Modern society is normally described as a consumer society, which is based on the goal of constantly increasing the production and consumption of consumer goods.
A consumer-based economy is distinct from a capitalist economy, a market economy, an entrepreneurial economy, and a production-based economy, among others. These other forms of economic behavior do not depend on the constantly increasing trade of consumer goods.
Due to the economic power of the consumer society in the most developed nations, the production of consumer goods has, to some extent, shifted from developed nations to nations where costs are lower. This has created and enlarged the class of wage earners in developing nations; these workers then may be included in the consumer culture and economy. This spread of western consumer behavior to producing nations is commonly referred to by the term globalization, which in its broadest definition means the transformation of entities such as economies and communications from local or regional to global in scope.
Proponents claim that consumerism is an economic stimulus because it creates jobs and businesses and raises the standard of living of workers. They also say that the globalization of both culture and business is a form of progress.
Critics argue that any social benefits of consumerism are outweighed by pollution, health problems, worker exploitation, stratification between the rich and poor, and that globalization is a threat to local cultures. Critics also argue that consumerism threatens to deplete natural resources and eliminate wildlife habitats.
Factors of consumption: The forces in a consumer economy that have been shown to lead to negative impacts include: the motivation to increase profit for products not needed, higher costs of quality products, resistance to regulatory costs, resistance to standards, low levels of consumer education, lack of information in decisions made by consumers, the power of advertising over spending decisions, the expense of comparative testing, the costs of safety testing, price competition from lower quality or harmful alternatives, lack of negative feedback on lower quality products, the disincentives for producers of quality products, lack of sanctions on misleading claims, and a popular emphasis on style over functionality. Consumerism may produce negative effects on health because of the potential increased quantity of chemicals and toxins in purchased products, the accumulation of these chemicals in the home and work environment, the increased consumption of unhealthy products, the lack of tests or information about health quality of products, and the normalization of reduced levels of public health (e.g., obesity).
When customers are overly eager to buy and spend, there is often less critical purchase decision-making. Therefore, consumerism creates a market situation where demand is high, but less information is used about which products are better than others, allowing for the success of products of potentially lesser quality.
A well-known case of reduced quality motivated by consumerism is the phenomenon of "knockoffs" of valued products. The high consumer demand for anything from purses to software applications commonly causes pirated versions to be produced without quality assurance and at a reduced cost to maximize profit. The volume of knockoff products distributed in the market may equal or exceed the number of authentic products.
In addition, appeal of popularity can be more important than either utility or quality in consumer products. Manufacturers can make considerable profits on low-quality products if they are popular, current, or associated with high status.
Fashion trends often encourage the purchasing of the newest, most popular items. As a result, this may promote the disposal of older items that are still functional but not fashionable. Products that are redesigned regularly to fit an expectation of seasonal novelty generate waste as old versions are discarded. This phenomenon has been called "planned obsolescence" and applies to products in every economic niche, from hair care to stereo speakers.
Products once considered luxuries (e.g., televisions, computers, recreational vehicles) often become viewed as necessities in a consumer economy. This stimulates their production, purchase, and consumption. As a result, this may also stimulate an increase in their disposal as waste products and an increase in environmental stress.
Packaging of consumer products has become more complex and may be more polluting. For instance, instead of just an outer covering, product packaging has shifted to multiple layers involving several materials that are usually discarded after purchase. And more of the packaging is now printed with color ink, designed to be used for display, which is a source of health-related pollution. According to a 1990 report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the largest segment of municipal solid waste is the containers/packaging component. The cost of a product includes the cost of packaging that is on average nine percent of the total. By weight or volume, the amount of packaging is typically nearly one-third that of the actual product.
Socioeconomic impact: In both quality and health issues, a complicating factor is the tendency in consumer societies for large companies to benefit from economies of scale to the detriment of smaller producers of the same products. This may lead to less localization and more standardization.
