Anti-consumerism VS Eco-Consumerism Thoughts

Since starting my journey towards simple, environmentally-conscious living, I've reached the conclusion that the difference between this and my previous lifestyle is my rate of material consumption. It has made me question whether purchases I have made in the past were impulsive or considered, and what potentially influenced me to buy so many things. Both marketing and capitalism push for mass-consumption in order to make profits, but was I just an unconscious cog in the system or was I really aware of what I was doing? 

 Why do we consume so much in the first place?

Western consumers have more possessions than they need, yet they spend more time and effort buying new things (Menzel and Mann 1994). The majority of us have everything we could ever need to survive, yet we still continue to consume more and more. It seems like there is this culture-wide striving for a material goal that will never be achieved. In regards to clothing, consumers are driven by social pressures to wear the latest fashion, having a desire for newness and conforming to the cultural norm of constant novelty (Dholakia et al 2018). 

We buy more because we are under the impression that acquiring new things will bring about transformation and life improvement. But what we fail to recognise, is that these new things will never fulfil that 'life improvement' or 'happiness', so after purchasing, we experience an emotional low, which in turn sparks a desire to purchase another thing to 'improve our life' (Richins 2011). How can we ever be satisfied if we feel this disappointment after buying new things? By placing high emotional and life-fulfilling value on the material things we buy, we are set up for failure. By attempting to fill your happiness bucket with things, you may as well have a hole in the bottom of the bucket. You will put new things in but they will just fall straight out - leaving you miserable and quite frankly, broke. 

We are never satisfied. There is always the next best thing to aim for, leaving us feeling discontent with what we own.

 "When you are discontent you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, "Oh yes - I already have everything that I really need" - The Dalai Lama

What are the disadvantages of high consumption?

It only takes one look at the supply chains of consumer goods to realise that it is corrupt and abusive. In July 2020, Boohoo, a fast-fashion company was reported underpaying their workers in a Leicester factory (£3.50 an hour), alongside not providing them with personal protective equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic. Looking beyond the UK, over 90% of workers in the global garment industry have no possibility to negotiate their wages or conditions. Pressures to produce high amounts of clothing and other consumer goods, result in poor factory practices to ensure production deadlines and budgets are met. In addition to this, mainstream consumers send 10.5 million tons of clothing to landfill a year. 

It seems as though mass-consumption has enough disadvantages to make the 'happiness solution' that is materialism seem a little less appealing. This is something that people who go against the materialist lifestyle are likely motivated by: saving money, reducing their waste and living with less stuff. Though this counter-cultural lifestyle is yet to make any significant mark on the way most people choose to consume. Only a minority of consumers act in anti-consumption, meaning it still remains outside of the mainstream consumer behaviour (Chatzidakis and Lee 2013).

The disadvantage I would like to focus on, is environmental degradation and how our consumption could have an impact on our natural world.

Are eco friendly products useful in reducing our environmental impact?

Part of what I am looking to find out, is if the consumption of 'eco-friendly products' really reduces our environmental impact, or if we would be better off not buying these things at all. There are a few drivers and barriers for green purchasing behaviour, which would need to be resolved in order to encourage more individuals to choose green products, making it accessible rather than a privilege that only the richest can afford.

Drivers for green purchasing behaviour:

  • Functionality of product - if something is easier to use than the previous product, or has practical advantages, such as switching to a menstrual cup (means the individual doesn't have to carry period products around with them)
  • Environmental knowledge - an understanding of the impact a non-eco product has may encourage an individual to choose an eco product.
  • Subjective norms - when an eco-product becomes the norm, so is not necessarily labelled as 'eco', this could be supermarkets not providing plastic bags, so the norm is that customers must bring their own.

Barriers for green purchasing behaviour

  • Higher prices - the initial cost of a reusable or eco product may be too expensive for everyone to buy, so people stick to the cheaper non-eco alternative
  • Low availability - eco friendly products may not be available in all shops or towns. This means that some people may not have access. A good example of this is the location of refill zero waste stores.
  • Lack of consumer trust in green products - if someone has been using a particular product for a long time, there may be hesitation to switch to a different, more eco product.

