Is consumerism past its use-by-date?
This is a very interesting, perplexing and vexing question which is now being discussed at all levels of society.
This question is not only an economic and business question but, increasingly, a moral question challenging the very nature of how we make a living, how we make money and how we function as communities, economies and societies.
At this very point in our existence when anyone can reach almost everyone, everywhere, selling our wares and enticing people to buy, we — in the West at least — are confronted by the spectre of overconsumption, excessive waste with its environmental impacts and the ignominy of the collective fate of being defined as ‘consumers’. Business, governments and economists have reduced us as to how much we can consume.
And now we are faced with the brutal facts that there are limits to our physical world and the rate at which we are consuming. The world’s population is now well over seven billion and growing and so is our consumption of finite resources. We have reached a stage where the number of resources needed to sustain our population and how we currently consume exceeds what is available.
Professor John Guillebaud from University College London argues “On a finite planet sustainability is not an option, it’s just a matter of how it is achieved. Will the imbalance be corrected by literally billions of deaths or by fewer births?”
I am sure this was not the intended effect in the minds of those people who created the concept of Consumerism back in the 1950s.
How did Consumerism begin?
Shortly after World War II, the US administration was figuring out how to ramp up the economy: How to get people working and lift the living standards of Americans.
President Eisenhower’s economic advisors chairman said, that the American economy’s ultimate purpose was to produce more consumer goods.
This decision started to ramp up in the 1950s and 60s which is where we see the rise and rise of the advertising industry off the back of new product innovations, new markets, new consumers creating the conditions for consumerism.
What we have created is a business model that thrives on consumption that has been in operation for the better part of 70 years. It is only in recent times that we are now seeing the severe consequences of this model with no constraints and its impact on the environment, wages, living standards, communities, societies and so on. And it’s not pretty.
With the abundance of scientific, sociological, societal, economic and environmental evidence piling up and, as much as many people may like to deny the facts, keep our heads in the sand or carry on as if nothing is happening, we are now realising the error of the mid-20th century American vision which has been transported around the world across economies.
This is where we find ourselves now. So what does this mean for our collective futures? What does it mean for new ways of doing business, selling and working?
What does the future hold for many of our businesses that have been built on a value chain of consumerism?
I don’t have a definitive answer.
But what I do know is that there are many organisations like The Future Business Council of Australia, academics like Kate Raworth of Doughnut Economics fame, and business leaders like Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock Investments, and others like them, who are calling on people, politicians, investors and CEOs to change how we do business and how we consume, and fast.
In Larry Fink’s Letter to CEOs, 2019 – Purpose & Profit, he highlights the commitment to a long-term approach to business as more important than ever – the global landscape is increasingly fragile and, as a result, susceptible to short-term behaviour by corporations and governments alike. He says: “Purpose is not a mere tagline or marketing campaign; it is a company’s fundamental reason for being – what it does every day to create value for its stakeholders. Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them. Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose – in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked.”
Larry goes on to highlight the vital importance of good governance linked with creating sustainable and viable businesses that do not harm the environment now and in the long term.
There are more and more voices like Larry Fink seeking major changes in how we do politics, business and sales.
So, what can we do? Where do we start?
The Future Business Council (FBC) I mentioned before is an organisation that brings businesses together to tackle the world’s problems and develop opportunities when it comes creating a viable and sustainable business environment and functioning societies. FBC represent the interests of the innovative, sustainable and resilient businesses that are defining our future economy.
FBC members are leading companies who know the world is rapidly changing and understand a new approach is needed for business to survive and thrive this century. In 2016, FBC was instrumental in getting legislation enacted that makes company directors legally and financially accountable for their business decisions when it comes to their organisations’ environmental impacts.
There are sustainability models in operation making their way into our business world such as the circular economy which is already being adopted by businesses across industries. Procurement professionals are looking at their supply chains to ensure that resources are ethically sourced and sustainable. Eco-friendly sustainable replacement systems and materials such as hemp, seaweed, organic waste materials, algae are taking the place of polluting energy intense materials such as plastics, cotton, petroleum, palm oil, coal and other environmentally damaging resources.
There are also movements like One Million Women and programs like the ABC’s War on Waste that are educating people about how much waste we produce and what we can do to limit and remove unnecessary waste from our lives.
Then there is the worldwide Drawdown Project which outlines the scientific evidence of over 100 different ways we can easily draw down CO2 from the atmosphere now. There are so many business ideas and opportunities in here that address our post-consumerist world, it makes me very optimistic about our transition beyond consumerism.
As we move beyond consumerism, our focus now needs to shift to HOW and WHAT we consume in the future. HOW we reuse, recycle, repurpose and so on. HOW we adapt to the future and continue to run successful and viable businesses, communities, governments and societies.
The end of consumerism does not mean the end to business. The good news is that businesses can still carry on and be profitable, albeit with a reset around a different purpose, measures, systems, values and outcomes.
Remember everybody lives by selling something.
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