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Another Elephant in the Sustainability Room: Over-Consumption - A weekly blog by sustainability expert Bob Willard

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In my August 24, 2010, blog, we explored a dilemma for sustainable companies: growth. This week we will discuss its Siamese twin: over-consumption. It’s the second undiscussable elephant in the board rooms of companies aspiring to be sustainable enterprises. Consumption is the root cause of growth, since companies grow when the demand for their products grows.

If there is no market for a company’s goods and services, it stops producing them and lays off its workers. Laid-off workers can’t afford to buy goods and services, so the downward economic spiral continues. No wonder President Eisenhower encouraged consumerism as a way to address the 1950s recession, as did George Bush after 9/11 as a way to fight another economic speed bump. In fact, increased consumption has become politicians’ panacea for economic slow-downs and recessions.
 
There’s nothing wrong with consumption of basic goods and services. It’s when consumption takes on a life of its own that we risk overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet, as illustrated in Our Ecological Footprint, by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees. We don’t really “consume” most goods. We just use them and throw them away. The resulting build-up of hazardous and non-hazardous waste is not sustainable. That’s why green packaging, green supply chains, and green products are receiving so much attention.
 
Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff video illustrates how over-consumption contributes to environmental degradation. Whether out of a sense of patriotic duty or as a proxy for fulfillment, consumers have a severe case of “affluenza” and are borrowing themselves into perilous debt in many “developed” nations. Some consumer addicts use their home equity as a cash machine. Their never-ending spending sprees precipitate social and economic ruin. Consumption comes in many guises: for the sake of consumption, as a time-filler, in the quest for social status, to satisfy artificial needs, to keep up with the Jones, or because we feel that we deserve to over-reward ourselves for minor accomplishments.
 
It’s not sustainable. Despite the tee shirts and bumper stickers in praise of copious possessions, the one who dies with the most toys does not win. In fact, we all lose. The over-consumption mindset can be overcome with a sustainability mindset, but changing mindsets is always difficult. Sustainability champions help people envision the repercussions of their behavior, exemplifying the replacement of over-consumption with investments in healthier and more fulfilling relationships. It is a difficult conversation, but it’s one that needs to happen.
 
Bob
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