Another factor that may negatively impact quality and health is manufacturing and production in countries where there is no legal framework for ensuring that workers and facilities meet recognized standards. Where it is cheaper for a factory owner to force workers into long shifts in unsafe conditions, and there is no regulation of such practices, workers are more likely to experience ill health effects, and the quality of the outgoing products may be compromised.
Meeting the high demand for cheap products by consumer societies may alter the social and economic structure of the producing nations. Large, corporate farms have been shown to dominate agriculture while small and family farms disappear. Manufacturing follows the same trend, with more products created in large corporate factories in centralized urban locations and less in local cottage (small-scale) industries. If costs of domestic facilities or warehousing are too high, it is common for manufacturing to be moved overseas to urban and centralized areas. In addition, the infrastructure of cities may be altered by consumerism as roads, buildings, shopping developments, homes, and utilities are built to service consumer demands.
There are sometimes serious political and cultural implications involved in the asymmetry among developed nations (which may have a higher rate of consumption and pollution) versus developing nations (which may have a relative lower rate of consumption and pollution). For example, while the West has expressed some interest in fostering the rule of law (the protection of citizens' rights from potential arbitrary or abusive use of power) among developing nations, protecting consumerism is sometimes in conflict with this. Some leaders in industry and government see a threat to consumer economies in cases where developing nations strive to establish a legal framework like that found in the United States for the protection of workers and the environment.
Nations whose people and environments have been severely affected by globalized consumer culture are often in areas of instability or chronic war. Wars in underdeveloped nations are often over control of resources, such as oil, water, metals, and minerals. Because half of the world's population does not have access to clean water, it is a common cause of conflict.
Healthcare impact: The medical and healthcare industries in the United States have been altered by consumerism, and many are calling for reform. A basic tenet of consumerism, that only those who can afford to purchase receive products and services, has resulted in a two-tiered system, separating those with employer-subsidized insurance from those without insurance. The number of Americans without health insurance is generally estimated at about 50 million adults.
Consumerism in medicine has resulted in a large variety and quantity of medical products and services that some believe may not be needed for health and well-being. Therefore, consumers are encouraged by reformers to ask whether the tests, drugs, and devices offered by some medical manufacturers are really necessary.
Consumer-driven medical care includes services such as plastic surgery. Each year, an estimated 1.5 million Americans choose to have procedures like rhinoplasty, tummy tucks, or breast augmentations.
Reduction of impact: Quality and safety of products can be increased, reducing negative impacts of consumer behavior, if consumers are provided with good information to inform buying decisions. In some cases, that information may include health and environmental quality impacts. However, such information may not be commonly available. Furthermore, many decisions about which product makes it through the distribution channel into the consumer market are made not by consumers, but by distributors, who may not be as motivated by quality and health issues.
Some believe that consumerism may lead to overconsumption by increasing the volume of purchasing and decreasing the consideration of need or impact. When markets shift toward decisions based on information about need and impact, overconsumption may be reduced.
The need to deal with the environmental impact of consumer economies has led to new approaches to management and law. The trend toward responsible management and away from unrestrained consumerism has already been established. It involves the following principles: considering the whole life-cycle of a product (from raw materials to disposal); considering the costs and ramifications of production; considering long-term health effects; considering long-term social effects; making companies and other entities compensate for the costs of damage they cause; considering alternative, innovative methods and products; educating consumers and encouraging non-consumerist motivations; subsidizing programs that reduce consumption and recycle; and rethinking the design of public programs within the framework of sustainability.
Quality and safety of products may be increased, reducing negative impacts of consumer behavior, if consumers are provided with good information to inform buying decisions. When markets shift toward decisions based on information about need and impact, overconsumption may be reduced.
Industries like recreation have learned how to sell some products and services without harming the environment. For example, a new type of tourism called ecotourism is gaining popularity among those who are ecologically conscious. It is a form of nature-based tourism that strives to minimize ecological impact or damage.
Information technology and innovation may reduce pollution while maintaining quality of life and economic activity.
