how many do we need to be satiated?
Fast Fashion has exponentially driven up consumerism just in the last two decades alone. The U.S. EPA estimates that the volume of clothing that finds its way to landfills and incinerators has more than doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons in less than 20 years. Those number equate to about 80 pounds of clothing purchased per person, annually, with near 85 percent of this fast fashion apparel finding its end-life in the trashcan182. Only 15 percent of all apparel is getting reused and/or recycled into new clothing.
Or, we can look at consumerism another way. A Cambridge University study reports that 10 years ago (2006) consumers were buying an additional one-third more clothing than they were in 2002. Today’s woman owns four times more apparel than a woman in 1980 did183. Energy consumption in a typical U.S. household has more than doubled since 1980 and is expected to continue to grow at double-digit rates for the next 30-50 years. This continuing need for energy consumption is driven primarily by our voracious appetite for consumer electronics, personal devices as well as portable appliances and personal care products.
Consumerism Is Directly Linked to Higher Levels of Environmental Pollution
There is a driving need to think deeply on these issues. Consumption of an ever increasing amount of apparel and accessories, personal electronics and nifty consumer gadgets may (temporarily) make us feel good, look good and feel cool, but serve a marginal role in improving our lives. More concerning is that consumerism has a very real impact on the growth of environmental pollution. These days, 70 percent of the 63.2 million tonnes (2013) of apparel that is manufactured globally is made with man-made (or technical) fibers such as nylon and polyester. And that number is growing. These fibers are derived from fossil fuel petroleum and are not biodegradable. The vast majority of these petroleum-based apparel items are thrown-away, sit in landfills and contaminate both our land and our waterways with no hope of ever “disappearing” through the process of biodegradation.
So too, electronic waste (e-waste) is posing a more serious problem around the world. With the proliferation of personal electronic devices and the acceleration of a product’s life span from an average of four to six years to somewhere in the ballpark of two years or less, the volume of e-waste is growing with its attendant human toxicity and environmental contamination concerns. Most of these electronic devices contain highly toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, nickel, beryllium, and zinc186 that can cause human disease, cancer and death when exposed at high enough levels over a prolonged period of time. Many of the components utilized in the creation of these personal electronic devices are classified as hazardous materials and need to be disposed of responsibly. Of course, many are not.
Putting a Stopper on Our Wants.
Managing our desire for material goods impacts in what capacity these products are made, for how long they will be utilized, how consciously they are disposed of in the most effective way, and whether they have the capacity and ability to be recycled or (revalorized) to ensure longevity of material lifespan. In this way, we need to employ conscious decision-making. Buy from manufacturers you know are seeking to reclaim and recycle their products after consumer use. Support manufacturers through our spending power those that manufacture responsibly. Consider the environmental impacts of their sourcing and production practices. Become active recyclers yourself, so that what you buy and use, can ultimately become a reused, recycled, and/or revalorized product with little to zero impact on the environment. Think of yourself as your own ultimate guest: take care of what you are given, use only what you need, clean-up after yourself, do more than what is asked of you because it is the right thing to do and because, you would like to come back and have a same or similar experience – not degraded in any way – sometime in the distant future.
Contact Kate Gaertner today to see what Triple Win Advisory can do to help your business and industry increase sustainability to result in a “triple win” for company profit and long-term competitive advantage, societal well-being, and successful environmental pollution mitigation.
 AdAge. (2003, September 15). History: 1960s. Retrieved from http://adage.com/article/adage-encyclopedia/history-1960s/98702/
 Wicker, Alan. (2016, September 1). Fast Fashion is Creating an Environmental Crisis. Newsweek.
 Allwood, Julian M.; Laursen, Soren Ellebaek; de Rodriguez, Cecilia Malvido; Bocken, Nancy M. (2006). Well dressed? The present and future sustainability of clothing and textiles in the United Kingdom. University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing: 27.
 Fanara, Andrew; Clark, Robin; Duff, Rebecca; Polad, Mehernaz. (2006, January 30). How Small Devices are Having a Big Impact on U.S. Utility Bills. Retrieve from https://www.energystar.gov/ia/partners/prod_development/downloads/EEDAL-145.pdf
 CIRFS. (2016). About Man-made fibres. European Man-made Fibres Association. Retrieved from http://www.cirfs.org/manmadefibres/Aboutmanmadefibres.aspx
 Needhidasan, Santhanam; Samuel, Melvin; Chidambaram, Ramalingam. (2014, January 20). Electronic waste – an emerging threat to the environment of urban India. J Environ Health Sci Eng, v. 12, pp. 12-36.[print_link]