Nature and Biodiversity

Why becoming a 'happily modest consumer' could help save the planet

People carry bags outside a shopping mall on the last day of Christmas shopping in Berlin December 23, 2014.

Reducing spending could also have a positive impact on our climate. Image: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Teresa Belton
Visiting Fellow, University of East Anglia
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Michelle McGagh is a bold woman. A personal finance journalist, she has just completed a year in which she vowed to spend no money at all except on essential bills, simple food, and charitable donations. It was a tall order and a tough experience but her perseverance rewarded her with new confidence, skills and insights.

McGagh’s experiment is telling in a society in which each household owes an average of about £2,400 on credit cards. Consumer debt causes great distress to many people, and is closely associated with mental ill health, so any advice on how to reduce spending is welcome.

But debt is not the only serious consequence of consumerism. Our collective demand for energy, water, land, meat, palm oil, timber, and much else besides is rapidly and irreversibly depleting and polluting the resources and eco-systems on which everyone depends. Leonardo DiCaprio’s new film Before the Flood brings this vividly into focus.

Positive spending

Spending per se, though, does not necessarily result in material consumption. One could spend a fortune on the environmentally benign business of buying antiques, planting trees, or commissioning music. But spending money can be used to better benefit the environment if used to buy a train ticket rather than a cheap flight, or better quality, longer-lasting goods, or solar panels.

But generally speaking, spending does translate directly into material consumption. Clothes exemplify prevailing attitudes and behaviours. The average UK household spends about £1,700 a year on clothes. About 30% of these garments remains in wardrobes unworn and an estimated £140m worth are sent to landfill every year.

Such casual consumption and waste creation is highly problematic, given the research that suggests three of the nine planetary boundaries essential for avoiding unacceptable environmental change have already been crossed. It’s time to recognise that every manufactured item or service we buy is at several environmental costs. As well as asking ourselves whether we can afford a particular purchase or experience, we also need to ask whether the Earth can really afford to provide it?

Climate change is the greatest threat we face. It’s reckoned that the world can absorb 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per person each year, but the average Briton currently emits around 15 tonnes (compared with 20 tonnes for the average American and 1.5 in India). The affluent of the world urgently need to curb personal consumption if the global temperature is to be kept to a liveable limit.

Stay happy

The prospect of changing our buying habits and expectations may be uninviting, but it helps to remember that personal well-being is not about material wealth (once basic needs are met). Powerful evidence can be found in the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index. The HPI logs measures of life-expectancy, well-being and ecological footprint for 89 nations, and produces an overall score for each country.

Costa Rica comes out top. Although its GDP per capita is less than a quarter of the size of many Western European countries and North America, and its per capita ecological footprint is just one third of the size of the USA’s, people living in Costa Rica enjoy higher well-being than the residents of many rich nations, and live longer than people in the US. American research suggests that there is no increase in well-being with an income above US$75,000.

We may know deep down that you can’t buy happiness but this intuition often gets lost under the many pressures to consume. A much happier future can be ours, though, if we concentrate on cultivating non-material assets such as good relationships, appreciating what we’ve got, a sense of meaning, and new skills, instead of on making and spending money.

About time

Standard of living has much less bearing on happiness than the attitudes, values and expectations we bring to the way we live. I learnt this repeatedly from the participants in a study I undertook of people who actively choose material modesty, while writing my book Happier People Healthier Planet. They were a diverse collection of 94 individuals aged 18 to 83. There were three whose finances were at subsistence level, two who could be described as “well-heeled”, and everything else in-between. Critically, they viewed time as more valuable than money. This often shaped their working lives and level of income. It was important to them to be independent, useful and responsible.

But these people did not consider their choices as self-denial. Their non-essential expenditure went on cultural events, books and CDs, alcohol and eating out with friends or inviting them round for home-cooked meals. They spent their time on being creative, community, volunteering, meditation, gardening, contact with nature – just the kinds of enrichment which research finds generates well-being. Indeed, the “modest consumers’” satisfaction with their lives was unusually high. Their stories raise pertinent questions.

Essential for well-being are a warm dry home, decent food and reasonable income. It’s shameful that the UK, the world’s sixth largest economy, sees increasing numbers going without, and that national wealth depends partly on worker exploitation. The global economic system, fixated on growth and profit, and resulting in environmental destruction, is deeply flawed.

Radically different frameworks exist, based on real human needs and environmental limits. One is set out by economist Tim Jackson in his just republished book Prosperity without Growth, and the new Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity is developing such thinking.

It’s time to get real. The Earth’s environmental limits are the ultimate bottom line. Slowing the rapid trend towards disastrous higher temperatures demands economic transformation. This will be complex to achieve, but the guiding principle is simple: life offers rich possibilities far more satisfying than constant consumption. All of us who have more than enough, need to learn to become happily modest consumers.

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