Ecologies fail when internal or external forces prevent them from functioning in healthy ways to maintain equilibrium. Sustainability is a core concept of environmental sciences, which many have proposed as a principle to guide the management of industries, markets, government, economies, and socioeconomics.
The steady growth of consumption may or may not be sustainable. If consumption of products or resources is so great that it threatens the ability of producers to continue at the same rate, then the process is not sustainable. Similarly, if the rate of consumption results in depletion of limited resources (including habitats), then consumption cannot be sustained.
Among consumers, a prevailing view amongst some is that perpetual economic growth is both possible and desirable. Thus, the creation of goods and jobs is valued over the impacts on environments and populations. Nationalist interests often emphasize the local benefits of economic growth to consumers and workers.
Observers who emphasize long-term and global effects argue that consumer economies cannot grow constantly, as evidenced by the recurrence of business cycles. While there are centers of prosperity, they are supported by centers of poverty. Critics argue further that economic growth is achieved at the cost of depleting finite and non-renewable resources. Critics have also warned that there may be costs of consumer behavior that are experienced by both the global economy and the environment.
General: The processes of manufacturing, packaging, shipping, and disposing of consumer products may pose various health threats to workers such as factory employees, farmers, and drivers, as well as consumers and communities in general.
When workers in underdeveloped nations are not treated well or work in unsafe conditions and are exposed to health threats, they can be considered exploited. Factories in which workers are exposed to various threats to health and well-being are typically referred to as "sweatshops." Consumer awareness of the sweatshop problem has increased and resulted in efforts by manufacturers to certify quality conditions for workers making their products.
Researchers have been particularly interested in the effects of consumerist values and marketing on adolescent health, looking at many products, from tobacco and alcohol to cosmetic surgery and diet pills.
Consumerism that leads to overconsumption may be likely to negatively affect human health. Public health officials and researchers have described health problems resulting from the overconsumption of calories, of legal and illegal drugs, of foods that are associated with heart problems (like high-fat foods), and foods without nutritional value (like soft drinks). The overconsumption of consumer products that contain pollutants also degrades health in many ways.
Pollution and waste disposal impact:
When consumerism generates pollution, either where products are made or where they are consumed, the various forms of pollution can have negative health effects. Waste occurs in the manufacturing process (energy loss, pollutants discharged), in transport (exhaust, gasoline), in inventory (warehousing, heating, cooling), in packaging (boxes, plastics), in selling (display, advertising), and in the discarding of the product to buy replacements.
A common way manufacturers increase their profits in a consumer society is by avoiding adequate waste management. When a manufacturer increases the volume of output and reduces the cost of production by dumping polluted water, polluted air, or chemicals into the environment, there is a high probability of negative effects on the health of surrounding populations, both human and animal. The environmental impacts of waste disposal include spreading landfills, water pollution, air pollution, and energy consumption. Because consumerism may generate wastes of various kinds, it requires effective management strategies. Sanitation is related to many health issues; where wastes are not managed well, sanitation problems may arise.
A consumer economy often has high energy requirements, from oil to coal to electricity. These have significant pollution costs, often veiled. For example, car companies have claimed that their newest efficient automobiles are nearly emissions-free. When the cost of electricity is included, however, the claims cannot be upheld. Similarly with ethanol, the claims of efficiency as a clean power supply must be altered once energy costs are considered through all stages of production, use, and disposal. The newest automobile in India, the Nano©, costs half the price of the cheapest car currently on the market. Economic forecasters in India project a 65% increase in the number of Indian families that can afford a car.
Transportation and shipping (involving ships, cranes, forklifts, trains, trucks, etc.) are essential to the consumer economy, but are sources of both pollution and negative health impacts. It is estimated that 19% of the children in Long Beach, California, have been diagnosed with asthma, which is twice the national rate. This port city, where consumer goods arrive in the United States, experiences massive air pollution, including fine particulate matter, ozone, and other diesel pollutants. This category of pollution is now called "Goods Movement Pollution."
