Environmentality: How consumerism hurts the planet


Claire Barnett

Photo by Claire Barnett // Vanderbilt Hustler

Kailey Newcome

With all the Labor Day sales going on, I’ve seen hoards of students and faculty carrying packages across campus. While special holidays such as Labor Day, Memorial Day and Black Friday tend to be some of the highest volume shopping days of the year, consumerism is on the rise as a whole. In fact, just from April to June of this year, consumer spending increased four percent, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Unfortunately, this increase in consumerism comes with a multiplied increase in environmental issues.

Through increased transportation, mass waste production and poor investment making, consumerism is driving our Earth to the brink of extinction. Shoppers don’t always realize that their new pair of jeans required many toxic chemicals to create, that fossil fuels were used to ship materials and supplies to the manufacturer, that more CO2 and nitrous oxides polluted the air shipping the finished jeans to the retail store and even more to transport the jeans to the buyer. In addition, there are packaging and disposal issues when the manufacturer disposes of the chemicals used in production and the consumer discards the shipping package. Through more transportation use, increased waste generation and spending on non-essential items, consumerism is only perpetuating the Earth’s environmental issues.

Consumerism increases our demand for transportation, one of the greatest contributors to global warming. Trucks, boats, trains and planes ship raw materials and finished goods from one location to another. Likewise, there are added transportation costs when consumers drive to stores to pick up a purchase, or a delivery service drops it at their doors. With nearly two billion people now belonging to the “consumer class,” the transportation costs associated with getting a product to the consumer quickly becomes staggering. Cars already account for 60 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and shipping is projected to account for nearly 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions within the next 20 years. The shipping increase is directly related to the rise of online shopping, which has made shopping more convenient and affordable, in turn, making it easier to waste. Thus, the more people purchase, the more things are shipped and the more pollution is created. It’s a destructive cycle.

Besides contributing to transportation-related pollution issues, consumerism has also spurred a monumental increase in packaging waste. It is estimated that Americans generate nearly 400 million tons of waste per year, over three times as much as generated 50 years ago. Whether it’s the 12 million tons of plastic thrown into the ocean annually, the 88 million tons of food waste generated per year or the fact that only half of all recyclable items are actually recycled, this waste is destroying our ecosystems, air quality and water quality in more ways than one. Over 85 percent of sea turtle, 45 percent of seabird and 43 percent of marine mammal species have been injured or killed as a direct result of ingesting this waste. Landfill gas accounts for one-third of all generated methane pollution, one of the main contributors to global warming. Over 27,000 square miles of forests are cut down annually, replacing seven billion trees that help purify the air with energy sucking industrial or agricultural sites. These statistics will only continue to get worse if consumerism doesn’t slow considerably in the next few years.

Arguably the most disheartening aspect is that the money spent in the consumer sector could be spent on much more beneficial causes. According to National Geographic, global spending on cosmetics totals nearly the exact same amount as it would take to end hunger and malnutrition worldwide, just under $20 billion. Further, at an estimated $16.3 billion, it would cost even less to immunize every child, provide clean drinking water for all and achieve universal literacy. And that’s just looking at one select group of consumer items—it doesn’t even take into account money spent on clothes, food, appliances, machinery, technology or any other item that people buy in stores or on Amazon. If we began to invest in more beneficial causes instead of items that we could easily live without, we would find ourselves in a much more sustainable world.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an avid consumer. I often find myself scrolling through online shopping sites in search of new gym clothes or cute outfits. However, if we want to keep our Earth healthy, we have to stop allowing consumerism to drive our lives. When shopping in stores or online, we need to ask ourselves if we really need that item; will we use it, or will it just be thrown away in less than a year? We can invest in reusable bags and recyclable containers to cut down on the amount of plastic waste that consumerism creates. We can shop at stores that practice environmental ethics, such as B-corps like Patagonia. We can recycle (more things are recyclable than we probably realize), and we can dispose of other waste properly. These steps can help curb consumerism and create a sustainable, happy and healthy Earth for years to come.