Behind Consumption and Consumerism

Author and Page information

  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Saturday, June 10, 2006

The United Nations statistics showing the inequality in consumption are very shocking:

Today’s consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating. If the trends continue without change — not redistributing from high-income to low-income consumers, not shifting from polluting to cleaner goods and production technologies, not promoting goods that empower poor producers, not shifting priority from consumption for conspicuous display to meeting basic needs — today’s problems of consumption and human development will worsen.

… The real issue is not consumption itself but its patterns and effects.

… Inequalities in consumption are stark. Globally, the 20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures — the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%. More specifically, the richest fifth:

  • Consume 45% of all meat and fish, the poorest fifth 5%
  • Consume 58% of total energy, the poorest fifth less than 4%
  • Have 74% of all telephone lines, the poorest fifth 1.5%
  • Consume 84% of all paper, the poorest fifth 1.1%
  • Own 87% of the world’s vehicle fleet, the poorest fifth less than 1%

Runaway growth in consumption in the past 50 years is putting strains on the environment never before seen.

Human Development Report 1998 Overview, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) — Emphasis Added

And consider the following, reflecting world priorities:

Global Priority$U.S. Billions
Cosmetics in the United States8
Ice cream in Europe11
Perfumes in Europe and the United States12
Pet foods in Europe and the United States17
Business entertainment in Japan35
Cigarettes in Europe50
Alcoholic drinks in Europe105
Narcotics drugs in the world400
Military spending in the world780

And compare that to what was estimated as additional costs to achieve universal access to basic social services in all developing countries:

Global Priority$U.S. Billions
Basic education for all6
Water and sanitation for all9
Reproductive health for all women12
Basic health and nutrition13

(Source: The state of human development, United National Development Report 1998, Chapter 1, p.37)

Data from the World Bank for 2003 suggests that these numbers have only very slightly changed in those 5 years; people in the world’s high income countries account for 81.5% of total private consumption expenditures — people in the world’s low income countries account for just 3.6%. (The World Bank data does not include the type of breakdown that the 1998 Human Development Report indicates, and while those numbers will of course be different now, they still reveal the stark inequalities in consumption.)

We consume a variety of resources and products today having moved beyond basic needs to include luxury items and technological innovations to try to improve efficiency. Such consumption beyond minimal and basic needs is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, as throughout history we have always sought to find ways to make our lives a bit easier to live. However, increasingly, there are important issues around consumerism that need to be understood. For example:

  • How are the products and resources we consume actually produced?
  • What are the impacts of that process of production on the environment, society, on individuals?
  • What are the impacts of certain forms of consumption on the environment, on society, on individuals?
  • Which actors influence our choices of consumption?
  • Which actors influence how and why things are produced or not?
  • What is a necessity and what is a luxury?
  • How do demands on items affect the requirements placed upon the environment?
  • How do consumption habits change as societies change?
  • Businesses and advertising are major engines in promoting the consumption of products so that they may survive. How much of what we consume is influenced by their needs versus our needs?
  • Also influential is the very culture of today in many countries, as well as the media and the political institutions themselves. What is the impact on poorer nations and people on the demands of the wealthier nations and people that are able to afford to consume more?
  • How do material values influence our relationships with other people?
  • What impact does that have on our personal values?
  • And so on.

Just from these questions, we can likely think of numerous others as well. We can additionally, see that consumerism and consumption are at the core of many, if not most societies. The impacts of consumerism, positive and negative are very significant to all aspects of our lives, as well as our planet. But equally important to bear in mind in discussing consumption patterns is the underlying system that promotes certain types of consumption and not other types.

Inherent in today’s global economic system is the wasteful use of resources, labor and capital. These need to be addressed. Waste is not only things like via not recycling etc; it is deep within the system.

The U.N. statistics above are hard hitting, highlight one of the major impacts of today’s form of corporate-led globalization.

“Over” population is usually blamed as the major cause of environmental degradation, but the above statistics strongly suggests otherwise. As we will see, consumption patterns today are not to meet everyone’s needs. The system that drives these consumption patterns also contribute to inequality of consumption patterns too.

This section of the web site will attempt to provide an introductory look at various aspects of what we consume and how.