Pollution may be shifting (in North America) from large companies to small and mid-sized firms. Small businesses that pollute are less likely than a large power plant or chemical manufacturer to be noticed or regulated, but the effect is measurable and has a cumulative impact. In Canada, small polluters registered a 66-percent increase in chemical releases and transfers. In the United States, the same group recorded an increase of 29%.
As a result of globalization and the spread of Western consumer economies, waste issues are now located offshore as well. For instance, about 70% of the 20-50 million tons of electronic waste produced globally each year is dumped in China, with most of the rest going to India and poor African nations. China's waste disposal problem increasingly involves domestic waste, which is estimated to include more than one million tons of waste from consumer electronics and computer products each year.
Medical researchers are increasingly paying attention to environmental impacts on prenatal and early childhood development and DNA. While damage done by pollution to adults might last a few years, damage done to children is likely to last for generations.
Natural resource depletion impact:
depletion of natural resources may be a common result of consumerist economics. When consumers and producers place value on consuming a limited resource, short-term demand may eliminate the resource. Current crises of this type may be found in seafood and fishing industries, for example.
A variation of this effect of resource depletion is the destruction of natural habitats for species of plants and animals. Instead of a direct harvesting or population reduction of the species, there is an indirect reduction because there are not enough habitats. This problem arises, for example, where communities expand (homes, roads, businesses) into territories that were previously unsettled. Consumerist pressure to own and develop property reduces previously wild habitat areas.
Overdevelopment is development that is unsustainable and pushed to the point where natural resources are damaged. In such cases, ecological systems are forced out of equilibrium, which requires species involved to adapt. Adaptation is not guaranteed, and not successfully adapting may be evident in population loss, stress, disease, and exposure to new biological threats.
Human health threats emerging from extreme environmental stress may include diabetes, asthma, new viruses (hantavirus, West Nile virus, and Ebola virus), birth defects, childhood cancer, and obesity. Other environmentally generated problems targeted by governments and international agencies include toxic levels of exposure to chemicals, poisons, heavy metals, and irritants. To the extent that environmental stress from consumer behavior results in climate change, humans will be exposed to altered ecologies. Diseases show altered epidemiological patterns due to changes in temperature, habitat, and species interactions.
People in consumer societies tend to be distant from the sources of their food and clothing, unaware of the processes of production, and not responsible for the conditions of the humans and animals involved in their production. Furthermore, consumers tend to be unaware of the overall energy and environmental costs incurred.
For example, to provide enough beef, chicken, and pork to meet American demand, the economy shifted from family farms to factory farming. Now, producing eight ounces of beef is estimated to require 6,600 gallons (25,000 liters) of water. The quantities of manure and methane produced by industrial farming may become toxic. Pesticide use may also increase and runoff threatens streams, lakes, bays, and wetlands.
Diminishing natural resources is a problem that may be aggravated by unsustainable consumption. It is estimated that 10-15 acres (4-6 hectares) of land are required to maintain the consumption level of each person in a consumer-society. However, this amount of farmable land may not be currently available. In 1990, it was estimated that there was fewer than five acres of productive land for each person. The deficit may occur first by exploiting the natural resources of originating countries and second by expropriating the resources of other countries.
Water is almost always required by manufacturing, so the growth of consumer products industries often leads to depleted water supplies, which may negatively affect food production and sanitation.
Chemical ingredient impact: Consumer products used widely today largely include the use of synthetic chemicals. Most consumers believe the chemicals in consumer products have been tested and approved by a credible agency. In practice, however, most chemicals are presumed safe without adequate testing. More than 75,000 chemicals are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but only a small percentage of them have been tested for impact on human health. Many products with large market distribution are likely to have never been tested at all.
The use of chemicals (hormones, steroids, antibiotics) for livestock production is common, but not generally known to the consumer. Research sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that treating livestock with antibiotics is contributing to the increase in antibiotic-resistant microbes, thereby complicating the treatment of diseases.
