Consumption Fetish

Man is a living contradiction- a split being. He is selfish and selfless at the same time. And so is the business world. On one hand we see companies striving to be green and gravitating towards sustainability, and on the other, it is also promoting endless consumption – a complete disconnect. 

They are asking people to change their consumption habits – recycled products, fairly made and traded products etc, but not asking them to stop consuming. Consuming itself is a pretty pernicious word – it means to destroy – to use up – to guzzle, and we are all called consumers!

Naive individuals are expected to consume less energy, bathe with a friend, pool into a car – all noble ideas, but crazy ones. Even if all ‘consumers’ all over the world start doing that, which is highly unlikely, it’ll not even make the slightest of dent as compared to what humungous business houses could do to control and stop their pollution and waste levels. A community may save 10,000 liters a day by scrimping and the beverage factory next door may be wasting double that amount on daily basis to promote their sweetened drinks to kids – and get addicted to for a lifetime of related diseases accompanying it. That’s what is contradictory.

Calling a product ‘green’ due to its small, light and energy usage characteristics still prompts people to go for newer models. What will be the fate of the old ones that still work– end up in landfills? Couldn’t features in iPad 2 be easily incorporated in the first model itself? A new upgrade in less than a year can’t be touted as green.

Somehow we’ve got into a culture of ‘Retail Therapy’ – of a culture that consumption makes you happy. When you feel depressed, go shopping –all advertising, all messages tell the same story. And businesses play the devil’s advocate – first as a promoter and then the salvager. It’s a laugh – we get hyper excited with every new toy in the market. That’s what has to change.

The answer is sustainable growth – but growth in which direction – towards the fetish of stuff and consumption or towards the underlying values. We derive our pride in owning things – houses, cars, electronics and what have you. A shift has to occur in what we value – what we call success – what we call failure – what we call growth.

GDP is a real poor indicator of growth and prosperity – let alone happiness and fulfillment. In fact some degree of natural disasters, divorce rates, clear cutting a forest and toxicity is all good for a nation’s GDP – it requires building new infrastructure, selling new cars, new vehicles, new houses, buying for two households etc – all increasing GDP. Of course, what businesses don’t want is that fine balance to tilt to such a degree that there are no people left, no money left with the survivors – as happened in Japan quake and the cascading effect of tsunami and nuclear radiation leak. Such calamities can be hard to recover from.

So, we need more complete measures to analyze and define growth – not just in financial terms but also in life satisfaction terms. Bhutan- of all the countries was the first one to bring out the concept of GNH (Gross National Happiness) in 1972 but none took it seriously.

Currently, UK has work underway to form a Happiness Index. The idea of Triple bottom line of people, planet and profits fast needs to move to people, planet and well-being. The question to answer is: How to de-couple growth with profits? Profits only come with growth and growth requires carbon emissions. What’s sustainable with 6 billion people will not be sustainable with 9 billion. Unless there’s a shift in values that we attach to ‘things’, we’ll always struggle to be sustainable.


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