The idea of sustainability is gaining prominence with the accelerating pace of human civilization based on the use of natural resources and their subsequent wastage. The amount of resources this planet contains is finite, and the more they are consumed today the less remains at the disposal of the future generation. This logic applies to both households and businesses. The household must think about the comfort, convenience, and survival of its posterity whereas businesses must consider their ability to persist in the long run both in terms of resource use and finding markets for goods and services. This is the fundamental premise of sustainability.

A formal definition of the term has come from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, which has defined sustainability as, “The physical development and institutional operating practices that meet the needs of present users without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, particularly about use and waste of natural resources” (UCLA, 2020).

This article is an attempt to discuss the concept of sustainability in the context of consumerism – a term that is often associated with the existing capitalist economic system prevalent in most of the developed countries. This system has also spread itself in developing countries at an enormous speed. The main argument that this essay will try to present is that consumerism is posing a threat to the sustainability of the world, and hence, it is high time to start “thinking about the future in which environmental, societal and economic considerations are balanced in the pursuit of improved quality of life” (UNESCO 2015).

Sustainability and its Dimensions

The concept of sustainability has three dimensions: economic, social, and environmental. According to the Western Australian Council of Social Services, social sustainability takes place “when the formal and informal processes, systems, structures, and relationships actively support the capacity of current and future generations to create healthy and liveable communities” (WACOSS, 2002).

The social dimension of sustainability highlights how firms influence society and societal issues. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen (2000) identified six dimensions of social sustainability, namely equity, diversity, social cohesions, quality of life, democracy and governance, and maturity.

The environmental facet of sustainability is not clearly defined. Broadly speaking, the environmental dimension of sustainability involves using natural resources in such a way that they do not damage the equilibrium and integrity of ecosystems thereby reducing the burden on the environment (McGranahan and Satterthwaite, 2002). This aspect of sustainability considers the carrying capacity of the earth to be finite and environmental damages irrevocable. What is even more disturbing is neither the limit of earth’s carrying capacity known nor the impacts of environmental damages predictable. That is why humankind does not have the slightest idea of how close they are to the carrying capacity of the earth while dumping wastes and pollutants nor do they have the ability to estimate the degree of the consequent damages of overexploitation, their extent, and chain reactions.

The economic dimension of sustainability includes efficiency and stability (Despotovic, Cvetanovic, Nedic, and Despotovic, 2016). It concerns itself with the allocation of resources to the best possible manner, production of output with efficient use of resources generating the least possible waste, and equitable distribution of goods among people.

Consumerism and its Impending Threat to Sustainability

Among many threats to global sustainability, consumerism is one that is significantly lethal. The global capitalist system survives and sustains on consumerism. The essence of this notion is more is better. Three core words that relate to consumerism are commodities, consumption, and circulation (Meneley, 2018). Studies have revealed that consumerism creates nuisances like excess and waste.

Consumerism produces an “excess” of wealth or luxury – anything that is more than what is required for necessary existence (Meneley, 2018). An excess of wealth changes the structure of the society with new class distinctions and status, and at the same time affects the human sense of morality.

Consumerism incentivizes the lowering of the ethical standard of both producers and consumers. The competitive forces of the market economy often compel producers to compromise on their ethical values and promote consumerism to people in a way that has harmful repercussions. Similarly, consumers tend to satiate their materialistic desires by consuming products whose productions involve unethical practices (Dytrt, 2016).

Waste is a natural corollary of consumerism. It occurs during production or consumption or both. Wastes generated through economic activities pollute the environment and its elements (Crocker, 2017).

The threat that consumerism is posing before sustainability can be analyzed better with the help of its three dimensions.

Economic prescriptive

From an economic perspective, the “excess” that consumerism creates is always wasteful. This wastage of resources over what is needed for the sustenance of the present generation is curtailing the availability of resources for the future generation (Choi, and Ng, 2011). At the same time, consumerism is creating higher inequalities, distinctions between class, status, and moral reason through the distribution of the excess.

The spread of consumerism is intrinsically related to globalization (Bell, 2017). Because of globalization, the consumer culture that was once restricted to a few developed countries is now spreading fast in developing nations. The outcome of this phenomenon is not always pleasant for the local economies. Under the pressure of the large corporates, small and local businesses are losing their business. The local population is losing income and employment (Bell, 2017). These events are contributing to widening income disparity and aggravation of poverty that are leading to social and political instability.

