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Opinion  •  2 min

Deconsumption: For the environment and for social justice

Colleen Thorpe

Executive Director

Published on 

I’m convinced that it’s necessary to talk about deconsumption in our transition to a more environmentally conscious society. Reducing consumption has always been a backdrop for Équiterre's activities, but it now plays a more key role as an important solution to our socio-environmental challenges. And at the heart of Équiterre's mission is also the imperative to strive towards a more just society, hence the "Équi" in Équiterre.

A growing gap of inequalities

Overconsumption widens the inequalities that already exist in our society. While some people overconsume, others are unable to meet even their most basic needs.

For many people, buying cheap products is the only option because of a tight budget, and often, these products are not environmentally sustainable. To a certain extent, this also contributes to keeping people in a cycle of poverty (you need to buy shoes more frequently if your shoes are made of low quality materials and are difficult to repair).

And not to be overlooked, overconsumption is made possible by global inequalities. A cheap t-shirt can be bought from the other side of the world only because the people who made it are underpaid. Furthermore, the environmental impact of that t-shirt - from the cotton fields, to the packaging and the distance it travels to the store – is significant.

Environment and social justice

These issues are intrinsically linked. On one side, it’s the wealthiest who consume and pollute the most by far, as our carbon footprint is closely linked to income and consumption habits. Between 1990 and 2015, the wealthiest 10% of the world's population were responsible for over half of all the carbon emitted into the atmosphere.1

On the other side, it is the most vulnerable people (women, Indigenous communities, racialized people, new immigrants, people with disabilities, etc.) who are often the most severely affected by the environmental crisis.

In Canada, the National Anti-Environmental Racism Coalition is unequivocal: "[racialized communities] are often unfairly and disproportionately exposed to air pollution, water pollution, heat islands."2 Environmental racism is all the more concerning because it comes on top of other inequalities experienced by vulnerable communities, such as poverty, food insecurity and lack of access to health care.3

It has become increasingly important that we tackle overconsumption in order to limit the deleterious effects it has on all of us, but especially on those who suffer these impacts more directly and who do not have the means to limit them.

Taking action within our means

I’m also convinced that deconsumption cannot be applied equally to all members of society, since overconsumption, and even consumption, is a privilege available only to certain segments of society. We can't ask those who don’t have the means to consume to deconsume.

Any move towards collective deconsumption will therefore need to be coupled with measures that allow everyone to meet their basic needs, such as a universal basic income or a significant increase in the minimum wage. Such a change could also free up time for other types of activities, such as those that encourage sharing, self-sufficiency, volunteering or caring for others - activities that are still mainly on the shoulders of women.

A step forward

It’s encouraging to see the a growing interest in the concept of deconsumption, a certain collective awakening. We need to make major changes in our production and consumption systems. For the environment and for social justice.

We are becoming increasingly aware that our relationship with consumption is influenced by such factors as gender, social class and ethnicity. It is only by recognizing the impact of these factors that we as a society can find inclusive solutions and work towards a just environmental transition.

Moving towards deconsumption can also be a welcome opportunity to reflect on our privileges, and to take advantage of the many other benefits of deconsumption.

  1. Oxfam International. Five things you need to know about carbon inequality. (2022).
  2. RAD. Le racisme environnemental, c’est quoi? (2021).
  3. WALDRON Ingrid. Environmental Racism in Canada. The Canadian Commission for UNESCO’s IdeaLab. (2020)

How to move towards deconsumption?

Have a look at our guide