The Environmental Impact of Consumerism

The long-awaited shopping season of the year is finally upon us. Events like Singles’ Day (11.11), Black Friday Cyber Monday, 12.12 are marketed to seemingly benefit the consumer, with huge discounts and marked-down prices.

Amidst the backdrop of macroeconomic volatility, Alibaba managed to keep sales in line with last year, at RMB 540.3 billion in gross merchandise volume. What comes together with this sales volume would be the fuel emissions required for the good buys to reach consumers, and the shredded paper, bubble wraps and cardboard boxes, that will most likely end up at Semakau Island. 

How have we evolved from consuming the necessities of life – food, shelter, and clothing to being a consumer with a thirst for more stuff? Is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs still relevant in today’s context?

As we approach the biggest holiday season in the first year of a post-pandemic world, we pause to look at the real cost of buying excessively, and the historical roots of consumerism to examine how this has shaped our purchase habits and its environmental impact.

What is of paramount importance is whether we are willing to make the change to buy consciously for ourselves, friends, and family during this gifting season.

What is consumerism?

The concept of consumerism started after the Second World War and intensified at the start of the industrial revolution.

In Singapore’s context,  the effects of consumerism were most evident during the 1990s. The epitome of a successful Singapore, which many desire is to achieve all the five Cs: Cash, Credit Card, Country Club, Car, and Condo.

This is the effect of consumerism, where we parallel our happiness with material possessions. Soon enough, owning a set of five Cs became mediocre, and consumers begin to thirst for what is beyond. The result? People own double or triple what they initially thought would give them the “desired happiness”.

Do not get us wrong, consumerism does have its benefits­ which include economic growth, job creation, and a much larger variety of choices when it comes to discerning their purchases. But on the other hand, the negative behavioural impact leads to general dissatisfaction with life, materialism and extending debt beyond their current means. It also contributes to environmental problems such as pollution and climate change as businesses use up natural resources and produces waste to feed our consumption.

In our incessant pursuit of material possessions, does consumerism actually give us the liberty of choice or have we unknowingly become slaves of consumption?

Play Video

Who wins? Consumer Vs Environment

We could scour the entire internet for empirical data and evidence to support who wins, and who loses. But nothing could possibly be as succinct as the Earth Overshoot Day in 2022. 

In a Straits Times article, Earth Overshoot Day is the day of the year when humanity’s demand for natural resources exceeds a sustainable supply and in 2022, this day is July 28, based on the Global Footprint network. This balance sheet consists of (i) demand for natural resources for food, clothing, land and materials to expand cities; (ii) for consumer goods vs the planet’s biological capacity to renew the supply.

If the entire world lived like Singapore, we would have run out of resources on 8 April and would require 3.75 times the Earth.

What's next?

The above may be an abstract concept to grasp, afterall, there are a lot of variables to consider when it comes to Singapore. I.e., Land size vs Population, lack of natural resources etc. 

To illustrate the impact on the environment, we look at the upcoming Christmas and examine the real cost of festive spending and feasting, and ways of how we can do better yet enjoy all the festivities surrounding Christmas.

What does Christmas mean to Singaporeans?

56%
believe that Christmas is about the spirit of giving, and
54%

do not celebrate Christmas.

The psyche of gifting

2.5 billion kg

of returned gifts received by retailers end up in the rubbish, as estimated by a reverse logistics company, Optoro.

“If they don’t like the gift, they (or we) can always send it back.”

The exchange of gifts is a ritual that exists, quite possibly, in every society. It has economic and social utility – signalling intentions, values and identities, and also identified as one of the five love languages. French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, in his 1925 essay The Gift, labelled the gift a “social fact” with “magical” properties involving the gift, giver and recipient.

At our current rate of waste production, Semakau Island will only last till 2035.

Further research into this magical power of gifts has also uncovered psychological attachments to physical objects. When it came to digital gifting, researchers of the University of Nottingham’s Mixed Reality Lab found that study participants discounted the value of digital gifts because they are relatively easy to gift and with no tangible attributes tied to them.  The perceived convenience undermined “some of the most valued aspects of social gifting rituals”, which include “purposefully selecting an object; taking time to personalise by wrapping it; and thoughtfully giving it to the recipient by hand.”

As a recipient, digital gifting reduces the joy that is derived from appreciating the presentation of a gift, unwrapping the “mystery”, reflecting back and reciprocating.”.

Food waste during the holiday season

40%

of respondents over-catered with rice and noodles commonly being binned according to a 2019 NEA survey.

56%

in food waste, with 817,000 tonnes generated in 2021.

Without an ounce of doubt, Singaporeans are willing to indulge and splurge on food during parties and could be tempted by deals offered by restaurants and supermarkets. A big contributor to festive food waste could also be our culture. Our Asian mindset kicks in when hosting and we never want to be caught in a situation where there is insufficient food, and guests leave hungry and unsatisfied. To avoid embarrassment, we over-cater.

This is despite the consumer trend of adopting environmentally conscious food habits such as having no leftovers on their plates when eating out. 

Commercial and industrial sectors contribute 40 per cent of Singapore’s food waste. Food caterer, SATS deploys waste management systems to reduce avoidable waste and improve efficiency.

How can we do better, as an individual, and as a nation?

Let’s leap into the holiday season consciously, and sustainably with these tips to reduce our carbon footprint, cut costs, and decrease waste this Christmas.

Buy Less, Buy Better

Buying less does not necessarily mean self-deprivation. It is about rethinking needs and wants to be coupled with acting on a conscious reduction of consuming that gives buying less its purpose and benefits towards the environment. For instance, do we really need a real fir or pine tree in the house to feel happier only to dispose of it a month later? Is there anything else we can do with the wrapping paper after ripping it off?

To buy less has psychological benefits. I.e., It helps to save time and money, and gives more opportunity to experiences or helps you to focus on the more important stuff.

However, buying less must not be confused with buying green. “If you are able to buy environmentally friendly products, you can still live your materialist values. You’re acquiring new things, and that fits into our mainstream consumption pattern in our consumer culture, whereas reduced consumption is more novel and probably more important from a sustainability perspective,” said Helm, an associate professor at the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Still, the answer is not to completely go cold turkey because curbing consumption entirely is unrealistic. Buying better means making a purchase decision based on the quality of materials, construction, and if it is repairable. It is also prudent to ensure that it is sourced sustainably and made ethically where workers are being remunerated fairly together with their working conditions. 

So before you make your next purchase, consider borrowing, renting, or swapping before hitting that checkout button!

The first certified carbon neutral Christmas Market in Singapore, the Sustainable Christmas Market aimed to help Singaporeans celebrate Christmas in a more environmentally-conscious way.

Wrapping Up

Thankfully, there has been growing concern over the impact of consumerism on both the well-being of the individual and society and this is driven by a new generation of consumers, who do not rely on material possessions. In an OCBC bank survey of young Singaporeans, the majority are driven by the motivation to care for their parents, the environment and social causes. In the same survey, beyond their life’s goals, the youths identified issues that they are concerned with, which include environmental awareness. We cannot wait to see the changes in the coming years.

883 North Bridge Road #15-03

Southbank, Singapore 198785