Social perspective

From a social perspective, consumerism has increased fascination for luxury items. Under the influence of the consumerist concept of “self” and “self-gratification”  (Meneley, 2018), people are running towards having whatever their mind desires without thinking whether these consumptions are at all needed (Dempsey, et al., 2011).  Consumerism is emphasizing on “living just for today” (Krstić, Ilić, and Avramović, 2018) that is enhancing levels of conspicuous consumption. The results of such mindless acts of consumption are influencing society in two distinct ways.

Firstly, it is creating class divisions in societies based on consumption levels and choices. People are judging others based on what they consume, how they consume, and from where they consume (Kim, 2018). Secondly, different physical and psychological issues among a large section of consumers including children are surfacing. Consumption of processed food, popularly called junk food, is causing physical conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart ailments, premature death, and so on. Children are suffering from mental health problems because the consumer culture is never allowing them to be happy with what they have.

Their minds are trained to believe that only possession of materialistic commodities can make them happy. Therefore, they are developing a sense of unhappiness and low self-esteem from not possessing enough access to commodities or not having enough money to finance luxuries. When these children will reach adulthood, they will not be individuals with a balanced view or judicious mind. Rather, they will be salves of their desires and greed, which itself is threatening to the sustainability of the human race.

Environmental perspective

From an environmental perspective, consumerism is putting tremendous pressure on natural resources. It is increasing the extraction of non-renewable resources, thereby leaving increasingly fewer amounts of them for the future generation (Joumard, 2009). Similarly, it is allowing overexploiting of renewable resources. The exceedingly high rate of extraction over the rate of replenishment is leading to the shrinking stock of renewable resources for future consumers. The wastes that are generated due to unbridled expansion of economic activities are polluting the water, air, land, and subsequently pushing civilizations towards unsustainability.

Threat to Businesses

It is an irony that the businesses that consumerism tries to protect and promote through its powerful presence are threatened by its uncontrolled expansion. Businesses survive on factors of production like land, labor, and capital that either come from the environment or society. The activity of businesses and their indiscriminate treatment of nature and people are damaging the future potential of procuring enough of these resources in adequate quantity and appropriate quality. Furthermore, with the declining mental and physical health conditions of the consumers, businesses are not likely to get sufficient customers for their goods and services in the days to come (Filer, 2017). In addition to that, societies with a high degree of inequality and poverty are never a good and stable setup for businesses to flourish. Thus, consumerism is indirectly hindering the sustainability of businesses as well.

Responses to Help Sustainability

In practice, sustainability can be ensured by creating awareness, regulatory measures, and providing support to vulnerable communities. Awareness among consumers needs to be created about the impact of consumerism on the environment and its resources (Arrington, 2019). People need to be made to understand that their purchase decisions have impacts on scarce resources like land, water, air, and energy and their respective qualities (Lorek and Fuch, 2019). These people should also be made conscious of the effects their purchases are having on their health, the health of their children, and the quality of their lives.

An academic notion that has emerged in this context is called ethical consumerism. According to this concept, only conscious consumers can make informed purchase decisions and decide to alter their purchase patterns. What it implies by “informed decision” is that consumers need to keep the idea of sustainability at the center while consumption decisions (Gillani and Kutaula, 2018). When consumers will start to shift their purchases from typical consumer goods to healthy and sustainable options, this will send a signal to the businesses to modify their production choices and techniques to stay relevant. This is how social concern for consumerism can be addressed.

Role of government and regulatory bodies

The government and regulatory bodies can play a significant role in promoting sustainability. Governments can enact laws that make it mandatory for businesses to conform to environmental standards. The regulatory bodies can be made more vigilant to control and monitor companies and their activities in terms of adhering to the standards (Ambec and Donder, 2019).

Lastly, the maturity must dawn within the minds of the business leaders that unless they maintain a balanced approach towards their production and resource management, it is their sustainability that will be at stake in the future. Drawing from the notion of ethical consumerism, they should understand that the sustainability of the planet, its resources, and people are linked with their sustenance in the long run (Schaltegger, Hansen, and Lüdeke-Freund, 2016). They need to protect society and the environment so that they can continue to draw their inputs from them and generate sustainable earnings.

In the way economic activities are organized all around the world, it is not possible to root out a powerful notion like consumerism and set up a new economic system. At the same time, it is unsustainable to allow this system to function as it is functioning in the present times with its harmful impacts on the environment and society. The best possible solution will be to initiate modifications in the system and adding a human face to it. Both from the points of view of businesses and consumers, ethical consumerism is the only way to ensure that nature and the human race co-exist in a happy symbiosis. Governmental and institutional supports are the cornerstone of such a co-habitation.

Author: Anindita Ganguly


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