With the release of Annie Leonard’s book and less recent video “Story of Stuff”, there has been a lot of talk lately of the sheer amount of stuff that we consume as a civilization. In the 1950s, post-world war policy in North America and Europe revolved around establishing a consumer economy. Retail analysis Victor Lebow said it clearly more than 50 years ago:
“Our enormous productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. The economy needs things consumed, burned, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate” (Cited in Alan Durning, How Much is enough? (New York: Norton, 1992)
Around this time, companies were encouraged to find the optimum length of time at which to make their products obsolete or breakdown. That is, the goal was to find the product life cycle length that wouldn’t quite turn off the consumer (because it became obsolete or broke too quickly), yet wouldn’t unnecessarily last too long where revenues from repeat purchase would be lost.
Consumerism today certainly isn’t stated as explicitly as it was back then, but it remains powerful. Consider the following statistics.
• Globally, personal consumption expenditures (household spending on goods and services) topped $24 trillion in 2005, up from $4.8 trillion (in 1995 dollars) in 1960.
• Americans spent two-thirds of their $11 trillion on consumer goods
• Americans spent more for shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion) than for higher education ($99 billion)
• According to the UN, people worldwide spent $18 billion on cosmetics and $17 billion on pet food in the US and Europe combined. Consider that eliminating hunger and malnutrition is estimated to cost $19 billion
• We spend $14 billion on ocean cruises and it is estimated to cost $10 billion to provide clean drinking water for everyone
• As of 2003, the US had more private cars than licensed drivers
Fueling policy around consumption was the firm belief that economic growth, as measured by Gross Domestic Product, creates the wealth needed to provide material abundance for everyone, increasing happiness, ending poverty, and healing the environment. Yet since 1957, the GNP in the United States has more than doubled, but the average level of happiness has declined. Over the same period, the divorce and teen suicide rates have doubled, violent crime tripled, and more people than ever say they are depressed. This is not to mention some of the ecological effects resulting from these consumption levels like the patch of floating garbage the size of France circulating in the Pacific Ocean.
As of 2008, with almost 7 billion people in the world, we are consuming at a rate of 1.3 planets. This means that our global footprint – the area of land we use to produce, consume, waste – is 30% larger than the size of Earth. Like an individual spending more than he/she is earning, we’re slowly reaching a stage of ecological bankruptcy because we’re consuming more ‘capital’ than the Earth can produce naturally. With population expected to reach 9 billion, this 'capital' will only erode more quickly.
A video summary of Annie Leonard’s book can be found here:
Story of Stuff