“See yourself as a citizen, and not consumer” is the title of one of the chapters in the book The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. It’s a suggestion that I first came across nearly 10 years ago in the book The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard and that has got me thinking ever since. What does it mean to be a citizen and what does it mean to be a consumer?
Consumption vs Communities
In my early twenties, the idea that our societies encourage us to be consumers instead of citizens struck me. Recalling my teenage years, I remember how I saw shopping as a hobby. I used to go shopping with my mum as there was always something more we could get. Whilst I never really enjoyed clothes shopping, I do remember going out to get a few things. We bought stuff because it was something people did, and not necessarily because we needed it. Or as Leonard puts it in her book: “We are a society of consumers, we’re told. We shrug and nod and accept this as a fundamental truth.”
What resonated with me in particular when reading the book was that being consumers and buying things doesn’t make us happier, rather the opposite. The feeling of satisfaction we get after buying something new quickly fades. When you factor in the extra time we have to work to pay for it, and the time we spend looking after and for it, stuff becomes more of a burden than a pleasure.
As we work more, we spend less time with family and friends, and with our community. This, in turn, results in the commodification of things that used to be the role of friends and the community, e.g. childcare, taking the dog for a walk, a lift to an appointment or help moving. I could definitely relate to this at the time, but probably even more so now. As I have moved many times, I have come to learn how important communities can be (not only in practical terms, but also for my mental well-being), especially when family and friends are not nearby.
At the time, reading The Story of Stuff both changed the way I looked at the world and the way I lived. I started to go shopping less often, to consume less, to buy more second-hand and to choose better whenever I bought new.
Last year, when I started my own business, I asked myself how I could reconcile a retail business with sustainability. How could I encourage people to buy products from me whilst being against our consumerist culture? I think I’ve found the answers:
- We will always be consumers as we buy stuff to meet our needs and make life more comfortable;
- When we consume, I think it is important to choose eco-friendly products that don’t harm the environment at any stage of the product’s life cycle (from production to disposal).
- By reusing products, we can reduce our consumption of resources and produce less waste;
- Many people rely on selling stuff for their income as our economic system rewards consumption. As long as this is the case, all we can do is to make the production and consumption of stuff more sustainable.
The future of consumption
In order to create a sustainable economic system that operates with the planet’s boundaries, we need to move away from our focus on economic growth and consumerism. But what are the alternatives?
A sustainable economic system
A few organisations and people have come up with alternatives to simply using economic growth as an indicator for development and well-being. There is, for example, the Happy Planet Index, which measures our well-being against our resource consumption. The Index encourages countries to maximise the health and well-being of their citizens, whilst retaining a low environmental footprint.
At the moment, I am reading about the Doughnut economic model developed by Kate Raworth. The idea is that the inner ring of the doughnut represents the social boundaries that determine the minimum living standards for a good life (e.g. access to clean water, energy and education). The outer ring on the other hand marks the planetary boundaries (e.g. climate change and biodiversity loss) we shouldn’t exceed to preserve Earth’s life-support systems.
But what would this mean for us?
If we change the system, we will also need to change our behaviour. Consuming sustainably without destroying and depleting Earth’s natural resources will mean moving away from linear consumption patterns and towards circular ones. In a circular system, the focus will be on reusing what we have and using products that can be recycled at the end of their useful life or safely returned to the soil.
But not only that, circular consumption models also question the idea of ownership. Instead of owning sofas, fridges and TVs, we might be leasing them in the future, so that we return them instead of throwing them out when we are done with them. The manufacturers of the products might upholster the sofa to give it a new life, repair the broken fridge or recycle the different components of the TV. This way, we can ensure that resources are reused and recycled on a larger scale.
Consumption after lockdown
Encouraging people to consume to revive the economy seems to be an outdated model that will only lead us into the next crisis: the collapse of Earth’s life-support system due to overexploitation and pollution. However, in economies that measure their success by growth in Gross Domestic Product (the market value of products and services produced and consumed within a certain time period), increasing consumption levels seems to be the only way out of the crisis. This is why, in the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic, we are being encouraged to go shopping.
However, the Coronavirus crisis has presented us with a unique opportunity for change in a sustainable direction. This is our chance to build a green economy that functions within the planet’s limits. We can all help to build back better by consuming less and reusing more. At some point, the system will have to change – so why not now?
The crisis has made us suppress the consumer inside us and brought out the citizen in us. This is seen in the many communities that have come together to support each other. Now is the time to make sure we don’t lose these new-found connections but build on them to create strong communities and move away from consumerism.