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Fact sheet

Reducing consumption to address socio-environmental challenges

Published on 

In a society characterized by overconsumption, we face issues that go well beyond resource depletion and mountains of polluting waste. Human health, well-being and social justice are also undermined by the frenetic pace of our economic system. Some people have too much, others not enough. The time has come for a paradigm shift in which we rethink our consumption and collective priorities.

Read this fact sheet to:

  • Understand why our economy is based on overconsumption
  • Learn about the impacts of overconsumption
  • Discover possible solutions

First of all: what is overconsumption?

Overconsumption, and even consumption is a privilege available only to certain segments of society. Some people overconsume, while others are not even able to meet their basic needs.

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.

This fact sheet is aimed at those who consume or overconsume, not those who cannot meet their basic needs. It seeks to help consumers better understand the causes and consequences of overconsumption in order to contribute to transitioning our economic system.

Though purchases are often made at the individual level, overconsumption poses its share of collective challenges.

Where does overconsumption come from?

Overconsumption has historical, economic and social roots.

Mass consumption can trace its roots to late-19th century America, coinciding with technological advances at the production, transportation and communications level. It was founded on intensive resource use, and promoted a linear economy in which raw materials were extracted, used and disposed of. But it was not until the end of the Second World War that it really took off in North America and Europe. Increases in workers’ wages and purchasing power resulting from post-war expansion and the growing influence of the American Way of Life, as depicted in advertising, drove the population to buy more goods.

Ever since, our economic system has revolved around continuous buying and accumulating. Infinite needs in a world with limited resources. The advent of globalization further enhanced this trend.

Note that we are talking about a system that has been in place for less than a century. Our economic system has undergone significant changes over the course of history, and will continue to change.

Incomplete performance indicators

A country’s economic performance (and thus its prosperity) is largely based on the concept of overconsumption, since it’s measured mainly by GDP (gross domestic product). GDP measures the value of all goods and services produced by an economy over a given period. This economic indicator is far from perfect: it doesn’t gauge the repercussions of these goods and services on the environment; it doesn’t measure the population’s well-being; and it doesn’t account for unpaid work (which has a great deal of value!).

Some people view consumption as a way to find happiness or to demonstrate their success. This way of looking at things can spawn a vicious circle, pushing us to buy more and more goods and, in some cases, leading us into debt or forcing us to work harder so as to afford a certain lifestyle.

The consequences of overconsumption

Overconsumption represents an unreasonable and unjustified use of limited resources. Clearly problematic in the context of an environmental crisis!

Each manufactured good has socio-environmental impacts throughout its life cycle. That’s something we don’t always consider when we see an item in a store, or even when we dispose of something. But a greater awareness of a product’s life cycle is essential, because on top of the pollution generated by its manufacture, distribution, use and disposal, each product requires the extraction of raw materials. Whether we’re talking about petroleum, wood, metal or cotton, raw material extraction often disrupts natural habitats and the species that live in them.

Let’s look at the simple example of a cotton t-shirt (and do we really need another t-shirt?):

  • Raw materials: destruction of a natural habitat to make way for a cotton field; water and pesticides to grow the crop; difficult conditions for the workers;
  • Manufacture: GHG emitted for processing; chemicals (dyes); social impacts (poor working conditions, low wages, hazardous workplaces, etc.);
  • Distribution and packaging: GHG emitted for shipping to distribution centres (which themselves consume a lot of energy) and then to the stores (which are often very far away!) or to our homes, not to mention the waste generated by the packaging;
  • Use: water for washing and energy for drying;
  • End of life: all that just to end up in a landfill!

Social and health impacts (poor working conditions, low wages, hazardous workplaces, etc.) can be issues at every step.

The purchase price for this t-shirt clearly does not cover the cost of all these impacts.

🌎 Have you heard of Earth Overshoot Day?

It marks the date when humanity has used all the biological resources that Earth regenerates during the entire year. There is a global day, along with a different one for each country, but this date is arriving earlier each year. If everyone on Earth consumed as much as Canadians, we’d need the resources of five planets like ours to meet our needs.

