On this website we talk about the harm that over-consumption does to both people and planet. We also talk about certain types of consumption that are bad; from using coal, to eating junk food, to plastic water bottles (or plastic anything!). But what is good consumption?
The following list is not an exhaustive, but it will provide an insight into many types of things that are good to consume, or at least are better to consume.
First of all, less consumption is good consumption. All anyone really needs is to have enough consumption for a life of well-being. The question is what IS enough for a life of well-being? Everyone is different and we all have different wants and desires but our fundamental needs such as food, clothes, shelter and warmth are very similar. Once our fundamental needs are met we have ‘sufficient’. This amount would vary depending on the person but it will be surprisingly little. Also, it will be a lot less than most people in affluent countries consume.
The goal is to get the maximum well-being from the minimum of consumption. This is not about deprivation. On the contrary, it is the opposite of deprivation, it is not about having too little, it is about not having too much. In other words, it is just the right amount.
Over the past 100 years, changes in the economy, and in society generally, has led to less self-sufficiency. Increasing centralisation and globalisation of production means you can buy almost anything ready-made, but it is not likely to be made locally. Increasing specialisation of work, both parents working, and more work-life pressures means that people, generally, have lost the time and skills to be self-sufficient. People are money rich but time poor so they will pay for others to do what they could otherwise do.
However, self-sufficiency is surprisingly satisfying as anyone who has grown vegetables or made their own clothes will tell you. It provides us with intrinsic rewards like a sense of achievement, self-esteem and self-confidence. It is also good for the environment by lowering our net consumption. Read more about self-sufficiency»
The best things in life are not things
The things we value the most are not things. They include positive relationships, meaningful experiences and opportunities to fulfil our potential in whatever we choose to do. By-and-large you can’t commercialise these intrinsic aspects of people’s lives. They are not like extrinsic commodities that can be packaged and priced.
In the words of the Earth Charter: “We must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more.”
Services rather than products
Services can reduce the need to purchase goods. Everyone doesn’t need to own everything. For instance, using a taxi service or a rental car service when necessary could replace the need to buy another car. Using any sort of rental, lending or sharing service will reduce your footprint. Lending books from the library will save you money and improve your well-being. Many communities have lending libraries of things like toys, tools and other equipment.
Natural and renewable
If there is a choice, choose the goods or services that use the least resources. It is also always better to choose goods and services that use natural and renewable resources. Also, choose goods and services that aren’t disposable, which are often plastic, and avoid the plastic plague generally.
By consuming with others you are sharing your footprint with theirs. If you are at home with your family, by being together in one room, cooking together, eating together, being entertained together, you reduce the amount of energy that would otherwise be used if you did all those things separately.
Taking this approach more broadly, if you go to a movie, a restaurant, a bridge club, a sporting event, a dance class, the theatre, and so on, you are sharing your footprint with many others. When people congregate they consolidate their energy use.
Social consumption not only helps you save energy, but it can also increase your happiness. Studies show that people have more positive emotion when they are actively engaged in social, cultural and creative experiences.
A cultural economy is where production and consumption involves the processing of ideas, symbols, and emotional experiences rather than the dissipation of energy and the breakdown of matter. The consumption of creative, cultural goods and activities is therefore more sustainable than the consumption of purely material goods.
Low embodied-energy ‘products’ like art, music, literature and theatre generally provide more positive emotion. The reason is that cultural experiences require consumers to use their mental energy to engage more and therefore get a greater emotional reward.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes the distinction between what he calls instrumental materialism (or consumption) and terminal materialism (or consumption). Instrumental consumption is a means to help achieve well-being. Terminal consumption is an end in itself, it is consumption for the sake of consumption. It is called terminal because it leads nowhere. Thorsten Veblen was an American economist who coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ and defined it as consumption that costs more than it is worth.
Instrumental materialism involves using material objects as either symbols to strengthen interpersonal relationships (e.g. photo albums, mementoes and gifts) or as agents to engage in creative and fulfilling activities and pursuits such as personal development, arts, crafts, sports, hobbies, recreation and adventure. Instrumental materialism is seen as a healthy and creative engagement with the material world, whereas terminal materialism is destructive to both the individual and to the natural environment.
Conclusion – what is good consumption?
Good consumption is when, firstly, you reduce your ecological footprint to a sufficient level for well-being. Certain consumption naturally has less resource use and entropy such as goods and services that are cultural, natural, renewable and instrumental.
Consuming with others reduces your footprint and increases your well-being. Growing-your-own, or doing any sort of DIY, is good. Living more naturally and less artificially will improve your health, your mood and give the opportunity to live a life full of meaning and joy.