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Author: Dr Eureta Rosenberg

( Article Type: Opinion )

What's it about?
You are a consumer - whether you only spend pocket money, get the groceries, order office stationery, or do the procurement for a whole department. Consumption is the purchase and use of goods and services, and consumerism is the 'shop-till-you-drop' syndrome- that ever-increasing spiral of over-consumption that characterises modern society.

I love shopping. Not the weekly chore, but those fun expeditions when the new season's goodies arrive and the mall is quite mesmerising with colour and creative design. I enjoy getting gifts that match the recipient and occasion, and I've discovered the delight of dressing Baby in clothes that show how special he is. For, let's face it, we consume not only for survival and comfort, but also for variety, stimulation and to express relations, status, identity!

So, I'm guilty of over-consumption. Guilty, because I know that the word 'consume' also means to 'use up' and 'destroy' and that over-consumption is environmentally destructive and enjoyed at the expense of poor people - one of whom waits outside the mall at the first traffic lights.

To reduce my ecological footprint, I try to be a green consumer. In the supermarket I go for the 'green' paper towels (which are white) and the 'eco-friendly' detergents. Then I check the label to see what makes this product more environmentally friendly than the next one, and the information is seldom enough. Words like 'biodegradable', 'surfactant' and 'recyclable' are used, but seem to obscure more than they reveal - especially because other products don't always tell me what they contain. Usually I buy the green goods anyway, even if the information is not convincing. Sometimes their price just puts me off, for they are seldom the cheapest. But we should buy them anyway, I reason, so as to send a message to the producer - that's what green consumers do.

But hang on, what messages are we sending? That customers will buy a product labelled 'environmentally friendly' even without clear information about what makes it so? That we are willing to pay more for green goods? Mmm...

Green consumerism could be undermined by corporate opportunism. Corporates drive consumption, for traditionally this has been the way to grow wealth. (It is not yet clear to many businesses that, in the long term and in indirect ways, it will be in their own interests to reduce the level of consumption.) So if I ran a business based on goods, I would be tempted to let green consumerism work for me, by supplying 'green' products that would encourage customers to consume more, not less. And most people fit in with this, for consumerism is an almost universal core value. It is a central process of our social and economic life. Whatever the occasion - a funeral or a matric farewell - we spend as much as possible to show its importance. We measure the growth of an economy in terms of how much the nation consumes. We justify expensive extras on our President's jet by linking it to his status.

Consumption is 'the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment'. (Agenda 21, United Nations Conference on Environment and DEvelopment, 1992)

Well, the President doesn't really need expensive trimmings to feel respected - no more than my baby needs cute clothes to feel adored. And it is worth asking whether an economy needs everincreasing consumption in order to be sustaining - that is, to sustain the health and wellbeing of all people.

Consumption-filled lifestyles are actually unhealthy. In 2000 a World Watch Institute report warned that people are consuming more meat, coffee, cars and pills and getting more obese. The World Health Organisation describes obesity as 'today's principal neglected public health problem'. More than one billion people are now overweight and numbers are increasing everywhere.

Now, in economic terms spending on cholesterol tablets and heartbypass operations are forms of consumption and are simply added to the Gross Domestic Product, which measures the size of the economy. So over-consumption makes the economy look healthier, even if it is not sustaining the health and wellbeing of people.

These are my depressing thoughts as I leave the supermarket and drive off, noting the sign at the traffic lights: 'No job, no money, please help.'

A matter of equity and ecology
At least 18 millions South Africans need to consume more - more nourishing food, clean water, energy, health care. There is a way of reasoning “which underpins economic policies“ that if some of us work, earn and spend more, the growing economy will also benefit the poor who do not consume enough. There is unfortunately very little evidence to support this belief. In past years, our economy has grown and consumption has increased, but mainly among those already well-off, and in the period of this economic growth we also shed 800 000 jobs. We are still number three among the most unequal nations of the world. A mere 10% of households still consume almost 50% of the available goods and services in South Africa, while the poorest 10% consume just over 1%.

Wealthy and middle-class South Africans form part of the global 'consumer class', roughly the 20% of the world's citizens who have direct access to a car. The global consumer class is found not only in wealthy countries - there are consuming elites in poorer countries too. It is these plus-minus 20% of the world's citizens who eat 45% of all the meat and fish consumed, own 87% of all the cars, use 84% of all the paper and 75% of all energy including 68% of all electricity - in the process generating 75% of the annual global pollution.

This inequality is neither acceptable nor sustainable in terms of social justice and ecological impact. Often, these considerations are intertwined. The over-consumption of the consumer class squanders natural resources on which poorer people directly depend, and creates pollution and health hazards that affect the poorest people most (see Topic POVERTY ALLEVIATION).

What did you have for breakfast? Bacon and eggs, coffee? Did you know that the world population of pigs, chickens and cows almost tripled between 1961 and 2000? This is threatening water quality and adding large volumes of methane to a growing load of greenhouse gases.The consumption of coffee is linked to deforestation and farmers giving up food security to grow the cash crop

It is not possible to extend the over-consumption patterns of the consumer class to the rest of the world, even if this is said to be a form of 'democratisation'. The Earth simply cannot provide the necessary resources or absorb the resulting increased pollution. In fact we are already consuming more than the Earth's biological capacity can support. According to the WWF Living Planet Report 2002 - using UN-projected scenarios, which assume slowed population growth, steady economic development, and more resourceefficient technologies - the world's ecological footprint will in the following 50 years continue to increase, from a level 20% above the Earth's biological capacity to a level between 80 and 120% above its capacity. It is clearl, then, that current patterns of consumption are unsustainable.

To develop equitably and sustainably, we should aim for contraction and convergence. The consumer classes must contract (reduce) consumption while the poor increase their consumption to a point of convergence, where both meet. It is not so much about re-distribution, as about restraint. Rough calculations suggest that the consumer class needs to bring down their overall use of the environmental resources by 80-90% during the next 50 years.

Associated Sustainable Development Articles:

Sustainable Development ~ Manufacturing