The Era of Overconsumption—The Psychology behind a Vicious Spiral

1Picture accessed from Black Friday Madness at Walmart as People Fight over Phones, TECHFLEECE.com [accessed November 23th, 2012]

This December, apart from COP21, which is aiming to reach a legally binding agreement between over 190 governmental representatives, the WBCSD meeting also takes place in Paris and is focusing on finding  new  directions for businesses to achieve sustainable development. This CEO lead conference will discuss specific projects and solutions relevant to current diverse environmental issues. In previous blogs, our group evaluated visions and some specific objectives relevant to in WBCSD’s Vision 2050 report, and in this blog, I will focus on analysing a current problem of overconsumption.

By understanding the comprehensive context of overconsumption, after a retrospection of the last two centuries, we should realize that we are currently living in the world of asking more than we actually need. During the past centuries, we shifted from the economy of underproduction, where people were worrying about survival and growth, to the economy of overproduction, with the emergence of mass production and the rise of consumerism. And now, we are back to a dilemma of underproduction again, but different to the previous one, the contemporary society witnesses a rise of overconsumption, so called, the waste. Food waste, for instance, is one of the main global concerned areas. In UK, 7 million tonnes of food is wasted per year, this is equivalent to an average cost of 700 GBP per household (was 470 GBP before 2015), and if the waste can be eliminated, the reduction of carbon footprint is actually removing 1 in 4 cars on the road (LFHW 2015).

So what is the psychology behind the shift of shopping and lifestyle? In fact, multiple generations nowadays spend money on things not for necessity but a feeling influenced by a culture of comparing and resentment, that is, the Bandwagon effect1. Consumption has become fast and meaningless, and sometimes the function of product is less important than the feeling of being ‘fashionable’. The problem is also compounded alongside a repaid increase of inequality, that a large proportion of world population still worry about survival and do not even have many options to choose compared with people in the richer economies. This rise of inequality is caused by complex reasons including an inappropriate tax system, limitations of technologies and natural resources in most third-world economies, as well as the inefficient market competition. But if we focus on the psychological factors which drive people to keep overconsuming, the culture of ‘resentment’ shopping and waste can be only rectified through a shift of customer’s ideas and the entire marketing philosophy. For instance, a shift of advertising from persuading ‘having more’ to ‘having good’; fairly priced organic food that can be afforded by not only the middle classes but more poorer people; a better supply chain management which allows better quality and more social benefits to all stakeholders. In a nutshell, this revolution of consuming culture requires enormous efforts of all social groups including customers, businesses and governments; it is obviously a complicated and time-consuming process, but not impossible under sufficient collaboration.

Instead of being more critical of the facts, I would summarize this blog with an appeal. Shopping unnecessary goods or services have already become a deep-rooted mind in modern lifestyles, and most customers are unable to control or change themselves under such societal atmosphere. Could business be an effective agency to help customers to understand sustainable consumption? The answer must be affirmative. In the future, instead of having a larger gap between businesses and the society, we do expect the world where ‘Customers no longer have to choose between the “green” product and the one that meets their other consumer needs’, and not at the expense of shrinking business growth (WBCSD 2010). Before the economy is falling deeper into that vicious spiral, before the idea of overconsumption proliferates into more future generations,  every individual and group must start taking appropriate actions immediately.

  1. Bandwagon effect refers an action of copying, or ‘a psychological phenomenon whereby people do something primarily because other people are doing it, regardless of their own beliefs, which they may ignore or override’. Definition provided by Investopedia.com (2015).

Written by Xiaoyu Chen

References

LFHW (2015), The facts about food waste. [Online] Available at: http://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/node/2472

WBCSD (2010) ’Vision 2050’ (Accessed February 2010)

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