 Despite there being more selection of eco friendly products available to consumers, the current barriers will prevent most people from changing their current products to more environmentally friendly products. But I question the true reduced environmental impact gained from buying eco friendly products. The practice of reducing environmental impact as an individual would involve:

  • Purchasing and using fewer resources, products and services
  • Choosing more eco-efficient resources, products and services
  • Producing less waste

The first point would suggest that an anti-consumer lifestyle would automatically reduce environmental impact. People who buy less stuff, have less waste. Which makes me think that the minimal living bloggers may have found a lifestyle that not only has the potential to improve personal wellbeing, but also environmental wellbeing.

 The last point is in alignment with the 'zero waste' lifestyle that many aspire for as environmentally concerned individuals. Though this has more focus on buying products without excess packaging, rather than buying less products altogether. I think a combination of the zero waste and minimalist lifestyle would equal an overall reduced eco-impact.

Is anti consumerism a good structure for an environmentally concerned individual wanting to reduce their impact?

Personally my limit on consumption has been linked to my desire to reduce my environmental footprint, so I'm looking to understand how I can best achieve that goal. Everything we consume will either be worn out or thrown away eventually, adding to the excess of used items in our landfills. I wondered if there was a way to consume, and also reduce the inevitable waste caused by my purchases. When doing some initial googling, I came across the term 'anti-consumerism' alongside an alternative of 'eco-consumerism'. While they both have similarities, I was interested about which type would ultimately be better for the environment (despite the wording of 'eco-consumerism' leading me to believe that would be the best option.)

Is anti consumerism more eco friendly than being environmentally concerned?

I came across a study which identified 4 types of anti-consumer lifestyle: Tightwadism, Frugality, Voluntary Simplicity and Environmental Concern. All 4 containing methods and practices that I have discovered through my understanding of minimalism. The aim of the study was to determine which lifestyle had the lowest environmental impact, despite 3 of them not having any intention to do so (Kropfeld et al 2018).

  • Tightwadism - spending money causes the individual mental pain, resulting in drastically reduced spending to only the essentials. 
  • Frugality - resourcefully using material goods and services, gains pleasure from saving, often motivated by long-term goals, consuming less because they spend less. 
  • Voluntary Simplicity - reduced spending on goods and services to live a simple life and obtain satisfaction by having non materialistic values e.g. reducing clutter, finding purpose in non-material things, interested in improving their life, eliminating negative time commitments
  • Environmental Concern -   keen to reduce their environmental impact as a result of realising the potential footprint of their lifestyle, choosing eco friendly products, placing environmental concern above personal desires.

 According to the study by Kropfeld et al, the Voluntary Simple lifestyle had the lowest environmental impact, due to the combination of environmental concern and desire to live a socially financially and ecologically sustainable life. Resisting consumption to live a simple life was the solution for reducing eco-impact. 

Whereas Frugality had the highest environmental impact, likely due to their saving behaviour serving materialistic aspirations, or buying products in bulk or second hand to save money, not necessarily buying fewer goods.

But what about the Environmentally Concerned lifestyle? It had more impact than Voluntary Simplicity and Tightwadism, but less than Frugality. This was likely due to individuals buying eco friendly products instead of reducing their overall consumption. The study also suggested that:

"If environmentally concerned people do not believe their consumption behaviour has a significant impact on the environment, they will not have green habits of consumption"- Kropfeld et al 2018
So despite environmentally concerned individuals being role models, their contribution is to a reduced eco-impact is limited when compared with anti consumers. In addition to this, environmentally concerned individuals need knowledge on the impact of a product before they alter their choices, so this might mean that not all areas of consumption are switched to eco friendly products. The motivation to resist consumption is a key factor in reducing one's environmental impact, and if eco-consumers just want to switch products, this may not actually reduce their impact on the planet.

Living simply, is the answer to eco-living.

Returning to values of simplicity and lower levels of consumption are desirable to create more environmentally sustainable societies. I don't think that encouraging endless consumption is the way forward, regardless of how 'eco' a product is. Overall consumption reduction, learning to love and use what we own already before seeking out new products and focusing on only buying the essentials, are in my opinion the best ways to reduce our environmental impact. 

How can we put this into practice?

  • Commit to a 'No buy' challenge for a month, or two, or a year!
  • Only buy products when they completely run out
  • Save our money for experiences rather than more things
  • Sort through your belongings so you find out what you already own, to prevent you buying unnecessary duplicates

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