Consumption and Consumerism
by Anup Shah
Global inequality in consumption, while reducing, is still high. Using latest figures available, in 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. The poorest fifth just 1.5%:
Breaking that down slightly further, the poorest 10% accounted for just 0.5% and the wealthiest 10% accounted for 59% of all the consumption:
In 1995, the inequality in consumption was wider, but the United Nations also provided some eye-opening statistics (which do not appear available, yet, for the later years) worth noting here:
If more recent statistics [ed] were available, it would likely be that the breakdowns shown for the 1995 figures will not be as wide in 2005. However, they are likely to still show wide inequalities in consumption. Furthermore, as a few developing countries continue to develop and help make the numbers show a narrowing gap, there are at least two further issues:
And compare that to what was estimated as additional costs to achieve universal access to basic social services in all developing countries:
source: The State Of Human Development (United Nations Human Development Report 1998, Chapter 1, p.37)
We consume a variety of resources and products today having moved beyond basic needs to include luxury items and technological innovations to try to improve efficiency. Such consumption beyond minimal and basic needs is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, as throughout history we have always sought to find ways to make our lives a bit easier to live. However, increasingly, there are important issues around consumerism that need to be understood. For example:
• How are the products and resources we consume actually produced?
• What are the impacts of that process of production on the environment, society, on individuals?
• What are the impacts of certain forms of consumption on the environment, on society, on individuals?
• Which actors influence our choices of consumption?
• Which actors influence how and why things are produced or not?
• What is a necessity and what is a luxury?
• How do demands on items affect the requirements placed upon the environment?
• How do consumption habits change as societies change?
• Businesses and advertising are major engines in promoting the consumption of products so that they may survive. How much of what we consume is influenced by their needs versus our needs?
• Also influential is the very culture of today in many countries, as well as the media and the political institutions themselves. What is the impact on poorer nations and people on the demands of the wealthier nations and people that are able to afford to consume more?
• How do material values influence our relationships with other people?
• What impact does that have on our personal values?
• And so on...
Just from these questions, we can likely think of numerous others as well. We can additionally, see that consumerism and consumption are at the core of many, if not most societies. The impacts of consumerism, positive and negative are very significant to all aspects of our lives, as well as our planet. But equally important to bear in mind in discussing consumption patterns is the underlying system that promotes certain types of consumption and not other types.
Inherent in today’s global economic system is the wasteful use of resources, labor and capital. These need to be addressed. Waste is not only things like via not recycling etc; it is deep within the system.
The U.N. statistics above are hard hitting, highlight one of the major impacts of today’s form of corporate-led globalization.
“Over” population is usually blamed as the major cause of environmental degradation, but the above statistics strongly suggests otherwise. As we will see, consumption patterns today are not to meet everyone’s needs. The system that drives these consumption patterns also contributes to inequality of consumption patterns too.
Entire volumes of research can be written on this topic; globalissues.org provides an introductary look at various aspects of what we consume and how.