Consumerism: Capitalism’s Climate Changing Child
BY ANTHONY YE
In the past thousand years of human civilization, most people owned only a few pieces of clothing, maybe a couple toys, and perhaps a few pieces of family heirlooms, cosmetics, or displayable products. Today studies show we own anywhere from 77 to 155 pieces of clothing, with an average of 148. We buy a new phone every couple of years, when our clothes have holes in them, when worn out we just throw them away, when our cars, electronics, and anything we use breaks, we throw them away, and we buy new things. Shopping is a fun activity after all, who would not love to go out and spend a bunch of money on things we do not need for that temporary rush of dopamine? Shopping makes people happy, people want new stuff, and people want more stuff. As products became more and more affordable to the average person, we have seen an explosive growth in demand for various toys, cosmetics, electronics, and necessities.
Consumerism is perhaps one of the most distinguishing symptoms of post-industrial capitalism. Many people today can proudly proclaim going to the mall and shopping is one of their favorite pastime activities. However, this privilege comes at a great cost to the climate and the environment that we may not instinctively realize. Capitalism thrives on the consumerism it helped create and the materialistic society we live in today. To slow down climate change and limit our environmental impact, today’s way of life is far from sustainable. It is not simply about switching to a more sustainable economic system, it is about decreasing our spending on things we do not need. Here, we explore how consumerism drives climate change, the psychology of consumerism, planned obsolescence, and the right to repair.
The truth of the matter is that today we have way more stuff than we need. We buy more stuff than we need, we use more than we need. We are wasteful because of the abundance of stuff we are able to create. However, that abundance comes at a great price to our natural resources, environment, and climate. Everything we use is made in a factory, and those factories run by corporations are burning fossil fuels to produce these products. So when consumers choose to buy something, it comes at a price of a carbon footprint. The more we buy, the more carbon emissions we drive up as increased demand means more production. I am not arguing to stop buying things, as we all need stuff to live, but we as consumers also have an ethical responsibility to reduce our consumption of materialistic goods. Even if something is made with clean energy, it is still consuming natural resources, and with our current recycling system, it is not sustainable. Thus, to help the climate, we must not only reduce emissions, but reduce consumption because current consumerist culture in the west is not sustainable. It is not sustainable to throw out clothes just because it has a few holes in it, it is not sustainable to throw out electronics made with rare earth materials without trying to repair or recycle them. The rapid use and replacement without proper recycling is not a sustainable method of consumption, we use resources without replenishing. It is infinitely cheaper and more efficient for a society to have responsible consumers than for a society to have well managed recycling.
So, how did we arrive at the point where we constantly need to consume, never satisfied, and become so wasteful and indifferent to throwing the stuff we buy away? Why are so many people today addicted to consumption, shopping, and buying new things? As Campbell puts it, the materialistic culture we live in today not only affects our desires but also our mental well-being. Indeed, in a culture that rapidly changes and products switch from “new” to “old”, it leads to an eternal dissatisfaction with what we have as we look towards what we do not have, and therefore a desire. Part of this consumerist culture is what Karl Marx coined as “commodity fetishism”. This refers to our psychological valuation of a product in relation to other merchandise and money, instead of the work it came from. This is a problematic way of looking at products of labor because it can lead to a devaluation of the product, devaluing the work that was put into it to produce. This not only drives wasteful consumption, but also fosters a harsh labor market for the workers. As commodity fetishization lowers the prices of products, it also brings down the money capitalists pay their workers, which decreases the prices of goods and further leads to a cycle of devaluation of commodities. As this process continues it creates the disconnect from the value of the labor to the value of the product, and amplifies wasteful consumption, which leads us to an unsustainable economic system that causes climate crisis.
Last but not least, it is apparent that capitalism and the capitalist system itself benefits from this kind of consumer culture and encourages it. This is apparent through planned obsolescence, the strategy of producing consumer goods that rapidly and intentionally become obsolete or have a purposely shorter lifespan. Phones, electronics, cars, lightbulbs, and many other commodities have that lifespan not because of a natural degradation process, but of a planned obsolescence. Journalists and articles such as The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy expose companies like lightbulb producers, who have famously formed a cartel in which they all agree to have light bulbs that last a maximum amount of time. This is so they will always have a demand on the market for lightbulbs, as capitalism incentivizes making less than efficient items to ensure repeat customers . After all, if an item is so good that you only need to buy it once, then how could you ensure a continual stream of profits? Another egregious example are iPhones. Every year we get a new model of an iPhone barely better than the last, and every so often they roll out with an IOS update that would make old iPhones unusable or slower, forcing people to buy the new models, as the New York Times states and many others with older IPhones can attest to. How can an old flip phone be used for decades by some dedicated old-fashioned folks, but a modern iPhone does not even last a decade? The truth is that the current capitalistic and consumer-driven cycle is a broken system that cannot be sustained. We need to not only use fewer products, but extend the lifespan of our current products. However, we are seeing some changes through the movement coined “right to repair”. Right to repair refers to allowing a consumer to modify and repair electronic devices and automobiles by providing access to necessary tools and relevant software access for repair. This is in contrast to what many companies have traditionally done, which is to block a consumer from having an ability to repair such devices, which forces consumption.
As we face head to head with the climate crisis in front of us, we not only need to reduce emissions, but also reduce consumption. We need to treat our products with respect and care. And although the system we live in makes it intentionally hard to do so, we still bear the responsibility to act as ethical and informed consumers. Climate change is not only caused by a systemic issue, but a cultural issue as well. Both will need to change for human society to be truly sustainable and stop climate change. Changing consumerism is part of that cultural fight against the climate crisis. And let’s not forget about that simply because it poses an inconvenience and requires us to change our lifestyles.