While the world continues to struggle to conquer the deadly virus, many economists and conservationists are concerned about the relentless consumption that has become the principal driver of the ecological disaster. We are depleting the planet's resources at a rate that is 1.7 times quicker than its ability to recover. The US population is 60% larger than it was in 1970, yet consumer expenditure has increased 400% (adjusted for inflation) — and other rich countries, like the UK, aren't faring much better.
Despite a global epidemic, many of us continued to shop – Amazon had record-breaking global revenues of $386 billion in 2020 – but, without the opportunity to flaunt our goods in front of others, there was a broad rethinking of why we buy and wear things.
Nonetheless, as most of the world reopens, there are rallying cries to help the economy by opening our wallets. Shopping has been elevated to the status of a good deed, with retail therapy elevated to the level of a civic obligation.
Then, how would a lower-consumption society appear? Everything has been reoriented since individuals, brands, and governments are no longer focused on economic development. Individuals are becoming more self-sufficient, producing food, fixing items, and embracing wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of imperfection (think patched-up pockets or chipped ceramics). Brands produce fewer but higher-quality goods, while governments prohibit planned obsolescence (the practice of producing items that the only function for a limited time), affix “durability” labels to items so consumers can be assured of longevity, and implement tax breaks so it is cheaper to repair something than to throw it away and buy a new version.
So, why hasn't such an approach been tried on a larger, societal scale before? Economists reject the idea that materialism is hard-wired into human nature, but they do believe it is “deeply ingrained” in society and it is “much easier for us to think, ‘Let's make all these cars operate on solar power instead of gas,' rather than, ‘How can we end up with fewer cars?'” Furthermore, he claims that “to some extent, we fell into the assumption that cutting consumption could not be a solution, because it necessarily resulted in economic collapse.”
Furthermore, under the non-consuming world order, the hours will be shorter and the labor will be more often than not more rewarding since we would be “participating in the manufacturing of higher-quality goods.” With fewer jobs and less money available, some people will opt not to work, and governments will provide universal basic income and/or services. Most importantly, being released from the corporate rat race entails a transformation in our work-life balance. We spend less time comparing ourselves to others and spend more time away from devices. We engage in communal activities such as tending public gardens, social movements and caring for children and the elderly. Various societies have practiced “voluntary simplicity” over the years, whether by choice or need. For example, Sado Island in the Sea of Japan; a rural town outside of Tokyo; and the Seattle suburbs, where many people have embraced “downshifting” since the 1990s in response to the city's invasion by the wealthy tech crowd (the most widespread rejection of consumer culture in recent times).
These individuals, on average, buy minimal clothes, read library books, walk or take buses, avoid social media, and rarely listen to music or watch television. Such lifestyles appear to be highly deserving.
However, convincing today's Gen Zs or the general people that this can be a fulfilling existence will be the most difficult challenge. This move will be met with skepticism not only by the general public but also by business. Abdullah al Maher, CEO of a Bangladesh knitwear company that manufactures fast-fashion behemoths such as H&M and Zara. He agrees that switching to a lower-consumption society would be difficult for his country since its 6,000 clothes manufacturers would almost certainly be cut in half. However, in this new system, industries would pay higher wages, pollute less, and compete on quality rather than speed. “There won't be a rat race then,” Maher adds, "You know, that wouldn't be so horrible." It's a startling remark from a strong businessman in a country that serves as a factory for the rest of the world. And it's the kind of thing that gives conservationists hope.
Such discussions will entail debating whether we are willing to give up our vivid, high-velocity, acquisitive lifestyle to calm our thoughts and save the planet. Although we may not like the answer, and change is always difficult, it's difficult to argue that there is even a contest.
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