Anti-Consumption in a World in Crisis
- Humans are consuming resources 1.7 times faster than the planet can generate them, contributing to an acceleration in global warming. One way to reverse this trend is simple: Buy less, don’t waste.
- Our market systems maintain the illusion that consumers can solve broad societal problems by making responsible consumption choices, when true progress will come only when larger institutions and systems shift paradigms.
- Business schools will play a critical role in making this shift happen by, in part, exposing students to sustainability concepts, reducing their own consumption patterns, and convincing stakeholders to reduce waste.
We live in a world based on material consumption. It’s a world where businesses are challenged to grow every quarter and where the market mobilizes consumers to “shop ’til they drop.”
But such consumption has consequences. The world is warming, wildfires are spreading, glaciers are melting, and sea levels are rising. Weather-related calamities are causing widespread damage, which is having particularly negative effects on vulnerable and underprivileged populations.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is unequivocal: “Carbon dioxide from human activities is increasing about 250 times faster than it did from natural sources after the last Ice Age.” The IPCC further states that the planet is warming “roughly 10 times faster than the average rate of warming after an ice age.”
The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions result from production, transportation, use, and disposal of material goods. The World Bank reports that 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste are created globally each year—an amount expected to surge to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050. This solid waste contributes directly to greenhouse gas emissions.
Given the correlation between material consumption and climate change, it seems clear what we can do to solve our current crises: We can create an anti-consumption (AC) culture. AC is a voluntary attitude and behavior aimed at reducing the unnecessary exploitation of resources. AC behaviors minimize rather than grow, decelerate rather than accelerate, simplify rather than complexify, reuse rather than waste.
I recently worked with Michael S.W. Lee from the University of Auckland to edit a book titled Anti-Consumption: Exploring the Opposition to Consumer Culture. In the book, academics explore ways that consumers, marketers, policymakers, and other institutional actors can help the world change its ecologically destructive and unproductive market practices, attitudes, and habits.
Business schools are among those with a critical role to play in helping the world adopt an anti-consumption mindset. As educators, we can promote AC through our teaching, our research, our academic cultures, and our actions.
Consumption and Consequences
AC is not a new concept. Socrates and his pupil Plato warned us that material excess is a burden on human lives and has destructive effects on human virtue. Aristotle declared that material excess destroys courage and temperance, while essayist Henry David Thoreau argued that leading lives dominated by excessive consumption is deeply unfulfilling and ephemeral.
Contemporary activist Duane Elgin warns that people who live in such a way ultimately reach a point of saturation, where they suffer from overload, debt, stress, and anxiety. They also lose their ability to find joy and pleasure in simple activities, such as taking a walk or talking with loved ones.
The world’s collective struggle to “keep up with the Joneses,” while managing the debt and anxiety that result from the dogged pursuit of “more,” has created broad consequences. Research has shown that promoting a consumption-based culture leads to resource depletion, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, rising temperatures, worsening air quality, reductions in available freshwater, increasingly extreme weather events, and pandemics.
Such effects, in turn, increase poverty and inequality. In short, the U.N. warns, a failure to address climate change “could reverse progress made in reducing inequality among countries.”
We are still far from solving these large global problems. However, we are seeing more individuals and organizations call for a large-scale return to an AC mentality—what Elgin calls “voluntary simplicity.”
“When people buy less stuff, you get immediate drops in emissions, resource consumption, and pollution, unlike anything we’ve achieved with green technology.” — J.B. MacKinnon
For example, the United Nations is drawing attention to overconsumption and presenting imperatives to lessen human pressures on natural systems through not only the IPCC, but also its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At the center of this agenda are the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which set out grand challenges to protect the natural environment and promote the sustainability of our health, society, and planet.
In August 2022, the Biden Administration and U.S. Congress passed a major climate change bill that earmarks billions of dollars toward clean energy technology. This legislation aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030.
Hitting these benchmarks will be a challenge when, as emphasized in a 2021 article about Canadian author J.B. MacKinnon, humans are consuming resources 1.7 times faster than the planet can generate them. The most direct path to achieving these goals is simple: Buy less, don’t waste.
“Many people would like to see the world consume fewer resources, yet we constantly avoid the most obvious means of achieving that,” says MacKinnon. “When people buy less stuff, you get immediate drops in emissions, resource consumption, and pollution, unlike anything we’ve achieved with green technology.”
Counterculture and Anti-Consumers
Anti-consumption research has shown that AC behaviors not only have obvious benefits for the planet, but also can motivate individuals and help spur institutional change. When people reduce their consumption, they are challenging the power of consumption culture and the omnipresence of mass media. A person who becomes an anti-consumer is making both a personal and a political decision grounded in a desire to make a difference.
In a 2007 paper that I co-authored with Jeff Murray of the University of Arkansas, we explore how anti-consumers prioritize social interactions over products as they embrace simple living and make the voluntary shift from a having mode of existence to a being mode of existence. This group has learned to prioritize creative production over frivolous consumption in a quest for pleasure, well-being, and meaning.
