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The Carbon Cost of Consumerism

21st Nov, 2022

Pursue inner happiness and you will reduce carbon emissions as a by-product.  

You’re probably thinking, that’s a long shot, happiness and my carbon footprint?

Let me explain. Instead of looking at the end of the consumer pathway and explore methods in which we can consume using “green” methods, let’s take the control into our own hands more and rewind to the point at which we consume, and even further… what drives us to consume excessively? 

You’ve all heard ‘prevention is better than cure’ in all aspects of life – so how does this apply to happiness and net zero? To understand this, let’s cover consumerism first. 

What is consumerism? 

You and I are both consumers. We consume to meet our basic needs, such as food and shelter. Consumerism is different. It is about consuming things that make us feel good.  

Consumerism is the idea that increasing the consumption of goods and services purchased in the market is always a desirable goal, and that a person’s happiness and wellbeing depend fundamentally on obtaining material possessions. Depending on which perspective in the market you take, consumerism can be both helpful and harmful for the society.  

From an economics perspective, consumer spending is the key driver of the economy, making it a key policy goal. From this point of view, consumerism is a positive phenomenon that fuels economic growth. However, consumerism can also create incentives for consumers to take on unsustainable debt levels that contribute to financial crises and recessions. 

Consumerism, happiness and our environment 

 Let’s look at the more, in my opinion, interesting side to consumerism. Some believe that consumerism can lead to a materialistic society that neglects other values in which no quantity of goods ever seems to be enough to fill society’s greed. This is where consumerism is criticised on psychological grounds.  

Psychological research (Consumerism and its antisocial effects can be turned on—or off ) has shown that people who organise their lives around consumerist values based on wealth, status and material possessions report higher levels of anxiety (including status anxiety), depression, greater unhappiness in relationships, poorer moods and other psychological problems. In other words, science shows that consumerism does not make people happy at all. 

However, it doesn’t just stop at happiness. Plenty of research shows that materialism is not just a personal problem. It is also an environmental problem, as you may have guessed – we are overconsuming at the cost of our happiness and our planet.   

The reason consumerism is at an all-time high 

We cannot tap into the root cause of consumerism without getting a little deep and addressing our ego.  This trait is the constructed identity that we like to present to the world, our mask or self-image or self-identity. We, at all costs, want to present the best versions of ourselves to the world.  This self-image is constantly triggered and needs to be maintained continuously. The triggers are daily, as social medias have caused an excessive increase in exposure to other people successes and ‘picture-perfect’ lives. These successes are often presented as materialistic gains: the best jobs, dream houses, travelling, luxurious cars and lifestyles.  

We, as a society, have developed a high level of individual consumeristic competitiveness and a continuous comparison, both of which are unhealthy. This represents a threat to the ego and, of course, like any other threat, you must respond and keep yourself ‘safe’. So, we tend to change our behaviour and seek validation through either social media presence or buying products and services and, before you know it, our identity can become defined by what we purchase and present to the world. As we are competitive, we can often aspire to be seen as being in a higher group in our community and, consequently, our purchases increasingly become conspicuous in terms of their quality or quantity. 

This may not be news to you. It certainly isn’t news to the seller’s markets; it is a long-standing technique of markets to act on this vulnerability of ours and therefore encourage us to constantly compare ourselves to an ‘ideal norm’ and trap us into consumerism.  

Not only does this come at the cost of our long-term happiness, but we also consume our planet in the pursuit of happiness. 

What can be done? 

The good news is that we don’t need to go far to change this. Not far at all. The answer is within us all. The more we separate our world-driven ego from our inner self, our conscience, the less we allow ourselves to be drawn into over consuming. And guess what? Not only will we feel long-term validation and happiness, but we will also save our planet as a by-product – what a valuable by-product that is! 

The next time you are staring at that bag you already have twenty of, the social media post you’re about to make to show off a new purchase or are staring at the iPhone model you are contemplating to get, ask yourself this: 

  • Why do I need this? Is this my ego or my inner self?  
  • I love this product, but does this product love me back?* 

It’s the best type of self-love you can practice. Life starts and ends within your own inner world. Nurture that and you will save all the worlds around you. 

*inspired by Daniel G. Amen