Buy less and focus on quality to solve the sustainability crisis
Updated: May 24, 2021
Every revolution, whether technological or social in nature, unlocks a new level of human activity. From the invention of the wheel, electricity, anticonception pills to the internet. Now, businesses talk about the fourth industrial revolution with the Internet of People and Things. Such technological innovations change our cultural norms and values and enable new phenotypes of human behaviour. Yet, the underlying motivations of those behaviours remain the same. We, as a species, have not changed fundamentally in our needs and desires. The technologies to fulfill those needs, however, have.
An example is how digital communication media seeped into our daily lives. Our smartphones function as our personal portal to the scale that digitisation can offer. Swiping hundreds of portraits in search for love in less time than going to the local pub to serendipitously bump into a potential partner. Crafting retouched imagery of oneself to portray our idealized self-image in online media. Watching our favourite influencers talk about the next season's trends. In business, accessing the digital twins of any of your supply chains around the world. Monitoring every single customer that enters your physical or digital stores. There are ample examples to describe. What is important is how each illustrates a fundamental need: to be socially valued, to be entertained and to be in control.
Thanks to digitisation, our lifestyles and standards are changing with the increasing speed at which we can automate processes via computing machines. It has potentially become too easy to do things at a global scale. However great the benefits may be in terms of time and money, you could argue whether the quality of the results have improved at the same rate that quantities can be produced. Though, regardless of the actual quality of modern produce, we can be certain that these socioecoomic developments bringforth their toll to pay - commonly known as our sustainability crisis. Given a world with a finite number of resources, where do we leave mass-produced (digital) goods that we do not need (anymore)?
Economies of scale lead to overproduced waste of scale
Since the industrial revolution, "Make more in less time" seems to be the mantra of our modern era. Industrialization gave way to production machinery at low operational costs to produce gigantic amounts of things evermore efficiently. As a consequence, I am not the first person to realize that we are piling up cubic tonnes of waste materials every year.
On the flipside of large-scale corporations' success is the unsustainable amount of shit they produce. The fashion industry provides a case in point. A local H&M fast fashion store in a small Dutch town already gets four new collections delivered every week - let alone what a metropolitan city branch would turnover. Thanks to such business models, many girls and women are ever expanding their wardrobes with unnecessary garments to still their hunger for the latest trends, incentivized by sly insecurity-inducing marketing strategies. Until they realize after some time that half of those clothes have rarely been worn.
The problem of mass-consumption-based economies is that it is so cheap to produce, that overproduction waste is not a financial burden. The generation of corporations that grew particularly during the 20th century created the Western business model of mass exploitation to satisfy perverted interests. It is essential for these organizations to maintain the unnaturally high demand for produce they enabled in the first place.
More wasteful examples... (skip this section if you've had enough shit already)
The above infographic from two years ago shows how shockingly much waste just one particular industry can produce. Another sector known to yield volumes of waste is the food industry. The corona pandemic tragically exposed this problem. In April 2020, many US farmers had to burn their crops due to the significant decrease in demand during lockdowns. This is just one example of how "economies-of-scale" systems normally incentivize overconsumption, to the detriment of our own long-term health. Who would have thought, people can survive with less food than what farmers are expected to grow.
Next, the average person in the Netherlands leaves 490 kilos of domestic waste every year. With 17.28 million Dutchies at the time of writing, that means an average of 8.5 billion kilos of waste every year of which almost half (42%) is not recycled - quite an impressive amount of shit out of a small country like that. Simultaneously, we are distancing ourselves more and more from the operational cycle of creating and degrading products. Urban lifestyles make the waste problem invisible - put away in landfills.
You can watch the evidence for yourself in the below video.
It's the economy, stupid! - Flawed economic assumptions and an unsustainable business model
One does not need to be an educated economist to understand flaws in basic economic assumptions if one cares about the future of human life.
First of all, most human beings are not rational in the traditional homo economicus sense. We do not have perfect information and we do not always or solely choose to maximize our outcomes. Humans are rational in a social-economic sense. Decisions on distribution of our possessions, wealth (capital) and efforts (productivity) are inherently biased by our beliefs, norms, personality, physique and reasoning capacity - to name a few factors. Then we have emotions that seek trust and reliability. If you always went to the very same bakery you've known since childhood, it would feel bad for many people to switch to a cheaper bakery that sells the same bread without that nostalgic feeling. Human relationships affect our emotions and therefore impact our economic decisions. Great marketeers know exactly how to exploit this vulnerability in advertisements. However, social bonds are simply not available and measurable like market goods. This is a barrier to having a completely free market economy in the classical sense of the term and shows the flawed nature of existing economic models. Whom we know and whom we like is often more important than what we know.
Secondly, an eternal increase in consumer demand cannot be the driving principle for economic growth - because, finite resources. Established corporations already found tricks to induce recurring demand. If not expanding to geographic regions with increasing birth rates, an alternative is to deliberately make low-quality goods that will need replacement after a predictable amount of time. We can look at fast fashion chains once again here, but consider the shrinking product life times of smartphones as well. Apple and Samsung are releasing new high-tech phones every year as if they are fast fashion items. Besides, the pressure of shareholders that demand return on investment often seems to be greater than the strength of executive spines to change their business model to invest in more environmentally sustainable practices. Still, as long as the artificially created demand for produce is not fundamentally reduced, any new substitute for, let's say, fossil fuels or form of packaging, is going to deplete some resource.
The solution: Live a lifestyle of being satisfied with less, but high quality goods
With the current young generation standing up increasingly against producers of unsustainable matters, we can see how some corporations are rebranding their products as "green", "responsible" or "sustainable". Although such practices still leave much to debate about the actual "sustainability" of their products, some change is better than no change. Actual improvement to a more sustainable use of our world's resources however, demands a more radical change in our consumption patterns. We simply need to buy less and invent effective processes of reusing discarded materials.
A last example from the fashion industry: using organic cotton instead of non-organic cotton while keeping current production outputs at the same level is not going to solve any problem. It is only shifting people's attention away to marginally greener labels, not changing the incentive of buying otherwise unnecessary low-quality goods.
My personal view goes to the extent that a lifestyle with less, but high quality goods will yield a more fulfilling life in itself in the long run. Eating less means less strain on our digestive systems. Setting a limit to how many garments you can own makes you invest only in pieces that you truly love wearing. Less home accessories means less clutter and saving on the need for storage space. Less new children's toys means more incentive to share and reuse toys.
On a systemic level, we could think about various ways to tax systematic overproduction. Say, a company has 30% or more unsold, dead stock in two consecutive years, let it pay a waste tax and regulate the options for them to recycle/upcycle those goods. Like in mining, we may also need more regulations on global production outputs for every industry, proportional to the cost of solving exploitation-related erosion. Another idea is to require people to bring their own containers when they go shopping for food and impose a packaging tax for any packaged foods.
In sum, there are many ways to fundamentally cut down our consumption patterns to live less wasteful lives. In the end, quality will prevail over quantity.