  • We will see possible “hidden” costs of convenient items to society, the environment and individuals, as well as the relationship with various sociopolitical and economic effects on those who do consume, and those who are unable to consume as much (due to poverty and so on).
  • We will look at how some luxuries were turned into necessities in order to increase profits.
  • This section goes beyond the “don’t buy this product” type of conclusion to the deeper issues and ramifications.
  • We will see just a hint at how wasteful all this is on resources, society and capital. The roots of such disparities in consumption are inextricably linked to the roots of poverty. There is such enormous waste in the way we consume that an incredible amount of resources is wasted as well. Furthermore, the processes that lead to such disparities in unequal consumption are themselves wasteful and is structured deep into the system itself. Economic efficiency is for making profits, not necessarily for social good (which is treated as a side effect). The waste in the economic system is, as a result, deep. Eliminating the causes of this type of waste are related to the elimination of poverty and bringing rights to all. Eliminating the waste also allows for further equitable consumption for all, as well as a decent standard of consumption.
  • So these issues go beyond just consumption, and this section only begins to highlight the enormous waste in our economy which is not measured as such.
  • A further bold conclusion is also made that elimination of so much wasted capital would actually require a reduction of people’s workweek. This is because the elimination of such waste means entire industries are halved in size in some cases. So much labor redundancy cannot be tolerated, and hence the answer is therefore to share the remaining productive jobs, which means reducing the workweek!
  • We will see therefore, that political causes of poverty are very much related to political issues and roots of consumerism. Hence solutions to things like hunger, environmental degradation, poverty and other problems have many commonalities that would need to be addressed.

Entire volumes of research can be written on this topic so these pages provide just an insight to these issues!

Creating the Consumer

This section looks at the rise of the consumer and the development of the mass consumer society. While consumption has of course been a part of our history, in the last 100 years or so, the level of mass consumption beyond basics has been exponential and is now a fundamental part of many economies. Luxuries that had to be turned into necessities and how entire cultural habits had to be transformed for this consumption is introduced here. Last updated Wednesday, May 14, 2003.

Read article: Creating the Consumer

Children as Consumers

A stark example of this increasing consumption and its associated impacts is the use and promotion of consumption by children. Kid’s markets are enormous and there are many products and foods geared towards children. Parents on the one hand have a hard time raising children; while on the other hand, kids are being increasingly influenced by commercialism. Last updated Tuesday, October 28, 2003.

Read article: Children as Consumers

Effects of Consumerism

Because consumption is so central to many economies, and even to the current forms of globalization, its effects therefore are also seen around the world. How we consume, and for what purposes drives how we extract resources, create products and produce pollution and waste. Issues relating to consumption hence also affect environmental degradation, poverty, hunger, and even the rise in obesity that is nearing levels similar to the “official” global poverty levels. Political and economic systems that are currently promoted and pushed around the world in part to increase consumption also lead to immense poverty and exploitation. Much of the world cannot and do not consume at the levels that the wealthier in the world do. Indeed, the above U.N. statistics highlight that very sharply. In fact, the inequality structured within the system is such that as Richard Robbins says, “some one has to pay” for the way the wealthier in the world consume. Last updated Wednesday, August 10, 2005.

Read article: Effects of Consumerism

Tobacco New

In this section, we look at the example of tobacco consumption. Smoking kills millions. Furthermore, it exacerbates poverty, damages the environment, and (through diversion of land resources away from food production) contributes to world hunger. This wastes our wealth such as capital, labor, and resources. Last updated Saturday, June 10, 2006.

Read article: Tobacco

Obesity New

In this section, we look at the issue of obesity. Obesity is a growing problem, rivaling world hunger in the number of people that suffer from it. Obese people were thought to be mainly the rich, but poor people can also suffer as the food industry supplies cheaper food of poorer quality. The food industry are reluctant to take too many measures that could affect their bottom line, preferring to blame individuals instead. Last updated Thursday, April 20, 2006.

Read article: Obesity


In this section, we look at the example of sugar consumption; how it has arisen (as it was once a luxury, now turned into a “necessity”). We look at things like how it affects the environment; the political and economic drivers in producing sugar (for example, historically, sugar plantations encouraged slavery); its health effects today; its relation to world hunger (as land used to grow sugar and related support, for export, could be used to grow food for local consumption); and so on. As we will also see, it is an example of a “wasteful” industry. That is, so many resources go into this industry compared to what might be needed. This wastes labor, wastes capital and uses up many resources. Last updated Friday, April 25, 2003.

