By Francis Forsey
In a society where mass consumption fuels day-to-day life, it is easy to become disassociated from the products we buy. UK consumer spending in the 3rd Quarter of 2018 peaked at £336,079 million, a record high since monitoring data began in 1955 (Trading Economics).
Capitalism, championed by Western states such as the UK and the US, has become the assumed norm. Francis Fukuyama referred to the post-Cold War period of rapid liberal, democratic, capitalist development as the ‘End of History’. The US has tasked itself with protecting capitalism’s market-based ideals, even going so far as to intervene militarily to protect the ‘light of liberalism’ (See: Vietnam conflict, US Intervention in Afghanistan 1979).
Whilst consumer spending is increasing, we are also beginning to see a significant rise in anti-consumerist movements in response. Year on year, more people are beginning to realise that such high levels of consumption are trapping our global population into a cycle of environmental and social degradation. Essentially, populations are realising that we are living in an environmentally unsustainable economic system.
In 2018, 1.16% of British citizens identify as either Vegan or Vegetarian. That is roughly
600,000 individuals committed to removing meat-based products from their shopping. TheVeganSociety has highlighted the vast growth in online research undertaken around the diet. Between 2012 and 2017, Google searches for Veganism quadrupled, overtaking vegetarianism and gluten-free research. The ‘Veganuary’ Campaign grew by 183% in 2018, with 168,500 registered participants (Veganuary Statistics). Given the capitalist nature of our system, it might be more effective to follow the money. The UK plant-based market has a total value of £443m (Mintel Meat-Free Report 2017). Brands, such as Dr. Martens, have noticed the marketing opportunities, and have released Vegan product ranges. French Dairy giant Danone invested $60 million in dairy-free products in 2017.
Within the home, the minimalist lifestyle is becoming an established trend: popularised in-part by the success of individuals who have gained fame within the digital realm, such as Marie Kondo, The Minimalists, and Matt D’Avella. By educating their digital audiences on the negative connotations of over-consumption, the aforementioned are playing an important part in establishing a more healthy relationship with the goods we buy. Through focusing on the positive benefits of reducing the mental, psychical and social clutter in one’s life, we can better appreciate the value of the things we choose to invest our hard-earned finance in. However, it begs the question; at what stage in our development, did our lives become ruled by what we buy? An abundance of cheap, often-useless, appealing products have flooded our homes, as export-orientated markets produce colossal amounts of easily accessible goods. Wages across much of the world are rising, and the prices of goods are largely falling, as technological advancements, motivated by financial gains, brings down the price of production ever-lower.
To the communists and anarchists in society; to those who actively rebel against capitalism; to the environmentalists who yearn for a greener future – I am sorry. Capitalism is unlikely to collapse anytime soon. Karl Marx, the man who stoked the flames of anti-capitalist revolution, saw the system lasting beyond many lifetimes, as the process of its eventual collapse is long-term. Consumption in developing nations is rising, as more and more of the populations are able to access material goods. In ‘developed’ nations in the West, we have had centuries acting as ‘the consumer market for export-oriented, ‘developing’ nations. To deny populations this privilege that comes with rising disposable income would be wrong.
The hard truth is, citizens like consuming. We place an innate value in the goods we buy. Often consuming incites a positive reaction within us. We orientate our lifestyles around the pursuit of physical purchases. New cars, clothes and technology are all very appealing and motivating. Our mindsets have been largely consolidated. We want cheaper goods. We want to consume. The anti-consumer movements mentioned above are in their relative infancy compared to the behemoth that is capitalism. Consequently, a new approach is required.
New innovative companies have partnered with well-established corporate giants to promote the economic potential of renewable technology. Responsible consumption can be profitable. Very profitable in fact. Adidas’ use of recycled ocean plastic in their products, in collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, is predicted to make the German company $1Billion in profits, whilst simultaneously tackling a growing issue associated with consumption.
The collaboration has yielded such success, that Adidas has now committed to use only recycled plastics in its shoes and clothing by 2024. Green markets do exist. Dr. Martens, to name but one brand, has seen this gap and has exploited it, with its new vegan line of leather boots. Burger restaurant chains across the West are testing new ways of making plant-based, bleeding, synthetic beef. The aptly named, ‘Impossible Slider’, has made headlines across the US, as consumers are finding it difficult to tell the difference between ‘White Castle’ restaurant chain’s new plant-based burgers and meat-made ones. The issue for many companies, however, is the cost of turning away from their tried-and-tested traditional production roots towards more sustainable options.
