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What's the environmental impact each time we hit 'buy now,' and can we change course.

Mary Louise Kelly, photographed for NPR, 6 September 2022, in Washington DC. Photo by Mike Morgan for NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly

Elena Burnett

Courtney Dorning

Courtney Dorning

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with author J.B. MacKinnon about the impact of American consumerism on the environment, and how pulling back could positively affect the planet.


We're spending some time this week thinking about how much Americans buy. All year round, the American economy is driven by consumption. Buying things is 70% of the gross domestic product. Now that we're in the middle of the holiday season, we are buying even more. But what do we do with all that stuff? And what does all that stuff do to a rapidly warming planet? Those are things we're going to talk about with journalist J.B. MacKinnon. He is author of "The Day The World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves The Environment And Ourselves."

J.B. MacKinnon, welcome.

J B MACKINNON: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. It occurs to me, as I say it out loud, that the subtitle of your book is probably a pretty good place to start. Give us a few examples of how what we buy affects the environment.

MACKINNON: Well, it affects every environmental crisis that we face. In fact, at this point, according to the U.N. panel that studies global natural resources, consumption is the leading driver of our environmental problems around the world today, surpassing even the growth of the human population on the planet. So you name it, it drives it - deforestation, toxic pollution, climate change, mining, even fisheries, even the extinction of species is tied in tightly to our consumption.

KELLY: Can you give, like, one concrete example that would drive one of those home?

MACKINNON: Sure. Well, one of the issues that I looked at that I thought was most surprising was the way that consumer culture is now affecting whales. We thought that we had saved the whales by ceasing to hunt them. But now things like the search for minerals and fossil fuels on the sea floor is creating noise pollution that's having a profound effect on whales' ability to communicate with each other. And one of the most common ways that North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species in the United States, actually end up dying is being struck by the cargo ships that bring us our things. One whale conservationist said to me, you know, every time you hit that buy now button on Amazon, you're helping power up the ships that are running down endangered whales off the East Coast of the United States.

KELLY: You're talking about the environmental impact of all of the buying that we do. Did we have something of a trial for how we might do better, how we might do this differently towards the beginning of the pandemic?

MACKINNON: Yeah. In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, when much of the world was really, you know, quite literally, locked out of consumer culture, we saw a really dramatic effect on the environment. We really saw how just lifting that hand of human pressure off can have immediate impacts in terms of environmental problems of a variety of kinds. So we - many people will remember how there were these bluer-than-blue skies in cities around the world. And some of the most dramatic changes in the skies occurred in those Asian cities that produce a lot of the world's consumer goods and which were some of the most air-polluted cities on the planet.

KELLY: It was just factory smokestacks not operating for a few weeks. yeah.

MACKINNON: That's absolutely right. And we saw the biggest and deepest drop in carbon emissions ever recorded through that global slowdown in that production and consumption system. We saw the resurgence of the natural world, especially in those places where mass tourism had retreated. And again, you know, mass tourism is very much a part of the consumer lifestyle today.

KELLY: I suppose the challenge is nobody wants to stay in the moment that was the early days of the pandemic. So what is sustainable if we were to try to wean ourselves off some of the just - more, more, more, more, more buying?

MACKINNON: One of the things that was really driven home to me while working on this book was the fact that if we want to reduce consumption, we really have to do so in a managed way by making changes in the system itself. We live in a consumer society, and we have built an economy that depends on more and more consumption by all of us every year. So if we simply slow down, then we know what the effects of that are. It drives an economic crisis. It's a different kind of system that we need.

KELLY: You reminded me of something that our guests on this subject said yesterday. I'm going to let you listen and then respond.


LIZABETH COHEN: Seventy percent of GDP is dependent on consumption, which really does lead to a great dilemma around our growing awareness of environmental degradation that comes with this high level of private consumption. And, you know, on the one hand, we can say that we're living in a world with too much waste, of overconsumption. On the other hand, what is the solution going to be to keeping the economy going?

KELLY: That is Harvard professor Lizabeth Cohen speaking. And to her point, she's getting right at this push-pull that what's good for the environment can be not so good for the economy and vice versa. How do you struggle to reconcile that? What is the answer?