Read article: Sugar


Beef, as sugar, is another vivid example of enormous waste, in resources, environmental degradation, in contributing to world hunger, poverty etc. For example, more than one third of the world’s grain harvest is used to feed livestock. Some 70 to 80% of grain produced in the United States is fed to livestock. A lot of rainforest in the Amazon and elsewhere are cleared for raising cattle — not so much for local consumption, but for fast food restaurants in America and elsewhere. There are enormous related costs of what is an “inefficient” means of production. A more realistic estimate of the real cost of a hamburger was put at $35! As with sugar, beef was a luxury turned into an everyday item. Like sugar, it is also an example of how people’s tastes are influenced and how “demands” can be created (or very much expanded), rather than meeting some “natural” demand. Last updated Wednesday, November 26, 2003.

Read article: Beef


The banana industry in Latin America and the Caribbean also touches many other issues. Rainforest destruction is one effect of the banana industry. Dependent economies is another, where bananas are grown not to feed local people and meet their demands, but to create exports for Europe and America. The recent trade disputes between those two regions have received the most attention. However, the focus of the debate is limited. It continues to leave both dependent Latin American nations, and the Caribbean nations in poverty and hunger, while Latin American nations, large multinational American banana corporations and the American government seek to destroy the Caribbean banana economy, via the World Trade Organization, in order to gain dominant access to the European markets. So many resources are poured into the banana industry, and like the sugar and beef examples, there is a lot of unnecessary use of resources that could otherwise be freed up to help local people in a way that is also less degrading to the surrounding environment. Posted Friday, September 07, 2001.

Read article: Bananas

Wasted Wealth, Capital, Labor and Resources

We are beginning to get just a hint of how wasteful our societies are. Sugar, beef, and bananas are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of examples of wasted industry and waste structured within the current system. Not only are certain wasteful job functions unnecessary as a result, but the capital that employs this labor is therefore a wasteful use of capital. As a result, we see waste and misuse of the environment, as well as social and environmental degradation increasing. Our industries may be efficient for accumulating capital and making profits, but that does not automatically mean that it is efficient for society. However, with such “wasted labor” what do we do? We can’t have such an enormous idle labor force, right? Well, as J.W. Smith points out, we should share the remaining jobs. This would also reduce our workweek. Something technocrats have kept promising us in rhetoric only! Last updated Sunday, September 23, 2001.

Read article: Wasted Wealth, Capital, Labor and Resources

More Information

With kind permission from J.W. Smith, a part of the conclusion to Part I of World’s Wasted Wealth II (Institute for Economic Democracy, 1994) has been reproduced on this page. That part is titled The Mathematics of Wasted Labor. It is a vivid example of wasted and unnecessary labor using the United States as the case study. While the book was written back in 1994 and the numbers, facts and estimates are hence based on data from the early 1990s, the pattern and examples shown here are still very valid. His calculations suggest that with the elimination of wasted labor in the U.S. and sharing the remaining productive jobs between all those who can work, workers would need to work just 2.4 days per week! Posted Friday, September 07, 2001.

Read article: More Information

Mathematics of Wasted Labor—an Example

Because this topic is vast, I cannot expect to write everything here! In addition, due to the overlapping and inter-related nature of so many issues, throughout this web site topics are presented which can also be looked at from this waste perspective. Such links as well as links to other web site, books and so on are presented here. Posted Friday, September 07, 2001.

Read article: Mathematics of Wasted Labor—an Example

Document History

November 19, 2005Added updated figures for inequality in consumption
August 10, 2005Added obesity as another example/case study into wasted wealth
March 20, 2005Added tobacco as another example/case study into wasted wealth
April 28, 2004Cited a list of global priority spending in 1998

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where I can, I try to provide alternative links to backups or reposted versions here.

Actual Link:


  1. World Development Indicators, Section 4
  2. World Development Indicators home page

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Friday, September 07, 2001
  • Last Updated: Saturday, June 10, 2006

“There’s enough on this planet for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed.” — Mahatma Gandhi

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