Anti-consumers are often skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable—and many have launched politically motivated organizations devoted to the AC movement. There’s The Media Foundation, dedicated to helping nonprofits become more sustainable. And there’s the Church of Stop Shopping, led by a persona known as Reverend Billy. An actor named William Talen created the character of Reverend Billy in the 1990s as a way to liberate people from lives driven by consumerism. Today, these AC organizations spread their message through social media, podcasts, marketing tools, and web-based campaigns. They use strategies of persuasion and rhetorical framing to mobilize the public in a fight against materialism.
However, whether personally or politically motivated, consumers can do only so much to minimize their consumption. Our neoliberal systems maintain the illusion that consumers can solve societal problems through their (anti-)consumption choices. Unfortunately, a neoliberal ideology prioritizes competition, individualism, and growth rather than collaboration and solidarity. It embeds consumption within our societal norms, (sub)cultures, regulations, and everyday lives.
As future business leaders, our students will be the ones who can redesign our systems and markets. They will have the power to move the burden of change off of consumers and onto corporations. It’s up to us to ensure they exert that power in ways that solve, rather than worsen, the problems society faces.
Concepts for Our Classrooms
What role do business schools play in AC? Given the global crises the planet faces, business schools must make the study of sustainability a mandatory, rather than optional, part of their core curricula. Moreover, they must integrate sustainability into their daily practices.
As business educators, we can expose students to AC concepts by exploring many intriguing questions in our classrooms:
What are the implications of AC? We can highlight various actors who oppose consumption, including consumers, activists, governments, corporations, and even some retailers. For example, we can explore the implications of consumers who adopt lifestyles of frugality or voluntary simplicity, join the “buy-nothing” movement, or attend large-scale anti-consumerism events such as Burning Man. What does it mean when some consumers boycott certain brands that use plastic packaging or question the ethics of certain corporations? How can businesses modify their practices in response to consumers who avoid consumption in general?
How are businesses responding? We can focus on “demarketing” efforts by some companies, such as REI’s “Opt Outside” campaign that encourages people to spend time outdoors instead of shop, and Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy this Jacket” campaign that encourages shoppers to buy less over the holiday season. Students also could explore what it means when more organizations are launching campaigns that ask stakeholders to conserve energy, ride their bikes to work, and turn off their computers when not in use.
How are governments responding? We can integrate examples of the increasing number of new regulations focused on reducing consumption—for example, those that set thresholds for airborne pollutants or ban single-use plastic. We also can talk about regions or cities that are striving to become “zero waste.”
By making the promise that “education = meaningful impact,” business schools help students expand their definition of happiness, life achievement, and success to include having a positive impact on the planet.
What is the role of collaboration? Students need to understand how the consumption activities of different industries affect society and the environment, as well as how interdisciplinary collaborations can help carve out solutions and develop business practices grounded in zero-waste practices, a low-carbon economy, durable design, and social equity.
How can we make AC more accessible? Students should integrate questions of poverty, power imbalance, privilege, and access in the mainstreaming of AC. In other words, they need to become aware of the risk that some organizations might co-opt AC as a business opportunity; as a result, AC might evolve to benefit the rich while leaving vulnerable and underprivileged consumers excluded and somewhat expendable.
The celebration of a zero-waste lifestyle, for instance, has given rise to zero-waste homes and communities; blogs, books, and social media accounts on the topic; and numerous shops and products. Students can look for ways to ensure that the movement benefits everyone and that all consumers can access AC.
What can we do as individuals? Instructors can encourage students to question their personal consumption practices related to their travel, diet, waste generation, and energy use. Students should be encouraged to calculate their ecological footprint, as well as determine whether consuming less would entail stigma, shame, and a sense of exclusion.
How can we reframe the purpose of education? For too long, higher education has been presented to students with the promise that “education = future earnings.” But when we sell education to students as the means to higher salaries and greater job security, we don’t just perpetuate a consumption mindset. We risk cutting students off from their passions, hopes, and aspirations.
Instead, business schools need to create a more ambitious agreement with students, by reframing this promise as “education = meaningful impact.” In the process, we can help students expand their definition of happiness, life achievement, and success to include having a positive impact on the planet.
Can AC Be a Path to a Sustainable Future?
Yes, but it won’t be easy. Mainstreaming AC will require coordinated partnerships between governments, businesses, nonprofits, and consumers. It will require business schools to expose students to the hazards of overconsumption and its impact on poverty, power imbalance, privilege, and access. And it will require students to receive guidance from instructors, policymakers, designers, practitioners, and entrepreneurs who are committed to reducing consumption patterns and waste.
Business schools also can enhance their advocacy by influencing their stakeholders, helping set new product standards and regulations, and pledging to reduce their own emissions.
There is no single path to transformation. But as a first step, we must make AC acceptable, accessible, and publicly celebrated at the individual and institutional levels. If we train future leaders to make this goal a priority, then we make possible a future in which AC is the norm, not the exception—a future in which we have reversed the climate change crisis.