MACKINNON: I think what I look to is companies that are making this shift themselves - so companies like Patagonia, and I think maybe more importantly, just because of its global recognizability, the Levi's brand. And both of those companies are moving towards models where they will be making the sale of new products a smaller part of their model and the sale of recouping and reselling second hand their own products a larger part of their model, as well as the repair and maintenance and alteration of their products as part of their income stream as well. So when we see companies like that moving in that direction, and when you see a company like Levi's - which earlier this year acknowledged that the apparel industry is built on overconsumption - I think we see that business seems to be prepared to move in this direction.

KELLY: So you're saying that the strategy boils down to don't buy so many pairs of jeans with the expectation that you'll get tired of them or they'll wear out; spend more, but less frequently, and get a really good pair that you're going to keep repairing and keep wearing for year after year after year?

MACKINNON: That's right. It's been referred to by some people as the model of fewer better things or buy less, buy better. And it extends not only to goods, but also to things like services and even consumer experiences. So, for example, we can travel less but travel in a more engaged way and might potentially even find that considerably more satisfying.

KELLY: Fewer but better has not been the American shopping mantra in recent decades. Do you really think it can be done?

MACKINNON: Sure. I mean, I don't think that we have very much choice. I mean, when people say that we are caught in this dilemma, we're not really caught in a dilemma. It is true that the planet needs us to stop shopping. The economy needs us to keep shopping. But ultimately, it's the planet that has the priority here. We cannot continue to expand the amount of consumption that each individual person on the planet does in perpetuity. So the answers have to be found, I think, in what kind of changes can we make to the economic system?

KELLY: That is journalist J.B. MacKinnon. He's author of "The Day The World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves The Environment And Ourselves."

MACKINNON: Thanks so much.


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Americans and Western Europeans have had a lock on unsustainable over- consumption for decades. But now developing countries are catching up rapidly, to the detriment of the environment, health, and happiness, according to the Worldwatch Institute in its annual report, State of the World 2004.

Perfectly timed after the excesses of the holiday season, the report put out by the Washington, D.C.-based research organization focuses this year on consumerism run amuck.

Approximately 1.7 billion people worldwide now belong to the "consumer class"—the group of people characterized by diets of highly processed food, desire for bigger houses, more and bigger cars, higher levels of debt, and lifestyles devoted to the accumulation of non-essential goods.

Today nearly half of global consumers reside in developing countries, including 240 million in China and 120 million in India—markets with the most potential for expansion.

"Rising consumption has helped meet basic needs and create jobs," Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch Institute said in a statement to the press. "But as we enter a new century, this unprecedented consumer appetite is undermining the natural systems we all depend on, and making it even harder for the world's poor to meet their basic needs."

The report addresses the devastating toll on the Earth's water supplies, natural resources, and ecosystems exacted by a plethora of disposable cameras, plastic garbage bags, and other cheaply made goods with built in product-obsolescence, and cheaply made manufactured goods that lead to a "throw away" mentality.

"Most of the environmental issues we see today can be linked to consumption," said Gary Gardner, director of research for Worldwatch. "As just one small example, there was a story in the newspaper just the other day saying that 37 percent of species could become extinct due to climate change, which is very directly related to consumption."

From Luxuries to Necessities

Globalization is a driving factor in making goods and services previously out of reach in developing countries much more available. Items that at one point in time were considered luxuries—televisions, cell phones, computers, air conditioning—are now viewed as necessities.

China provides a snapshot of changing realities. For years, the streets of China's major cities were characterized by a virtual sea of people on bicycles, and 25 years ago there were barely any private cars in China. By 2000, 5 million cars moved people and goods; the number is expected to reach 24 million by the end of next year.

In the United States, there are more cars on the road than licensed drivers.

Increased reliance on automobiles means more pollution, more traffic, more use of fossil fuels. Cars and other forms of transportation account for nearly 30 percent of world energy use and 95 percent of global oil consumption.

Changing diet, with a growing emphasis on meat, illustrates the environmental and societal toll exacted by unbridled consumption.

