to explain the concept of overconsumption and introduce strategies to reduce consumption
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We live in a fast-paced world in which consumption is a big part of our daily lives. We regularly buy new clothes and gadgets, but then a newer and flashier version is released and we are tempted to replace them. Much of our lives is characterised by consumerism, as we believe that consumption is desirable for us individually but also for our economy. However, consumption also leads to the production of waste. This activity will explore the various ways in which consumption adds waste to our lives, as it will mainly focus on one aspect of consumption; namely, overconsumption.
Exercise 1: What is overconsumption?
Merriam-Webster (n.d.) defines overconsumption as the “excessive consumption or use of something”. Based on this brief definition, how would you judge your own consumption habits? Think about your clothes, shoes, home furnishing, and electrical gadgets when answering this question.
Overconsumption also refers to the consumption of natural resources beyond what is sustainable (‘Overconsumption’, 2022). Overconsumption is typically driven by consumerism and economic growth and, therefore, is a global problem. For a lasting effect, it is important that all of us adapt our lifestyles towards sustainable consumption (United Nations, n.d.b).
How would you judge your own consumption habits?
Think about your clothes, shoes, home furnishing, and electrical gadgets when answering this question.
Food, clothes, and waste are part of (over)consumption, but there are also other aspects that are relevant to consider.
Single-use plastic products: A plastic bottle and a ready-made meal wrapped in plastic are frequently part of our daily lives. Even if it is just one plastic bag at a time, each year 5 trillion single-use plastic bags end up in landfills (United Nations, n.d.b).
Electronic waste: Most of us own several electronic devices that we regularly replace with newer and better versions. However, only a quarter of the disposed electronic products are being recycled (United Nations, n.d.b).
Fossil fuel: Every car journey, every plane ride depends on fuel. Due to convenience, we are very quick to jump into the car for a small errand and booking a journey by plane has become normal (United Nations, n.d.b).
Electricity: We need electricity for almost every aspect of our lives and most of us cannot imagine anymore what life would be without it. However, we have also grown used to having the lights on all day or using electronic devices wastefully (Miracolo & Miracolo, 2019).
Reading about these other aspects of overconsumption, is there one aspect that you could relate to in particular? This might be because you are already very conscious of one aspect of overconsumption or because this exercise raised your awareness of this topic and is something you wish to reduce. Please share your thoughts below.
Aspects of my consumption that could be more sustainable
How to reduce my consumption
UNESCO has dedicated the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Number 12 “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” to this topic and also provides a list of eye-opening facts about the topics of consumption and production (United Nations, n.d.b). Please read the facts and have a guess whether these facts are true or false.
About 10 percent of the world’s water is fresh (drinkable).
False: Less than 3 percent of the world’s water is fresh (drinkable).
More than 1 billion people still do not have access to fresh water.
The global population without access to electricity fell from 1.2 billion in 2010 to 840 million in 2017.
Each year, an estimated 1/5 of all food produced ends up rotting in the bins of consumers and retailers.
False: Each year, an estimated 1/3 of all food produced ends up rotting in the bins of consumers and retailers.
8 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2019.
False: 38 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2019.
If people worldwide switched to energy efficient light bulbs the world would save US$120 billion annually.
Black Friday, super sale, mid-summer sale. There always seems to be a reason to entice customers with special offers. There are must-haves that no one should be without or discounts that are too good to be missed. There is always a newer version or an item of clothing that is this season’s statement piece.
When we throw away a computer or a pair of jeans, it might feel like we are only throwing away this particular item, but we are also wasting all of the resources that went into the production of these objects.
How many kilos/pounds of waste are produced every year?
50 million tonnes/ 110.231 million pounds
2 billion tonnes/ 4.410 billion pounds
5 billion tonnes/ 11.023 billion tonnes
About 2 billion tonnes (2 000 billion kilos/4 410 billion pounds) of solid waste are produced every year (World Bank, n.d.).
How many kilos/pounds of raw materials do you think are needed to produce one desktop computer?
