Opinion: Consumer Culture Hurts the Environment and Those Who Make The Products We Buy

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

This holiday season, Adobe Analytics predicts that $189 billion dollars will be spent at U.S. online retail sites, a 33% increase from the previous year. Many blame climate change on fossil fuels and believe using renewable energy sources will change everything, but overlook the driving force of the increasing temperatures (human activity). One way to help prevent irreversible damage to the planet is changing our consumer habits.

Nicholas Ashford, a professor at MIT, tells National Geographic that our culture of consumption often encourages waste, which harms the environment. Ashford realizes that sales like those on Black Friday may help those with less money afford something that is a necessity, but he also recognizes that it can also harm our environment. “For people with more than enough, [Black Friday] just perpetuates a consumption-oriented society, which has an adverse effect on the environment,” Ashford said.

Recently, the Climate Clock, a countdown timer that displays the time until Earth’s temperatures increase by 1.5°C at the current rate of carbon emissions, was built in Manhattan, New York. The goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C was part of the Paris Agreement, a treaty signed in 2016 by 196 countries to combat climate change. This threshold is important because NASA reports that Earth will experience extreme heat waves, droughts, extreme precipitation, loss of biodiversity and ecosystems, and rising sea levels if global warming rises to 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels.

A study published in Yale’s Journal of Industrial Ecology found that consumption from households including clothing, food, and transportation accounts for more that 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. “We all like to put the blame on someone else, but between 60-80 percent of the impacts on the planet come from household consumption. If we change our consumption habits, this would have a drastic effect on our environmental footprint as well,” in a press release, Diana Ivanova, the lead author of the study said.

C40, a coalition of 97 cities, released a report that says cities must cut their consumption-based emissions in half by 2030 in order to prevent Earth’s temperatures from rising by 1.5°C. They laid out the actions that need to happen, including reducing the number of new clothing items bought each year, reducing car ownership, and optimizing the lifetimes of technology. The report says, “individual consumers cannot change the way the global economy operates on their own, but many of the interventions proposed in this report rely on individual action.”

Our culture of consumption not only hurts the planet, but cultivates an environment where forced labor can occur. Consumers want to buy the products they want at prices they can afford. In order for companies to satisfy customers’ needs, they look for suppliers that provide them with the desired quality of materials at the prices they want, but they don’t always know where their goods are sourced from.

Companies like Nike and Coca-Cola are raising concerns as they lobby to weaken the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which was passed by Congress in a 406-3 vote. The bill will block imports from Xinjiang, China, unless U.S. Customs and Border Protections verifies that they were not manufactured with forced labor. Manufacturers may use forced labor because they simply do not know where their raw materials are coming from. Because materials are sourced far from where they are purchased, changing many hands in the process, it is hard for buyers to know exactly who touched their goods. In the chocolate industry, only 24% of cocoa can be traced back to farms and it is reported that over 1 million children are part of the chocolate industry.

It is clear that humans need to mitigate the effects of climate change. In addition to increasing the use of renewable energy sources, we should be encouraged to reduce our consumption habits. Not only will this help reduce the effects of climate change, but will cultivate a market where forced labor no longer occurs.

Through Teen Lenses: What is the impact of consumerism on society and the environment?

“Consumerism appears to have a net negative impact on the environment mainly because producing goods for people to consume tends to negatively affect the environment. For example, factories emit a lot of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Creating food products like hamburgers also uses up lots of water and resources in general. Consumerism also may have a negative impact on society. By determining one’s satisfaction based on material goods, the members of society are harmed, ultimately harming society itself. “ Ellie Chen, 15, Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Falls Church, Virginia
“Consumerism throughout the world has led to an overall negative effect on the environment. It is true that Consumerism allows for an increase in products on the market and therefore allows for an increase in jobs. However, with an increase of products necessary to satisfy the demand of consumers there comes an increase in natural resources used, which negatively impacts the environment directly.” Nihal Shah, 15, Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Ashburn, Virginia
“Sometimes consumerism is necessary, but I don’t think it’s feasible for most- that mentality of consistent spending usually ends up driving people into debt because most of them buy unnecessary stuff. As for the environment, it also ends up creating a lot of waste since people end up buying more stuff than they can keep. Most people, if they have the resources, should save a lot more money and expend less instead.” William Gutiérrez, 15, Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, Virginia

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