To provide enough beef, chicken, and pork to meet the demand, the livestock industry has moved to factory farming. Producing eight ounces of beef requires 6,600 gallons (25,000 liters) of water; 95 percent of world soybean crops are consumed by farm animals, and 16 percent of the world's methane, a destructive greenhouse gas, is produced by belching, flatulent livestock. The enormous quantities of manure produced at factory farms becomes toxic waste rather than fertilizer, and runoff threatens nearby streams, bays, and estuaries.

Chickens at a typical farm are kept in cages with about nine square inches (about 60 square centimeters) of space per bird. To force them to lay more eggs, they are often starved. Chickens slaughtered for meat are first fattened up with hormones, sometimes to the point where their legs can no longer support their weight.

Crowded conditions can lead to the rapid spread of disease among the animals. To prevent this, antibiotics are included in their feed. The World Health Organization reports that the widespread use of these drugs in the livestock industry is helping breed antibiotic-resistant microbes, complicating the treatment of disease in both animals and people.

Inroads are being made. In 2002, McDonald's announced it would stop buying eggs from suppliers who keep chickens confined in battery cages and that are forced to lay additional eggs through starvation. By 2004, the fast-food chain will require chicken suppliers to stop giving birds antibiotics to promote growth. Wendy's, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken have all hired animal welfare specialists to devise new animal care standards.

The World Bank has also rethought its policy of funding livestock factory farming. In 2001, a World Bank report concluded "there is a significant danger that the poor are being crowded out, the environment eroded, and global food safety and security threatened."

Not Much Happier

The increase in prosperity is not making humans happier or healthier, according to several studies. Findings from a survey of life satisfaction in more than 65 countries indicate that income and happiness tend to track well until about $13,000 of annual income per person (in 1995 dollars). After that, additional income appears to produce only modest increments in self-reported happiness.

Increased consumerism evidently comes at a steep price.

People are incurring debt and working longer hours to pay for the high-consumption lifestyle, consequently spending less time with family, friends, and community organizations.

"Excess consumption can be counterproductive," said Gardner. "The irony is that lower levels of consumption can actually cure some of these problems."

Diets of highly processed food and the sedentary lifestyle that goes with heavy reliance on automobiles have led to a worldwide epidemic of obesity. In the United States, an estimated 65 percent of adults are overweight or obese, and the country has the highest rate of obesity among teenagers in the world. Soaring rates of heart disease and diabetes, surging health care costs, and a lower quality of day-to-day life are the result.

10. Austria

The Alps cover around 62 percent of Austria , making it one of the most scenic and extensive skiing destinations. ( Discover the world’s best ski towns. )

Some aspects of rampant consumerism have resulted in startling anomalies. Worldwatch reports that worldwide annual expenditures for cosmetics total U.S. $18 billion; the estimate for annual expenditures required to eliminate hunger and malnutrition is $19 billion. Expenditures on pet food in the United States and Europe total $17 billion a year; the estimated cost of immunizing every child, providing clean drinking water for all, and achieving universal literacy is $16.3 billion.

There is, of course, no easy solution to the problem. The authors call for green taxes (to reflect the true environmental costs of a product), take-back programs that require manufacturers to recycle packaging or goods, and consumer education and awareness programs.

But first and foremost we need to reorient our way of thinking, says Gardner.

"The goal is to focus not so much on sacrifice, but on how to provide a higher quality of life using the lowest amount of raw materials," he said. "We need to change the way we produce goods and the way we consume them."

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How Consumerism Pollutes the Planet?

Editorials News | Feb-15-2023

Consumerism, or the consistent choice to collect and eat items and services, has a considerable effect on the environment. The manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of patron items all contribute to pollutants, deforestation, and weather change.

One of the primary methods consumerism pollutes the planet is thru the manufacturing of products. The production of patron merchandise regularly includes using poisonous chemical compounds and pollutants, which could have damaging consequences on each air and water quality. Additionally, many patron items are crafted from non-renewable assets which include oil and coal, which contribute to the depletion of those assets and the growth of carbon emissions.