An economic system and social pressures that lead to overconsumption

It’s easy to get swept up with overconsumption, because it is widely encouraged by our societal and economic structures and by powerful advertising practices. In other words, society values consumption and our economic system is built to foster consumption.

Let’s take our t-shirt example a step further. Clothing stores tempt us with attractive pricing, discounts, mega-sales and advertising. They make sure their shelves are always stocked with inventory that is renewed each week. Much of the clothing is made from low-quality fabric, requiring us to buy more and more garments rather than having them mended.

Advertising plays a significant role. It is super effective at setting the standards to which we aspire. It encourages us to follow the latest trends, to display our social status and look successful. And it doesn’t stop there: in addition to a trendy wardrobe, advertising and society make us believe we need a big house, a beautiful car and the latest gadgets!

What is deconsumption?

So if you still have energy left after reading about the causes and consequences of overconsumption, let’s focus now on a solution: deconsumption. A solution both at the individual level and the collective level, deconsumption is consuming fewer material goods. It’s questioning our needs and letting go of anything that is not essential. It’s not as straightforward as it sounds, because deconsumption also involves deconstructing our societal norms and economic priorities. It requires us to redefine an entire value system and to transform our relationship with living systems in order to work towards a just ecological and social transition. Major systemic changes are necessary.

Why should I reduce my consumption?

Deconsumption lets you reduce your environmental footprint and your spending. At a time when the cost of living and household debt are rising inexorably, it pays to be a deconsumer!

In concrete terms, it involves:

Having a healthier relationship with material consumption

- Getting back to basics and rejecting the notion that accumulating goods enhances quality of life

- Refraining from buying or receiving goods we don’t need

- Prioritizing experiences over objects

- Valuing existing material goods by using, maintaining and repairing them

- When a purchase is necessary, ensuring that the object is built to last.

Shifting towards a more balanced lifestyle

- Reviewing our priorities to devote more time to what makes us happy (spending time with those around us, playing sports, engaging in the arts or recreation, etc.)

- Choosing productive recreational practices that foster less energy-intensive lifestyles (biking, theatre, hiking, reading, etc.)

- Reflecting on the place that work occupies in society and in our lives

- Learning to slow down and live in the moment.

Participating in your community and taking advantage of the services available

- Taking part in the sharing economy by availing ourselves of lending services like conventional libraries or those that lend out tools, toys or clothing.

- Swapping goods with others (co-workers, friends, neighbours, family)

- Supporting activities that foster domestic and collective production as well as self-sufficiency (gardening, community kitchens, DIY, cleaning, sewing, etc.)

- Supporting essential non-market activities such as volunteering or health care

Getting more in touch with nature

- Living our lives at a pace more in tune with nature, respecting our limits and those of the planet.

- Spending part of our time on activities that bring us closer to nature, and teaching our children to do as well

- Taking inspiration from the relationship that numerous Indigenous peoples maintain with our planet.

Deconsumption also leads us to prioritize human relationships and build more vibrant, resilient communities.

🌎 Did you know?

Canada is a world leader in credit card use. Only one adult in five is without a credit card in this country. Credit card spending is reaching new heights, and many Canadians are experiencing significant financial stress.

How to manage the transition from overconsumption to deconsumption?

As individuals, the first tangible thing we can do is to slow our consumption by asking ourselves if we really need to acquire a particular good. That said, we don’t have to beat ourselves up over every little purchase! Reducing your consumption may seem difficult at first, because current societal norms value overconsumption. And remember: if large corporations are spending scads of dollars every year on advertising, that’s because it works! Still, there are many ways we can change our behaviours to limit consumption, be it in the area of food, transportation or clothing.

See our guide on how to move toward deconsumption.

Governments have an important role to play

As citizens, we have the power to demand a paradigm shift and changes in our economic system. If there is public support for these goals, the transition can be achieved. We can urge our governments to enact laws relating to consumption and public policies that help transition us toward a less consumption-driven society. These measures could include:

  • Banning single-use objects;
  • Strengthening reparability standards to deal with obsolescence;
  • Adopting stricter regulations governing advertising and marketing strategies;
  • Limiting credit;
  • Protecting natural habitats.

Together we can achieve these significant systemic changes. For our society and our environment

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