The cult film Fight Club considers many things, including consumerism and what an obsession with its promises can do:
Fight Club Ikea Catalogue Scene — Critical Commons
David Fincher's masterpiece touches on themes like transitioning from a consumer culture ("Planet Starbucks," "Microsoft Galaxy") to an anti-consumerism culture where your stuff doesn't own you anymore.
Why 'Fight Club' Matters More Than Ever
Not that we should have it in for Ikea:
Spike Jonze Ikea ad - YouTube
In which case, many have been critical of Ikea's promises to stop encouraging us to buy the latest:
Jacques Peretti also meets some of the companies that encourage consumers to be dissatisfied with what they have and encourage purchases as part of an ever-faster cycle of 'upgrades'. He asks a senior IKEA executive why, despite the company's commitment to sustainability, it still encourages repeated discarding and purchasing.
Futures Forum: Planned Obsolescence: and The Men Who Made Us Spend
It seems our heads are rather messed up:
In recent years, a growing body of psychology research, including important work by Tim Kasser at Knox College, has revealed associations between corporate propagation of materialist attitudes (i.e., having a strong value orientation toward money and possessions) and poorer life satisfaction, higher levels of anxiety and depression, poorer quality of interpersonal relationships, and lower self-esteem.
According to other researchers, such as Susan Linn at Harvard University, the consequences of prioritizing the consumerist mindset are even more debilitating for children than they are for adults, especially for young children who have not yet developed the capacity for critical thinking. Direct corporate messaging to children(link is external), a relatively new and highly sophisticated phenomenon, is a pretty easy way to boost sales but it also has predictable negative effects on kids’ social, psychological, and physical health. For example, most marketing to children is for junk food, a significant risk factor for obesity. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, obesity-related disease is predicted to shorten kids’ life spans to such a degree that the current generation will probably die younger than their parents for the first time in the modern era.
As mass consumerism was being promoted in the early 20th century and the modern advertising industry was developing, the full matrix of hazards were unknown. The “shocks” caused by obedient behavior were limited and minimal—the equivalent of a slight tickle. This is no longer the case. As circumstances have changed with time, the consequences of obedience to the corporate imperative have become much more dangerous.
Obedience, Consumer Culture, and Climate Change | Psychology Today
Here's an alternative approach:
Twenty years ago, the Agenda 21, the global action plan adopted by more than 178 Governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, stated that “the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries”, (Section I, Chapter 4.3).
Beyond the necessity “to promote efficiency in production processes and reduce wasteful consumption in the process of economic growth”, it defined the need for governments “to develop a domestic policy framework that will encourage a shift to more sustainable patterns of production and consumption” (Chapter 4.17).
Sustainable consumption, thus, was supposed to comprise not just efficiency gains in resource consumption, but also reductions in the overall consumption levels in industrialized countries as well as fundamental changes in current consumption patterns.
Between Choice and Structure: Sustainable Consumption and Responsibility | Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Sustainability
Today is World Environment Day:
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is promoting the message of sustainable consumption over the course of World Environment Day (WED) today (5 June).
‘Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care’ is the theme of the day this year, with UNEP encouraging responsible consumption and use of finite natural resources.
Explaining the theme, the UNEP’s website reads: ‘Many of the Earth’s ecosystems are nearing critical tipping points of depletion or irreversible change, pushed by high population growth and economic development. By 2050, if current consumption and production patterns remain the same and with a rising population expected to reach 9.6 billion, we will need three planets to sustain our ways of living and consumption.’
To mark WED 2015, UNEP has published a guidebook – ‘Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP): A Handbook for Policymakers’ – which contains data on the impact of unsustainable use of resources and the efficiency gains that may be made by mainstreaming sustainable processes.
The guidebook aims to assist governments and other organisations to use SCP policies and tools to realise national development goals through greater resource-efficiency gains, lower production costs and job creation.
According to the UNEP, decoupling economic growth from resource consumption must be coupled with ‘systemic change’ to move towards sustainable consumption. ‘For developing countries’, the organisation asserts, ‘this would mean using innovative ways to leapfrog into a green economy structure, ensuring better delivery of services and access to resources in a way that conserves their natural resource base.
‘In developed countries, resource efficiency strategies will be highly effective, but account must be taken of how much resource extraction is outsourced from developed countries to developing countries. Both require well-designed public policies, a reason why this handbook is so important. In both the developed and developing countries resource efficiency is a necessary condition for sustainable development but it needs to be complimented with systemic changes in the way we plan and develop our infrastructure and in the way we take consumption decisions.’
World Environment Day focuses on sustainable consumption | Resource Magazine
Sustainable consumption and production .:. Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform
The UK government produced its own paper:
Sustainable consumption report: Follow-up to the green food project - Publications - GOV.UK
There are skeptics, however:
Eco-labeling provides consumers with socially and environmentally friendly choices, but it also encourages even more consumption. (photo courtesy of jetalone via flickr)
Across the globe the concept of sustainable consumption is being touted as the way of the future, a change in lifestyle and values that promises “green growth”– economic growth that doesn’t hurt the environment. Though not without obstacles and controversy, this concept has been embraced by policymakers, consumers, and industry. The idea is that, by providing consumers with a choice of products reflecting their new environmental values, the market will self-regulate its way towards a more sustainable future, one in which supermarket shelves are lined with ecologically friendly products, and workers in developing countries are receiving fair wages for their labor. Eco-labeling, taxes on water and energy consumption, recycling incentives, education and communication campaigns, and advertising are examples of methods to promote sustainable consumption, all of which are endorsed by the OECD.
Does recycling perpetuate the high consumption paradigm? (photo courtesy of timtak via flickr)
However, sustainable consumption fails to address the root problem: that unfettered economic growth–no matter how ecologically-minded–is still unsustainable. In State of the World 2013, Annie Leonard points out that the focus on sustainable consumption “distracts us from identifying and demanding change from the real drivers of environmental decline…. Describing today’s environmental problems and solutions as individual issues also has a disempowering effect, leaving people to feel that their greatest power lies in perfecting their daily choices.” A Nordic research group is attempting to dispel the myths of sustainable consumption in order to help policymakers implement genuinely effective policies. Belief in these myths helps pave the dangerous road to timid government policies.
The most damaging myths, outlined in a recent webinar, are the following:
the belief that small individual actions will have a spill-over effect;
if everyone does a little we will collectively achieve a lot;
more information leads to sustainable behavior.
The reason that these myths are so dangerous is that they place the burden of responsibility on consumers instead of producers, and this in turn influences the types of policies implemented by the state. However, the focus is still on consumption itself, as opposed to a deep-seated behavioral shift towards downsizing and degrowth. These myths allow government to enact short-term, minimal policies like taxes on bottled water and plastic bags, or requiring energy labels on appliances. While individual effort is certainly important, and a good starting point, it is a terrible end-point. Leonard argues that radical change involves three stages – a big idea of how things could be better, a commitment to move beyond individual action, and finally, collective action. A focus on sustainable consumption keeps society firmly fixated on individuals and increases the barriers to taking collective action.
The Myths of Sustainable Consumption » Is Sustainability Still Possible?
The Story of Change - YouTube
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