Transportation is some other location in which consumerism has a considerable effect on the environment. The consistent motion of products to and from factories, warehouses, and retail shops contributes to air pollutants and greenhouse fuel line emissions. This is similarly compounded with the aid of using the truth that many patron items are transported lengthy distances, each inside nations and throughout borders, main to even extra emissions.

Finally, consumerism additionally contributes to pollutants thru the disposal of products. The consistent turnover of patron merchandise, in particular the ones crafted from non-biodegradable materials, affects elevated waste and pollutants. Landfills and different waste control centers are regularly beaten with the aid of using the quantity of waste, main to pollutants and different environmental problems.

Overall, consumerism has a considerable effect on the environment, from the manufacturing of products to their disposal. It is essential for people to be privy to the environmental effect of their intake and to make aware picks approximately the goods they buy and the way they take away them.

Related News

Climate & Capitalism

Are consumers destroying the earth?

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Monstrous as the consumer economy has become, consumer spending is not the biggest environmental problem.  Most waste and pollution is caused by industrial, military and commercial processes, over which consumers have no control. 


by Simon Butler Green Left Weekly , December 3, 2011 

Most environmentalists would agree consumerism and consumer culture put too heavy a burden on the planet. Consumer spending is central to the economy, which is why economists and governments also pay it close attention.

But most mainstream economists say endless economic growth, which implies limitless consumption, is both possible and desirable. This ignores how it helps fuel our ecological problems.

Today, most things sold on the market are made to be thrown out and replaced. A big part of economic activity is made up of selling products “designed for the dump.”

consumerism pollutes the planet essay

It’s not hard to see why this suits the biggest firms with the most market power. They make more money selling new products regularly than they can from products that are long-lasting, repairable and easy to upgrade.

This cycle begins with the extraction of raw materials from the earth. The throwaway economy needs to turn more and more of nature into products for sale: fossil fuels, soil nutrients, fresh water, metals and timber. The cycle ends with the steady release of waste back into the ecosphere: waste gases into the sky, waste pollutants into water, and waste chemicals and toxics into the soil.

In the rich nations and the upper class enclaves in the South, mass consumer society has also given rise to its own culture, which encourages individuals to define their happiness and social status by the things they consume.

Globally, corporations spend trillions on marketing and advertising each year. Advertising doesn’t make people mindless: everyone resists and disregards sales pitches every day. But this huge, continuous sales effort helps reinforce the values of a consumer society. Advertising fosters compulsive consumer habits and creates new “needs”. And, as Naomi Klein began her classic book No Logo, modern management theory holds that “successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products”.

These brands are sold on the promise they can satisfy complex emotional and social needs: happiness and relaxation, belonging and confidence, fun, sex, and respect. The promise is always an illusion. Having more stuff has not made us happier.

Advertising revenue is the corporate media’s main source of income. Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner and Mark Zuckerberg would be nothing without it. Every media corporation is therefore a giant advertising machine.

The media’s role in the economy adds to the waste and pollution in the physical environment. But Adbusters ‘ Kalle Lasn and Micah White say the advertising-driven media pollute the “cultural environment” too.

“The commercial media are to the mental environment what factories are to the physical environment. A factory dumps pollution into the water or air because that’s the most efficient way to produce plastic or wood pulp or steel. A TV station or website pollutes the cultural environment because that’s the most efficient way to produce audiences.”

Perhaps the most glaring lie told is that the consumer society brings freedom and choice. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York say in their book The Ecological Rift :

“The entire marketing system, in which trillions of dollars are spent persuading individuals to buy commodities for which they have no need, and no initial desire … is not a system for expanding choice but for controlling it in the interest of promoting ever-greater sales at higher profits.”

consumerism pollutes the planet essay

Mainstream environment groups run campaigns to convince people to limit household consumption, recycle more and cut down on waste. Others talk of “greening” consumer values and want to channel consumer spending toward green products.

Some radical ecologists also focus most attention on consumer choices. In a recent interview with Green Left Weekly , Ted Trainer said consumer “demand for affluence is a key driver of today’s global problems”. He said this meant “the main problem group is not the corporations or the capitalist class … The problem group, the key to transition, is people in general.”