20 kilos/ 44 pounds
800 kilos/ 1764 pounds
1.800 kilos/ 3.968 pounds
About 1.800 kilos/3.968 pounds of raw materials are needed to produce one computer (Chandler, n.d.).
How many litres/gallons of water do you think are needed to grow enough cotton for one pair of jeans?
582 litres/ 154 gallons
6.814 litres/ 1.800 gallons
10.792 litres/ 2.851 gallons
6.814 litres/1.800 gallons of water are needed to grow enough cotton for one pair of jeans (The Fashion Law, 2019).
One term that is linked to overconsumption is planned obsolescence. Think back to the first mobile phone you had. It was probably a mobile phone that still had buttons and a tiny screen. These phones were almost indestructible and often worked for years without any complaints. These days, smartphones may have colourful, high-functioning displays, but they also break more easily and last for a shorter period of time, sometimes caused by incompatible software. Other products, like laptops, now have built-in batteries that cannot be exchanged if they stop working. Instead, the whole laptop has to be replaced. This practice of ensuring that products last for shorter periods of time and need to be replaced more often is called planned obsolescence (Kenton, 2019).
Reflect on the following questions and share your answer in the box below.
The article explains several types of planned obsolescence. Have you ever encountered any of them? If yes, which?
The article suggests creating platforms on which customers can share their experiences with the longevity of products. How do you think this would affect consumers and companies?
Let’s have a look at your devices. Please look around your home, take a peek into some cupboards and fill in the following table.
Devices/objects I …
… have had for less than a year.
… have had for less than five years.
… have had for more than five years.
… repaired myself.
… had to bring to a repair shop.
… have never used.
… didn’t know I had.
… regret buying.
… have discovered are useless.
Look at all the items that you put into the last four categories. Is there maybe one item among them that you could imagine using in the future? Think of alternative options for the other items, such as selling or donating them.
Exercise 3: Reducing overconsumption
Sustainable consumption is a topic that affects us individually, as communities, as countries and also globally. This means that any actions to increase sustainable consumption and to decrease overconsumption may also take place on one of these levels. As teachers, we ought to think about our personal impact but also that of our school and our students.
There are numerous ways in which one person individually or a school as a whole can make a difference. Some schools already have projects or initiatives in place that aim to reduce waste and consumption. How about your school? Please reflect on the following questions and answer them in the box below.
Does your school encourage your learners to consume less? If yes, in which ways? In which ways does your school educate learners about energy consumption and how to reduce it? Do any of the course books that you use offer information and activities about consumption? If yes, which?
The government of Sweden states in an article about strategies for sustainable consumption the following: “Schools play an important role in increasing children’s and young people’s knowledge about consumption and the environment” (Ministry of Finance, 2016). School therefore seems to be the perfect place to introduce the next generation to the notion of overconsumption.
Please have a look at the following suggestions of how to decrease consumption. The ideas for the categories were taken from the following sources: Ministry of Finance, 2016; Miracolo & Miracolo, 2019; Gibson, n.d.
Sharing: The sharing of goods is becoming increasingly popular. Numerous products can be shared by several parties to ensure that the project is used to the full extent. A good example of this are platforms that allow car owners to offer their cars as rentals or carpool to work together.
Exchanging: Just because a product is not of use to one person anymore does not mean it may not be of great value for someone else. Old books and clothes are more and more often offered for exchange rather than thrown away.
Donating: Supermarkets and restaurants are expected to provide the whole array of goods until the last minutes of their opening hours. This often leads to perfectly good groceries and food being thrown away because it cannot be sold the next day. There are numerous efforts to reduce this food waste by compelling supermarkets and restaurants to donate their products or by offering them at a discount.
Repairing: Broken or damaged products can often be easily repaired but this requires time and money. Sometimes it is simply more convenient to replace it. Some companies have even started to purchase broken devices to repair and re-sell them.
Travel green: Fuel is also a resource that is often consumed too much. Use the train or the bike and avoid using a car for every trip.
Reduce use of electricity: Electricity is often wasted because of lights left on or long showers. It is important to be aware of one’s electronic devices and how much electricity they consume.
Now that you have completed this activity on overconsumption, ...
... how would you rate your own consumption habits?