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Anna Pattis: Sustainable consumption = no consumption?

8 November 2015 – Scenes like 'Black Fridays' in the US, or recent footage of young Danes camping outside the stores of H&M for three days to buy the latest fashion designed by a known designer, depict a small picture of what seemingly a lot of people focus on in our society.

Anna PattisFor me it shows the symptoms of materialism – a 'disease' which has caused a lot of societal damage. For these young Danes it was an important event in their lives and when asked why, the answer was often, because they had to have it to be recognised. This makes me fundamentally question:

  1. How brainwashed we have become – being trapped in the believe that status, clothing, money matters and that it will make us happy – marketing at its best;
  2. How we raise our kids to fall into the above trap and make them be disconnected from what really matters in life;
  3. How little we know or want to know about our personal impacts, resulting in that we fail to see our doing in a bigger context – either by choice or by ignorance.

Products require material input, energy, water, labour, they need to be transported, they are used/used up and often discarded, sometimes recycled and sometimes burned – a chain which has huge implications on the planet and people. As more and more countries have an increasing middle class which orientates itself on western consumption patterns, the pressure on the planet is predestined to increase. International goals like the Sustainable Development Goals by the UN see this as a problem and work with the area of sustainable consumption. Yet their focus lies primarily on aspects such as 'efficient use of natural resources', 'reduction of food waste', and 'sustainable procurement practices'.

But is that enough? Is an increase in efficiency enough? Or is there a better way of using our resources? Enough to bring us off the path of where we over-consume to the extend that we destroy habitat, pollute and undermine the very foundation of our existence? Enough to make a measure like the Earth Overshoot Day' redundant?. Earth Overshoot Day suggested that 13 August 2015 was “marking the date when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year. For the rest of the year, we will maintain our ecological deficit by drawing down local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We will be operating in overshoot.” (Global Footprint Network.)

Would it have been better if the Danish teenagers had been buying organic cotton clothes that were produced with fair wages? Better yes, enough no. If we buy products regardless of what it is, we buy additional stuff. In our current linear system (make, buy, discard), every single additional item we purchase adds to the already alarmingly high amount of waste, adds to increasing usage of water and energy to be produced and transported. Bottom line is that we still consume, and waste, we might just waste and consume a little less then if we had bought a product which has e.g. a higher energy usage.

In the video below William Rees (Professor UC) points out: “What is the effect of adding more efficient products to the already overshooting economy? It is to grow more efficiently. But we really just become efficiently more unsustainable. E.g. if a green building is built, which is 25 per cent more efficient than a standard building, then it simply means that I have grown on the margin a little less rapidly than I would have done if I had built a standard building but what we actually need is a reduction, not more efficient growth.”

Yet in the past, an increase in efficiency, which led to savings which has in turn lead to increased consumption (e.g. more fuel efficient cars lead people to drive more) – this is called the Jevon’s paradox. ” The gains in efficiency get fed back into the economy, either because we consume more of the item we have conserved because the price is lower or because we indulge ourselves in some alternative form of consumption. The net effect is that consumption of energy and materials continues to rise,” as Rees points out.

A solution is that increased efficiency is being “offset” by increased leisure time, not more stuff being produced”. Some of Sweden’s companies piloting a 6-hour work day is the movement into that direction.

Overall I strongly believe that decoupling oneself from consumption is the only way forward. Reducing consumption to the bare minimum necessary and if necessary then adhere to the Buyerarchy – be happy with what you have, otherwise borrow it or swap. An increase in planetary pressures will eventually force us to step away from this linear model of the impossible suggestion of “infinite economic growth” on a finite planet.

Prioritizing right – use what you have, if not, then borrow or swap.
An increasing focus is working with a sharing economy, where cars are shared, tools, toys, clothes leased, new collective living arrangement with often self-sufficient gardens are established to move back to a consciousness about that life is not about materialistic things, but about interpersonal relationships, family, friends, enjoying good food, spending time on things you love. This kind of change can also be seen by more and more people engaging in spirituality and meditation & mindfulness. It just needs the courage to step out of the existing boundaries of societal norms and be proud of it, enjoy every minute of life.

Read more on Anna's blog