But as monstrous as the consumer economy has become, consumer spending is still not the biggest environmental problem — not by a long shot. Most waste and pollution is caused by industrial, military and commercial processes, over which consumers have no control. For example, in her 2009 book The Story of Stuff , Annie Leonard said household waste makes up only about 2.5% of the US total — 97.5% of solid waste comes from business and government operations, not consumers.

Limiting personal consumption is a good idea where possible. But it hardly scratches the surface of the ecological problem, which lies in how our stuff is made and distributed.

That statistical fiction, “the average consumer”, does not reveal much either. It’s true that average personal consumption has risen in the West. But the average figure conceals the extent to which the ultra-rich are super-consumers and super-producers.

In 2005, Citigroup analysts decided the wealth gap in Western economies is so large they are best called “plutonomies” — economies powered by, controlled by and reliant for growth on a small, rich elite.

Trainer is a critic of capitalist growth and consumerism. But his focus on “people in general” as the source of environmental problems takes growth and consumption out of this social context. In a 1989 article in The Progressive , US radical ecologist Murray Bookchin said this kind of approach tends to “distort and privatize the problem.”

Bookchin said:

“It is inaccurate and unfair to coerce people into believing that they are personally responsible for present-day ecological dangers because they consume too much or proliferate too readily.”

It’s not much help to call on more people to choose simpler lifestyles because, “ironically, many ordinary people and their families cannot afford to live ‘simply’” in the present society.

Bookchin agreed that capitalist growth was “eating away the biosphere at a pace unprecedented in human history”. But he also said:

“Public concern for the environment cannot be addressed by placing the blame on growth without spelling out the causes of growth. Nor can an explanation be exhausted by citing ‘consumerism’ while ignoring the sinister role played by rival producers in shaping public taste and guiding public purchasing power.”

But if appeals for people to consume less or live simply fall short, it’s also dubious that consumerism can be neatly overcome by a shift to a non-capitalist economy, where the profit motive no longer drives production and investment.

In his 1979 book The Self-Managing Environment , Australian ecologist Alan Roberts said overthrowing capitalism is crucial, but is still not enough to fully tackle consumerism. The ecological disaster that was the Soviet Union, for example, shows that “the mere existence of planned, nationalised industry cannot prevent the gallop towards a destructive consumerism”.

Roberts’ point was that “consumerism is not just a particular organisation of the economy, but a way of life.” By this he meant that consumer culture — or the values of consumerism — “are reproduced by the life experience of people in almost every social sphere they inhabit, not just on the job, in their neighbourhood or in political life.”

So the problem of consumerism is not just about advertising and corporate power in the marketplace, as important as these things are. Consumerism endures because it is also a kind of compensation for an alienated existence. Consumerism thrives when most people — the producers, the workers — are powerless in politics and society.

Roberts summed up his argument in this way:

“Ecological values are those linked with consumption, but they are in fact substantially derived from the way in which people experience life as producers. It is that exploited, alienated and relatively powerless period, the working day, which reduces them to settling for commodity satisfaction in their ‘free time’. “The bargain just struck — the deprivation of goods related to human community and creative effort, in exchange for commodities or the promise of them — extends its influence throughout all levels and institutions, marking out the shape of the ‘consumer society’. It is this society which threatens the environment with its unlimited appetite — unlimited precisely because its objects are so unsatisfying.”

To really tackle the consumer society and to stop it from reemerging, today’s powerless consumers need to win real control over their lives and labour. Roberts said a new system based on grassroots democracy — worker and community self-management — is the best ecological alternative.

This view of consumerism and how to tackle it also raises strategic issues for environmentalists today.

Roberts said it means environmentalists have a stake in “every struggle in an industrial society, whatever the immediate issue.”

How these struggles develop is key. Are they powered by grassroots activists or led by unaccountable functionaries? Do they try to build mass movements for change or do they focus mostly on lobbying politicians?

These are important ecological questions because it is by taking part in such struggles that people can begin to throw off their imposed social role as passive consumers.

