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What is consumption?

Consumption is the using up of resources to satisfy our demands. Victor Lebow, economist and retail analyst, noted in 1955, ‘Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms… We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.’ Do you think Victor was onto something here?

Where is consumption?

It’s everywhere. Consumption is almost impossible avoid. It’s estimated that humans will consume more in the next 40 years than we have since we first stood on two legs. The more money we have the more we consume. The main issue is not just consumption itself but its inequality and the impacts on our environment. The richest 20% account for 77% of private consumption, the middle 60% account for 22%, the poorest 20% account for just 1%. We can be a whole lot smarter about what and how we consume and who consumes it. What are some ways we can start to do things differently?

Can we slow consumption?

Stop buying so much stuff that we neither really want nor need. An astounding 1% of what we buy is still being used just six months later. Consumerism has been described as selling stuff to people who don’t need it to impress people they don’t like. We now cook less at home, our food has become more processed and filled with fat, salt and sugar. This is no accident the manufactures of processed food understand what tastes our brains find hard to resist. There are now more obese people in the world than hungry people. We are eating ourselves to an early death while others get rich. How did this happen? Should there be some limits or warnings on what can be sold?

How can reducing consumption help us?

Have you ever wondered why some things are so cheap? One of the big problems with consumption is that things are not costed properly. It’s how the world operates – corporations like to privatise their profits (for themselves) and socialise the costs (quietly pushed over to us). So a chemical plant making cleaning products never pays for the groundwater it contaminates or the air it pollutes. If they did pay their right whack costs would be higher and people would consume less cleaning products. We all pay with reduced health and a degraded environment.

Why isn’t Australia doing a better job at reducing consumption?

Consumption is great for those who sell lots of stuff because they make money. We also make money selling our services, time and goods to others. It’s not in the interest of the corporations who mostly control what we consume to slow us down. They are always trying to speed us up. Advertising tells us that if we are not consuming a certain product we are worthless unless we buy that product. In an ironic twist, we have more stuff than ever but are less happy and more pressured than ever. How did this all happen? Is there anything we can do about it?

What can we do?

Perhaps we need to stop and think. Pause to ask ourselves several questions. How is the stuff we consume actually produced? What are the impacts of that production on our environment, society and us? What do we need? What is a luxury? How do demands on some items (Blue Fin Tuna, for example) affect their stocks? How much of consumption is influenced by business needs versus our needs? How do material values influence our relationships with other people? What impact does that have on our values? How do we get people to start changing attitudes and start fixing things now?