Overconsumption is killing the planet. What can we do?

The richest corners of the world use up way more resources than they need.
For everyone to live like an American, we'd need five earths. Unsplash

Analysis paralysis—being so overwhelmed by options you can’t pick a path—has new meaning thanks to climate change. Making the “right” choice has never been more complicated, but we’re here to help. This is Impact, a new sustainability series from PopSci.

Last year, more than 20 billion pairs of shoes were produced globally. Nearly 300 million of them end up in landfills across the United States annually. 

Shoes are made up of rubber, which many producers source from trees across Thailand, Indonesia, China, and West Africa. The industry relies on millions of workers to feed the demand, which translates to the production of more than 13 million metric tons of rubber in 2020. 

Those trees are now in fragile supply, but that’s just part of the problem.  Shoes stick around in landfills a lot longer than we’d expect. On average, it takes 30 to 40 years for a pair to decompose. One material often used in sneakers—a synthetic chemical composition called ethylene vinyl acetate—can persist for up to 1,000 years in landfills

Shoes are just one of many products we tend to over consume. Overconsumption—using more stuff than the planet can feasibly make—can plague basically any industry. An excessive demand for food, energy, gadgets, clothes, and more are all helping to crush our chance of fighting climate change. 

Overconsumption, explained

While gluttony is not a new invention, for most of human history, the sheer slowness with which goods were produced meant most people consumed in moderation. It was almost never worthwhile to buy stuff from afar, let alone based on desire rather than need. But this gradually changed as industry grew and the world became more interconnected. With America’s Industrial Revolution, which spanned from around 1760 to right before World War I, factories and railroads made goods relatively cheap and easy to ship. Ever since, consumption has been on an upward trend.

This has only become more evident in the past few decades. During the 1960s, for example, the average American person bought fewer than 25 garments every year. Fast forward 60 years, they’re purchasing nearly 70 pieces of clothing annually, or more than one new item per week. That takes a toll: Overconsumption can exacerbate a range of environmental problems, says lvaro Castano Garcia, a PhD student at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, including global warming, ecosystem collapse, and loss of biodiversity. 

“The things we buy and the activities we do contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The higher the consumption, the higher the emissions associated with our lifestyles that aggravate other environmental issues,” says Garcia. 

According to the resource-accounting group Global Footprint Network, if every person on Earth lived like the average American, we would need five total Earths just to keep up everyone’s lifestyle.  And that’s not ultra-lux living: These hypothetical humans would each have an average GDP of over $60,000, but in reality, around 10 percent of Americans hold 70 percent of the country’s wealth.

Nearly 20 percent of the world’s population is responsible for the consumption of 80 percent of natural resources. Director of Princeton Environmental Institute of Princeton University, Stephen Pacala, even calculated the richest 500 million people emit half the world’s greenhouse emissions. The wealthiest countries consume up to 10 times more natural resources than those in the poorest countries. Generally, social inequality across the global north fuels higher levels of pollution, more meat and fish consumption, more flights purchased, greater domestic water use, and more dumping of household waste.

“Many people in the global north tend to think that it is their right and that it is normal to consume the amount that we consume today,” says Vivian Frick, sustainability researcher at the Institute for Ecological Economy Research in Germany.  “They often completely forget that the consumption level that we have depends on exploiting other countries, having cheap resources from other countries, and having cheap labor. Prices would actually be very different if they were fair.”

[Related: Energy costs hit low-income Americans the hardest.]

Our obsession with goods also doesn’t get scrutinized as much as other supposed drivers of environmental collapse. For instance, cities have been credited for rising emissions with data points on how they account for more than 70 percent of the CO2 emissions released around the world from fossil fuels. But as urbanization rises across the globe our understanding of  what that means for climate change have shifted throughout the years. Recent research highlights how growing cities in the global south aren’t necessarily huge emitters. One study from 2016 shows how urban development in the tropics, where many “megacities” are beginning to take form, contributes only five percent of the annual global emissions from land use change.

