is “responsible consumption” an oxymoron?

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Without a doubt, we are living in a highly consumptive society. The Global Footprint Network estimates that we are using about 1.5x the annual biocapacity of the Earth in 2010 (i.e. 50% more than the Earth can sustain in the long-term). The “Consumer Consequences” calculator put together by American Public Media says that if everyone lived like me, we would need 4 Earths to sustain that level of consumption indefinitely. There are a range of other estimates, but the point is usually the same: the global population is consuming at an unsustainable rate.

So is there anything that we can do about this? Or should we just throw up our hands in resignation and enjoy it while it lasts?

Nicholas, an old friend of mine, commented here that he doesn’t believe in incremental improvements like recycling, or energy efficiency measures, or buying organically, because he disagrees with the concept that “we can consume our way out of the perils of a consumption-based society”. On the other side of the spectrum, a few of my other friends recently started a website called Bolder that gets companies to offer deals (discounts, free stuff, etc.) to promote good behavior like bringing lunch to work rather than eating out or ditching bottled water for a day. But they too have received feedback similar to Nicholas’, that they shooting themselves in the foot, trying to solve problems of over-consumption by promoting more consumption.

My thoughts on this, as with pretty much everything, are rooted in my economics background. One of the most important rules of economics is that when determining optimal allocations of goods and services, you must look to the marginal effect (i.e. the effect of a single additional unit or instance of behavior in the context of the whole) rather than the average or total effect.

On the margin, is the promotion of good acts through promoting consumerism (as Bolder does and Nicholas questions) beneficial? I would argue that it can be. For one thing, the Bolder rewards are used at the discretion of the actor, so there’s a certain number of actions in each challenge that do not correspond to an increase in consumption: if someone chose not to use their reward, forgot to use it, just wanted to advertise that they had done the action, etc..

But even in a hypothetical case where every reward is used, I think that Bolder is an attempt to move in the right direction for two reasons. The first is also my response to Nicholas’ feelings about recycling: though these things can be seen as a justification for consumerism, I don’t believe that they represent a marginal increase in consumerism, i.e an increase relative to the status quo. The Bolder deals that I have redeemed were not things that I would never have bought in the absence of that deal; rather, they displaced a purchase I would have made anyway. I have gotten a pair of pants, a t-shirt, and a water bottle using Bolder rewards thus far. Since I would have purchased these things at some point anyway, rather than promoting commercialism Bolder shifted my commercialism to another company and another time while encouraging me to engage in good behavior. Similarly, with recycling/energy-efficient lightbulbs/organic foods, these are all (in theory, though some disagree*) less harmful manifestations of goods that I would have purchased and eventually disposed of regardless of the availability of a recycling program. So on the margin, when I have used up my whole jar of pasta sauce that I would have bought with or without a recycling program in place, and am looking at the trash and the recycling bin right next to each other, I choose to reduce my impact (believing that recycling is beneficial) by separating my recyclables from my trash.

The second reason I think that Bolder is a move in the right direction is that it allows me to “vote with my pocketbook”, so to speak. Again, as these are goods that I would have purchased in the absence of Bolder’s rewards, Bolder simply provides me with a way to identify companies whose business practices are more in line with my own views. The fact that they are working with Bolder is an indication of this (by no means definitive proof, but a better indication than I typically see). Having identified these companies, I can encourage their success by spending money with them rather than another company into whose business practices I have little or no insight. Essentially, I am trying to reduce the marginal external costs associated with my consumption by giving my money to (and thus hopefully promoting the success of) companies that I believe to be more responsible.

I do not claim to be a paradigm of “responsible consumption”; there are many areas in which I could reduce the negative externalities of my actions. But I try to identify those areas where the marginal benefit (in this case, reduced harm to society) of a “green” behavior outweighs the marginal cost to me (money, time, or effort expended). However, I also tend to think that my insignificance on a global scale means that the marginal costs of my consumption (even when all externalities are included) are often quite small, sometimes so small as to be indistinguishable from zero. This means that my weighing of the costs and benefits often tilts against society’s benefit and toward my own convenience. I think that there are many actions like this that will not be solved on an individual level, but rather need to be addressed collectively on a societal level. But how to do that is an issue for another post.

(Disclosure: Though I am friends with the founders of Bolder and wish them success, I received nothing from them for this post and would have written the same were we not friends.)

* The example I gave is an article about the harms of recycling, printed in 1996. The National Resources Defense Council responds here. This article highlights and examines some examples of the arguments against Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs). An article about the potential downside of organic or locally grown foods can be found here. These are just examples, far from an exhaustive rundown of the pro and con arguments for each.

The other argument I have heard about recycling is that it increases consumption by lessening the guilt associated with consumption. Personally, I don’t see that many people out there who are wracked by guilt from their consumption, and in my own life, I don’t think that the availability of a recycling program makes me more inclined to make purchases.

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One Response to is “responsible consumption” an oxymoron?

  1. Nicholas Kramer says:

    Although I responded to the general theory of incremental improvements here ( ), I have a few points on other issues that are worth making. I am not opposed, as you indicated above, to buying organically – this is something that would directly impact my family in a positive way. Unfortunately, I, like many people, simply cannot afford the extra premium for the organic label (I do buy organic apples, but that is about it). More accurately, I choose to allocate my scarce income to other priorities (such as cable television for more than $100 per month) – cutting cable alone from our expenses would more than allow me to offset the increased cost of organic products. I must bear the responsibility for that choice – while I don’t believe that any of us can escape from the vast majority of toxins to which we are exposed (see my post on my son’s poisoning ), any reduction in that amount would be beneficial.

    Regarding your friends’ Bolder project – see the excellent discussion and comments by Peter Witucki here ( ). Ultimately, this project does nothing to address the real issue of sustainability, but is something that may help some people to feel better about themselves. There is value in that – I’m just not sure how much.

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