Polyester is made from petroleum. With the rise in production in the fashion industry, demand for man-made fibers, especially polyester, has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. Manufacturing synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process, requiring large amounts of crude oil. It releases volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease. Volatile monomers, solvents, and other by-products of polyester production are often dumped into wastewater. The EPA considers many textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators.
FUTURE RESEARCH OR APPLICATIONS
General: Some technological innovations, including waste treatment, software, pollution abatement, wind power, solar power, biodegradable materials for packaging, etc., may lessen the negative effects of consumerism on the environment and human health.
Universities have initiated programs addressing environmental issues as they impact the economy, healthcare, and management.
There are economic strategies available other than consumerism, which may have a less negative impact on human health and the environment. For example, industries may emphasize consumer education and associate high prices with high quality, such as with that of "gourmet" products. In these market conditions, consumers are motivated to pay extra for the manufacturer's extra costs to ensure quality. In this example, the driving motivation of the buyer is quality, not consumption. Examples of industries with market segments that have shifted away from a consumption model are the wine and coffee industries.
Worker conditions: Consumers and companies have increasingly addressed the issue of worker exploitation. Many companies selling consumer products have developed strategies for certifying that their products are manufactured by reputable factories, in humane conditions, and with environmental controls. Many well-known brands and large retailers have publicly adopted policies to control factory conditions and worker treatment by their offshore contractors. Manufacturers are now more likely to market their products as not being made in sweatshops.
Environmentally responsible products: In response to those segments of society that have been actively concerned about reducing pollution from overconsumption, many industries have innovated environmentally responsible ("green") product lines. With production and purchase of these types of products, both buyer and seller share common values on ensuring the minimization of environmental impact. Cleaning products, consumer paper products, and printing ink were early examples and the trend has expanded to include many other products.
Another common alternative movement is consumer value of local or domestic products over mass produced or foreign products. Policymakers, industry groups, and consumers are frequently using the appeal of local manufacturing and labeling and marketing products as local, which may also offset consumer pressure for low price and low quality.
Medicine: The study of human health in the context of environmental degradation is a growing field within both medicine and public policy. For example, medical diagnostic procedures are being rewritten to include environmental factors to a degree not seen in the past.
Governmental and academic studies have calculated the long-term costs of pollution and consumerism. One group of researchers who studied the increased rates of obesity in the United States projected that about 86.3% adults may be overweight or obese by 2030 and that the associated costs may double every 10 years. A study by a group at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) concluded that the overall economic benefits of reducing air pollution by enforcing regulations in the United States have steadily increased. In 1975, it was estimated that air pollution regulation reduced the costs of related healthcare and cleanup by $50 billion. By 2000, the benefits had increased to an estimated $400 billion (from 2.1-7.6% of market consumption).
Business and management: The study of environmental sustainability is a growing field in management. One example is business' increased interest in controlling quality and performance throughout their whole supply chain, rather than just within their facilities. Another example is the proliferation of "lean manufacturing," which provides strategies for reducing waste.
Management technologies that address waste of human and physical resources, including quality assurance, have gained popularity. Businesses are turning to economic analysis of the costs and benefits of pollution control over their production processes.
In addition, increasing reliance on information technology may help reduce the consumption of energy expended. For example, when business meetings are held by computer-based video conferencing, the cost and impact of air travel for the attendees is saved.
Economic restructuring: In light of the financial crisis of 2008, which started in the United States and spread globally, economists have been discussing ways to restructure the consumer economy to avoid this kind of bubble-like collapse. Suggestions have included increased savings and investment, subsidizing more research and development, stimulating entrepreneurs who bring innovative products to the market, supporting more public education and financial knowledge, emphasizing production over consumption, balancing trade deficits, and having tighter regulation of credit markets and consumer credit.
This information has been edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration (www.naturalstandard.com).
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