We live in a consumer culture. This is scary if you really take a moment to dwell on what this phrase really means.
To put it simply, we shop. We shop and shop and shop. If it was just window shopping it might be okay, but when we shop, we buy.
Suddenly the Nokia N9 isn't good enough, you need a Blackberry Bold 9900. Oh, but hang on what about the iPhone 4S, the latest laptop, the Macbook Pro, the iPad and of course the almost inevitable upgrades? And that's just some electronics!
How many housewives trade in their perfectly good washing machine for the new fancy automated model? Or the 500 watt blender for the 1000 watt? Meanwhile the husband has just traded in his one-year old Lexus for the newer 'improved' version.
Your clothes go 'out of season', your shoes are so last year, your makeup and toiletries expire after six months, your hair needs to be cut every month, styled and dried.
Your nails need to get done, your skin browned on a tanning bed, your teeth checked every six months, your health checked every year - everything you have needs to be upgraded, updated, or downright thrown out.
Today's electronics use completely different parts, ports, SD cards, etc. Every computer has a different charger so that you can't keep one charger for life.
Your old computer can't simply get upgraded to have a bigger hard-drive or Bluetooth or any other technological 'improvements'.
No, you've got to buy a new one. You NEED to have the latest model. And guess what, it's on promotion so you need to buy it now, before its too late.
We constantly have to buy new products all the time in order to keep up with a society that rates appearances higher than longevity; a society that only feels accepted if it's carrying the latest gadget - a consumer culture.
Ok so that's the reality of the situation, but what might you be wondering, is so bad about it? Well let's stop for a moment and take a minute to think about the consequences of consumption.
Consumer culture: Consequences of consumption
The first and probably most obvious disadvantage of the blind purchasing mentality of a consumer culture is that we waste. All those products that we no longer use (note: in most cases we could still use them, we just choose not to) get chucked in landfills or burned in an incinerator.
In fact, burning our trash releases one of the most harmful toxins known to man - a super toxin known as dioxin (responsible for tumours, brain cell damage and neurological conditions).
What's more, for every bin of garbage put out, seven garbage bins are thrown out by the factory - it literally takes seven bins to make just that one bin of household waste (source: The Story of Stuff).
While recycling reduces waste and the pressure to produce, it's by no means the answer. For those products that do get recycled, costs are prohibitive (both ecological and economical).
Indeed, most of us have very little understanding of how much energy it takes to recycle, nor that most of what we recycle is not in fact recyclable. Ever thought about those juice cartons that contain both plastic and cardboard? They're actually designed not to be recycled.
Consumer Culture: Brainwashed by Perceived Obsolescence
So what is the actual problem? It's partly explained by a term called Perceived Obsolescence. Perceived Obsolescence is the brainchild of the advertising and media industries, and could be said to be one of their greatest successes.
Perceived Obsolescence is when an item which is perfectly usable is thrown away - for instance, to keep up with the latest fashion trends. Working purely on a psychological level, perceived obsolescence is evident in product design (small changes to the way a product looks) - making it 'uncool' to own a standard tv when a flat-screen is 'in'.
It's even part of the green industry - where an item is designed to replace a currently working item, supposedly to save the environment, but without taking into account the ecological cost of production and disposal.
The truly green either reuse an item themselves, or give it away. However, even that doesn't really solve the problem of consumption and consumer/supplier greed. If something is still working and perfectly usable - why are we giving it away?
We get that warm fuzzy feeling that we've done something good, but we're still consuming, we're still subscribing to a consumer culture!
Consumer Culture: The trap of Planned Obsolescene
I haven't even got started on the fact that most technology is built to last for about 2 years at a maximum - a concept called Planned Obsolescence - for those in the know.
In other words, a product is designed to fail within a certain period of time - because that means more money for those lovely corporations who "truly have the consumers' interests at heart".
Think of how long it took for your battery for your mobile phone to run out and how much it costs to purchase a new battery. It's actually cheaper to buy a new phone!
Consumer Culture: The true cost of production
Annie Leonard, an environmental activist and creater of the Story of Stuff, relates how she found a radio at Radio Shack for $4.99. Waiting in line, she started wondering: how could $4.99 cover the cost of extracting the raw materials, manufacturing the parts, assembling the radio, and getting it into her hands?
Says Annie: "The metal in that $4.99 radio was probably mined in Africa. The petroleum that went into the plastic probably was pumped from Iraq, and the plastic itself produced in China.
The packaging came from forests in Brazil or Canada. Maybe the parts were then shipped across the ocean to Mexico, where some 15-year-old in a maquiladora assembled the radio. There it was put on a truck or a train and shipped to a distribution center in Southern California, then 500 miles north to my local store.
Four-ninety-nine? That wouldn't pay for the shelf space it took up until I came along, let alone the salary for the guy who helped me pick it out. That's when I realised: I didn't pay for the radio. So who did?"
The Story of Stuff tracks the life of the stuff we produce, distribute, consumer and discard every day. Spending 10 years on her research, Annie reveals the truth behind our possessions, and what it costs us (and everyone in the system) in terms of resources, our health, safety and quality of life.
These are the externalised costs - which basically means the real costs not captured in the price of an item. In a consumer culture - the only possible solution is to remove yourself from consumption or to force companies to pay the full costs of production.
This would motivate companies to invest in cleaner, less polluting manufacturing and distribution processes and encourage us to avoid unnecessary consumption.
Watch the video below called The Story of Stuff, to find out more about the true cost of consumption.
Consumer Culture: A solution
Personally, I believe the only way to avoid superfluous consumption is to take responsibility and stop doing it. I no longer consume for the sake of it, but really put some thought into whether I actually need an item.
Recently my Asus laptop, aged three years, went in after its hard-drive decided it no longer wanted to live (or more to the point, its manufacturers had given it a 3-year lifespan).
So I took it into the Asus centre and pointed out that the hard-drive needs to be replaced. They immediately went into sales drive, telling me that it's pointless to buy a new hard-drive; why not buy a new laptop and you won't have these problems - it's faster, better, newer, cheaper!
Resolutely, I resisted, eventually getting a new hard-drive for my efforts, instead of the shiny new computer they so desperately wanted to sell.
So, the moral of the story is - if you want to be green, ACT green. And the first thing you need to do to be green is reduce your consumption. Buy second-hand. Learn to be thrifty.
Learn skills like sewing, dress-making and how to recycle in the most elemental way possible - by planting seeds from what we eat, or making compost so that we can literally grow food.
Let's live in a world where it's more socially acceptable to care about the consequences of consumption than to consume. Let's make it cool to be conscientious. Make it cool to live like your grandparents did. Be a trendsetter. If you don't, who will?
Every time you spend money, you're casting a vote for the kind of world you want.
- Anna Lappe
Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.
Eco-travel & Lifestyles
Hi, my name is Melissa and I created this site together with photographer Christopher List to help spread awareness about green lifestyles and travel, so everyone can learn how easy it is to live in a sustainable way. Enjoy!
I wasn't sure what a permaculture design course was about, until I read through Melissa's fantastic blog! I've signed up and soon I'll be a PDC graduate too.
Kelly Richardson - Arizona
The link between personal responsibility and preserving our environment is becoming increasingly clear to me. Reading up on simple ways to be more eco-friendly in my life and travels has really helped me practice what I preach.
Dennis Howley - Namibia
I can't wait to follow Melissa and Chris' adventures in the Middle East and Africa. You guys inspire me!