Take Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India, as an example. According to work by Kala Seetharam Sridhar, a professor at the Institute for Social & Economic Change in Bangalore, India, Tamil Nadu, the most urbanized state in 2011, urbanization did not have a significant effect on carbon emissions in 2011. Further, an increase in literacy rate and workforce participation rate correlated with decreases in carbon emissions.

“These are the perfectly desirable characteristics that we would like to see in any economy that’s growing, urbanizing, and increasing incomes,” Sridar says. Another study pointed to similar results when analyzing 93 developing countries. The takeaway was that affluence contributed to rising emissions more than urbanization. 

Research dating back to the 1980s has also consistently shown that systematically poorer groups of American society are often more exposed to the environmental hazards resulting from these actions. In the US, more than 1 million African Americans live within a half mile of oil and gas facilities, which emit toxic air pollutants. As a result, these communities often suffer from higher rates of cancer and asthma.

When we zoom out, Sridhar says, a similar pattern plays out in the global south, where regional populations suffer more from waste originating in the global north. Since the 1980s, northern countries have been polluting to southern ones by shipping over waste materials that can degrade the environment and expose communities to health risks. New demands for justice have since emerged from the global south, with countries like Malaysia and the Philippines implementing ship-back initiatives for waste. This, in turn, has forced new international measures for waste management to be adopted

What can (and must) be done to limit environmentally degrading purchasing habits

When wealth and purchasing power grows, overconsumption habits (and disastrous environmental outcomes) can certainly follow. But why do we continue to crave the latest technology, the newest clothing, and the flashiest fashions even when we know what they cost the planet? 

“I don’t think consumers are behaving in a weird way,” Garcia says. “The system allows and enhances that behavior to make it seem not only acceptable, but desirable for many people to achieve certain levels of high consumption.” 

Frick also points out that even well-intentioned buyers are often pushed to seek out new stuff. While some people salivate over trendy gadgets, for example, others are simply dealing with software that’s bound to go obsolete and devices that are made to break easily and difficult to repair. 

The problem, Frick and Garcia agree, goes beyond consumer behavior. Over-consumption is built into our institutions—and the low price tag of a new gadget or stay at an all-inclusive resort hardly represents its true environmental impact. 

“The whole system is just wrong,” says Frick. “It’s not normal that you can buy a flight for 20 euros that has the environmental and social cost of way more.”

Consumers have very little power in the market, she continues, as they don’t have much control over how the goods and services they purchase are made. It’s one of the key challenges of getting individuals to adopt methods of sustainable consumption, which requires limiting one’s buying habits to avoid harming other people and depleting resources. 

[Related: Why is it so expensive to eat sustainably?]

The problem can only be resolved through long-range institutional reforms and industry-wide revolutions, adds Frick. Moving to a low-carbon society that can extract fewer natural resources to only meet necessary production demands would restore biodiversity loss, prevent further pollution, and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.  

The system is clearly broken, but that doesn’t mean people can’t fight back against the urge to keep buying more and more. Whenever making a new purchase, try to picture where the item will end up after you discard it. Can it be composted, reused, or responsibly recycled? Or would it probably end up in a landfill or body of water? Visualizing the full lifecycle of an item can help sway your decisions to be as sustainable as possible. 

You can adopt an even broader approach and take stock of your day-to-day habits. The German Competence Center for Sustainable Consumption advises individuals to list out “Big Points,” or measures that have a particularly large impact on their ecological footprints. Limiting certain major emitters, like driving or eating meat, can save around half a ton of CO₂ per person per year.  

Another personal step is to recognize the disparities in global consumption levels. To Sridhar, disseminating information on the negative environmental effects that consumption, wealth, and our living habits can have could make a big impression. 

“I think that’s the best way to make people understand that you are leaving a very, very poor environment for the future generations and your progeny to inherit if you continue to pollute the environment,” she says.  

Simple wisdom comes out on top, no matter who you are: The most sustainable product is the one you never bought in the first place.