The high price of materialism
By Kathy Illingworth, Head of Sustainability Consulting
Are we buying into our own destruction?
For the first time in history, there are now eight billion people on Earth; eight billion people from a species that, unlike every other species on the planet, does not always put its survival first.
When faced with an impending or chronic threat, such as climate or ecological breakdown, we seem to go out of our way to compromise our survival. We convince ourselves that it’s not so serious or even that it isn’t happening. We double down on destruction.
One of the main promises of modern capitalism, and of contemporary life, is that you will always be able to buy more and better stuff. Typically, humans gain immense happiness and satisfaction from our excessive consumerism – even though it is personally, socially, and environmentally disastrous.
We encourage this idea that goods are there to be produced and consumed, but are using up the planet at almost double the rate it can regenerate.
To support our economies, we’re told we must shop now like we’ve never shopped before, yet the scale of our consumption remains the biggest factor in the ruination of the world.
Long before and after they touch our lives, products have a direct and indirect impact on the environment. So, when will we realise that the less we buy into the consumer culture, the more power we have?
While we may struggle to slow it down, the remedy lies in how far we can jump from overconsumption and a GDP-driven economy to a circular economy and embrace wellbeing as the main economic indicator.
So, are we truly agents of change? And how will we be judged when the global histories of consumption are measured?
Buy now, pay later
Society is largely shaped around consumer habits in Britain and other rich countries. City centres, suburban retail parks, huge stretches of the internet and the inside of our heads: are all alive and constantly remade by our greedy desires.
What we consume has become the defining feature of our lives: our economies live or die by spending, and we are treated more as consumers than workers.
Real success inspires people to enjoy what’s best for them and for others, the planet and profit-seekers. A focus on production is truly the right way to go, in that ultimately; we do need to have changes at that level: to move to zero-waste methods of creating goods, a much less profit-oriented, more socially regulated and democratically managed economy, and to shift the focus towards a more sustainable and secure global order.
Correlating our lifestyles
People feel that they can, in some way, contribute to broader collective projects through their consumption practices – it is a way of making a little difference and, just as importantly, of registering one’s commitment to wider projects.
Reducing consumption remains the most important strategy for addressing climate change and the ongoing environmental crisis. It took a global pandemic to show us how it might be done, and even then, the reductions were a short-lived ripple in the ocean.
As well as being the right thing for a responsible business to do, we believe a focus on a circular economy and waste can bring opportunities to create new business models, drive innovation and respond to customer expectations.
Companies and brands are looking to align behind the principles of a circular economy to reduce the negative impact of their packaging, responding to consumer, regulatory, and internal pressures.
However, trying to balance making commercial decisions related to sustainability with sensitivities such as unit costs, reputational risk, product availability, customer demand, and product protection can become complex.
One of the most striking developments is how aggressively companies are moving to translate sustainable packaging goals into robust baselines and specific tactics to realise more sustainable packaging from ideation to commercialisation.
At Ecoveritas, we leverage the power of data to analyse our patterns of consumption and waste and successfully offer strategies and tools which can act as an alternative to our ‘throwaway society.’
As we are confronted by the stark reality of the climate emergency messages delivered by Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, the penny is starting to drop as we learn to correlate our lifestyles with the planet’s fate.
Reducing emissions through cleaner consumption can get us to a better world without tearing everything up and starting over. And thankfully, Ecoveritas is here to provide an intelligent and accessible perspective on how design can be valued beyond market forces.
The challenge, then, is to make anti-consumerism joyful by emphasising the satisfaction and necessity of becoming more sustainable and refusing to fuel a system grounded in exploiting people and the environment. Today, the greatest pleasure might be found in not shopping at all. It will be in figuring out less extractive and more equitable ways to achieve abundance.
To know we’re getting there, we need to measure circularity. This will help us develop a culture of innovation based on experience and data.
We must remake how we make things; measuring our individual and collective performance will be fundamental. With global collaboration to collect and share data, waste need not exist.
Sustainability is not a matter of yes or no to a specific material choice, certificate or off-setting strategy. At Ecoveritas, we work with sustainability as a mindset that embraces the world in all its complexity and gradient colours.