After all, asks Roberts:

“What sort of self-management, what turn from consumerist values, could be expected of workers who meekly accepted a cut in real wages, or of women who surrendered to others their right to decide on child-bearing?”

This is a very different conclusion to Trainer, who said in his GLW interview that “the essential aim is not to fight against consumer-capitalist society, but to build the alternative to it”.

It is a mistake to separate the fight against present conditions from the building of an alternative way of life. It is through struggle against the injustices of capitalist society that the new values, ideas and institutions of an alternative, ecological society will emerge.

So how is that “ignoring capitalism to death” working out so far, Shane?

Yeah Trainer is a utopian – what we need to do is construct a revolutionary vanguard party and seize state power – then all will be well. Anything less betrays your support for the capitalist system.

Transition Towns is a diverse global movement of 1000s of people thinking about how to build a better society – of course of lot of their thinking is confused and muddy thats the nature of movements of ordinary people who are trying to change things.

Those involved in Leninist politics are a tiny group of people who are sure they have ‘the’ answer even though there has never been a successful revolution in an advanced capitalist country. Utopian indeed.

Trainer’s response presents an absurd disconnect between his analysis and his prescription for action.

He assures us that the first 250 pages of his book clearly identify the capitalist system as being the direct cause of the problems that are likely to destroy us, and he poses “some kind of ‘socialism'” as the answer. But the last two chapters, he tells us, propose a strategy that deliberately avoids confronting the capitalist system and its coercive state, and retreats instead into the rank utopianism of the Transition Towns movement.

With a straight face Trainer tells us we should “ignore capitalism to death” while developing “local communities that don’t operate according to capitalist principles”. Evidently we can wish capitalism away without ever attempting to dispossess it of its massive wealth and power. He calls this “classic anarchist ‘prefiguring'”. I call it a recipe for failure.

David Pepper, in his book Eco-socialism: From Deep Ecology to Social Justice correctly notes:

Anarchistic prefiguring strategies that attempt to marginalise capitalism sound seductive, but experience has shown that they usually result in the marginalising of the countercultural marginalisers themselves, who have ignored or underestimated or refused to confront the material basis of the hegemony of prevailing capitalist ideologies.

Or as Eric Kerl of Chicago put it:

All of these proposals to make a “revolution” without actually challenging the state are radical sounding, but are based on the acceptance of the state — the very institution that possesses the monopoly of coercive means necessary to maintain capitalist social relations.

Ted Trainer has posted a reply to this article. He writes:

“Simon has (inadvertently I’m sure) misinterpreted the basic transition argument I put in The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World. Yes I do say ‘…the main problem group is not the corporations or the capitalist class … The problem group, the key to transition, is people in general.’…but this is not a statement about the state of the world and its problems…it is said in the second last chapter and is to do with transition strategy.”

Read the full text on the Green Left Weekly website.

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  1. What's the environmental impact each time we hit 'buy now

    NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with author J.B. MacKinnon about the impact of American consumerism on the environment, and how pulling back could positively affect the planet. MARY LOUISE...

  2. Earth Suffers as Consumerism Spreads

    Increased consumerism evidently comes at a steep price. People are incurring debt and working longer hours to pay for the high-consumption lifestyle, consequently spending less time with family,...

  3. Negative Effects of Consumerism

    The negative effects of consumerism include the depletion of natural resources and pollution of the Earth. The way the consumer society is working is not sustainable. We are currently overusing Earth’s natural resources with more than 70 percent. If everyone on earth lived like the average American we would need 5.2 planets to support us.

  4. How Consumerism Pollutes the Planet? [1 min read]

    Consumerism, or the consistent choice to collect and eat items and services, has a considerable effect on the environment. The manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of patron items all contribute to pollutants, deforestation, and weather change. One of the primary methods consumerism pollutes the planet is thru the manufacturing of products.

  5. Are consumers destroying the earth?

    Monstrous as the consumer economy has become, consumer spending is not the biggest environmental problem. Most waste and pollution is caused by industrial, military and commercial processes, over which consumers have no control. CONSUMERS ARE NOT THE BIG GREEN PROBLEM by Simon Butler Green Left Weekly, December 3, 2011

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