Buy, Use, Toss?, a two-week curriculum unit
units 2 and 7 of our supplemental high school text, It's All Connected
chapters 6 and 9 of our middle school text, Global Issues and Sustainable Solutions
weeks 2 and 10 of our Newspapers in Education articles
What is the good life? Every day people use a variety of goods and materials, from the food we eat and the clothes we wear to things like cell phones, cars, and even toilet paper. This is consumption.
Consumerism, on the other hand, is the belief that personal happiness is based on the increasing consumption of products. Citizens of consumer countries are subject to advertising that promotes the buying of more and more things, making them feel inadequate unless they buy in.1
But consumerism is not the only way we can think about and measure happiness and success. Other tools have been developed to take a broader look at life in different countries. Concepts like Gross National Happiness, begun in Bhutan, emphasize psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, community vitality, and good governance over levels of consumption.2 And an approach called the Wellbeing Index, which includes both human well-being and environmental sustainability, shows that 116 out of the 180 countries studied had poor ratings in both categories.3
Advertisements on a building in Wangmuxu, China.
There are more than 1.7 billion consumers all over the world, with China and India together as 20% of the total.4 They are the quickest growing consumer societies in the world. Cars are just one example of increasing consumption in China and India. In 2003, China experienced a 71% growth spurt in auto sales. Auto sales rose another 15% in 2004 to about 2.3 million vehicles. That same year, India’s consumption of cars grew an estimated 29% to 900,000 vehicles, overtaking China as the world’s fastest-growing auto market.5
While other traditional forms of transportation still are in use in India, cars and trucks have become more and more popular.
Growth of consumerism
Though India and China are the fastest growing consumer societies, the United States remains as the largest consumer society in the world. The U.S. uses more corn, coffee, copper, lead, zinc, tin, aluminum, rubber, oil seeds, oil and natural gas than any other country.6
Over the past century, the consumer lifestyle became more accessible to the average citizen as societies moved from farm-based to factory-based economies and the availability of credit and loans increased.
While many people in the developed world have grown accustomed to consuming a high level of luxury goods, many others in the developing world are not able to consume enough to meet their basic needs of food, water, clothing, and shelter. For example, the 12% of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60% of private consumption spending, while the 30% living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2%.7
North America, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand have the highest consumption rates in the world, while Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have the lowest.
Private per-capita consumption, 1998
The negative impacts of consumption are felt most in the countries with some of the lowest consumption rates. For example, Africa contributes the least to the greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is likely to suffer the most. Increasing climate variability is already affecting crops, livestock, water sources, land, forest, and biodiversity.8
In order to consume goods, they must be manufactured and packaged. As rates of consumption go up around the world, more and more raw materials will be used to make goods. Paper products are one example of this. In 1993, on average, each person in the world used 45 kilograms of paper products per year, while in 2005, each person consumed 54 kilograms.9 The developed world uses much more paper than the developing world. In North America, paper used by one person in a year is equal to the weight of 3 grown men, while in Sub-Saharan Africa, paper used by one person in a year is equal to the weight of 8% of a grown man.
The Secret Life of Paper and The Story of Stuff are short films that allow you to see how consumption creates a cycle with serious consequences.
Nonprofit Facing the Future is an international leader whose mission is to create tools for educators that equip
and motivate students to develop critical thinking skills, build global awareness and engage in positive solutions for a sustainable future.