In cities across the world, investment in high-efficiency production is increasing. Sky Greens, a food-production company based and run in Singapore by entrepreneur, Jack Ng, in 2016 received a $20 million investment by a Chinese university as part of Beijing’s ‘One Belt One Road’ infrastructure project. The company has developed what it calls ‘vertical farming’, whereby the production of farmed goods takes place on multiple levels of a building, rather than the acres of flat farmland we see in the countryside. It utilises low-usage (‘using minimal land, water and energy resources.’) methods of farming, to produce fresh vegetables. This technology will allow the farm output to remain high, whilst the resources and land required to be drastically reduced. Jack Ng intends to share his technology with developing nations who are in the process of urbanisation, or shifting away from primary good exportation. This will help ensure that growing populations have higher food security, whilst increasing their usage of ecologically friendly, sustainable methods of production. Jack Ng’s technology represents an important area of innovation. By tackling future sources of pollution before they are created, companies such as Sky Green are poised to make a real difference in the developing world.
At the foundational-level of our broader society, however, it might be of worth to explore potential alternatives to a market-orientated capitalist system. One such alternative is ‘Degrowth’. Degrowth is a political, economic, and social movement based on ecological economics, anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideas. Degrowth thought is in opposition to all forms of productivism (the belief that economic productivity and growth is the purpose of human organisation). It is, therefore, opposed to the current form of sustainable development.
The movement arose out of concerns for the impact that consumerism and productivism has had on the environment. Depleting energy resources, and environmental degradation, coupled with the negative societal side-effects of our current course of over-development all command much focus from theorists within this movements. Anti-Neocolonial sentiments remain strong, as the impact of the ‘First World’ exploits in developing nations is becoming clearer. States, such as Bali and Costa Rica, have developed in the shadows of great powers. The attractiveness of capitalist consumption has filled the dreams of many in states such as these two. The impact on the environment however, is disproportionate to the economic gains. It is one thing to have cheaper products available for your citizens, but the sheer scale of ocean and fresh-water pollution has caused serious alarm for many developmental observers. More directly, developed states are prioritising the well-being of their own citizens through economic growth, over the well-being of those who produce the products in developing states.
Degrowth promotes the harmonisation of production and human existence. Our current fixation on growth as an indicator of development is unhealthy, and grossly unsustainable. Whilst simplistic, a video produced by Grist media summarises the concept well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MXP2E09dJQ. The path to real change begins at the foundations of production: Our intentions. Reducing consumption and the pursuit of financial gain should not harm our well-being, rather by reducing the process we gain more time to devote to other, arguably more valuable, activities.
The future might seem bleak, as our homes continue to fill with cheap goods that often we don’t need, and the environment continues to worsen. The issue of unsustainability has been centuries in the making. Its culmination, however, is very real in today’s society. Modern issues almost always require modern solutions. The work of companies such as Adidas, Sky Green, and White Castle to move towards greener paths of production are significant. They represent a shifting of tides. Unfortunately, this tide is still in its infancy as they represent a miniscule proportion of today’s production giants. It will be interesting to see how the global path develops, as rising nations see consumer spending grow, and production increase. China, the largest polluter in CO2 terms, has invested billions of dollars in green energy production. Countries such as Costa Rica and Indonesia are beginning to nurture anti-pollution movements, and adopt renewable energy systems.
While the future is uncertain, there remains a faint light of hope for sustainability. Let’s just hope that the necessity is realised sooner, before it is too late for the global community to change its course.
Afterword: This article was not intended to preach, nor to try and deviate the readers mind from their current view. Rather, it is a quick exploration of the current state of affairs within much of Western society from the perspective of the author’s research.
Image: Pexels: Open Access Archives (CC) – Link: https://www.pexels.com/search/environment/
D’Alisa, G; et al. (eds.) (2014). Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era. London: Routledge.
Fukuyama, F. (2006). The end of history and the last man. New York: Free Press.
Lorek, S. & Fuchs, D. (2013). Strong sustainable consumption governance – precondition for
a degrowth path? Journal of Cleaner Productions, 38 ; pp.36-43