Even with the current population of over 7 billion the world’s resources are stretched, ecosystems are compromised and billions of people live in poverty. It will only get worse as the world’s population is expected to grow to a peak of at least 9 billion sometime this century.

Population and Consumption


If you accept that humans are causing climate change and habitat loss then one of the biggest issues we face is population growth.

In October 2011 the world population reached 7 billion. The world’s population in 1967, just 44 years previously, was half that: 3.5 billion. Even though the rate of increase has almost halved since growth rates reached their peak of 2.2% in 1963 it is still 1.14% (or more than 75,000,000 people) per year.

Many experts predict that the world’s population will crest at some time in the 21st century due to the ongoing decrease in birth rates. Projections are difficult because of the number of unknown variables such as famine, disease and war. Climate change catastrophes – such as sea level rises, droughts, flooding and other extreme weather events will also have an impact. However a ‘peak’ figure of over 9 billion people has been estimated.

It is arguable that the world can’t sustain 7 million people let alone 9 billion. But population numbers aren’t the only problem.

Changes in patterns of consumption may have an even greater effect than population increase. As populous countries such as China and India become more industrialised they will consume more energy and other resources. If China had the same per capita carbon emission as New Zealand they would produce over 11 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (compared to the 3.5 billion tonnes that they actually produce) which would increase the total world carbon dioxide emissions from 24.1 billion tonnes to over 31.6 billion tonnes (using 2002 figures published by the UN). And even if China caught up with New Zealand’s rate of emission they would still be far behind that of the US, Canada and Australia.


Why household consumption matters

The way we consume has both direct and indirect impacts on the environment.

Household consumption forms an important part of the production-consumption chain as it is consumers who make the final choice as to which goods and services to buy. Even though the environmental pressures caused by each household are relatively small compared to those caused by production activities, the 1.5 million households in New Zealand combined are a major contributor to environmental problems such as climate change, air and water pollution, land use and waste generation.

For example, the use of energy in our homes and our dependence on cars are causing air pollution and increased emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that lead to climate change. Also, we are creating more and more waste from household activities. But in addition to those and other direct effects, consumption also indirectly leads to environmental impacts from the production, processing and transportation of the goods we consume.

Despite the advances that have been made, for example in introducing more ecologically efficient production methods and reducing harmful emissions from vehicles, these have been offset by the rapidly rising consumption of goods and services.

Understanding consumption patterns

Mapping our patterns of consumption is not straightforward.

In the last ten years we have seen major developments that have changed how and what we consume. One is economic growth, globalisation and the opening of markets. As we become wealthier, we consume more. The average New Zealander now has a higher income and a higher standard of living than in the past, and has access to products from all over the world.

Another development is that households are getting smaller on average, and partly because of that we use more energy and water and generate more waste per person.

We have also changed culturally and socially. ‘Individualisation’, the belief in the individual and the desire for ownership and personal freedom, means that by consuming, we can express ourselves through the goods and services we choose and can enjoy the feeling of personal freedom through, for example, our cars and plane travel.

In fact, our passion for cars is now so strong that many people are prepared to put up with pollution and congested roads rather than use alternative forms of transport.

How household consumption affects the environment

The energy, materials and resources we use have direct and indirect impacts on the environment.

Generally speaking, the indirect environmental effects of consumption are higher than the direct ones. For example, when we prepare and eat food, the direct environmental effects of the cooking process are considerably less than the combined indirect effects of pollution and waste from the agricultural production, the industrial processing of the food and its transportation.

Many of the resources we need, such as fossil fuels and metals, are extracted in other parts of the world, and many goods consumed in New Zealand are now being produced in Asia and Latin America where labour is cheaper.

The emissions from the transport of those goods also takes place mainly outside New Zealand. The responsibility for these direct negative environmental effects from production activities in those regions therefore belongs to New Zealand.

In New Zealand itself many direct negative environmental effects of consumption such as air emissions from personal travel and waste from households are also increasing rapidly.

The impact of food and drink consumption

Every stage of the food production chain – from growing crops, raising livestock or catching fish, to transportation and storage, manufacturing, distribution, purchasing, consumption, and dealing with waste – has environmental effects.

Around a third of all the environmental impacts from households are related to food and drinks consumption. These include emissions to water, soil and air from livestock, agriculture and industry, overuse of fish resources and increased transport of food, but also waste from production processes.

At the other end of the chain, the shift to off-season fresh food, as well as to bottled water and convenience foods, has resulted in large streams of packaging waste.

More than two-thirds of packaging waste comes from food consumption.

The demand for new housing is eroding the available land, and we are using more energy in our homes than we used to. We are buying, and frequently replacing, many more electric and electronic goods such as computers, DVDs and kitchen appliances. As a result, even though the goods we buy are more energy-efficient than they used to be, we are continuing to produce the same amount of emissions of GHGs and rising amounts of waste. Total energy use has increased because we now have more appliances.

The picture for water use is more positive. Consumption by households is on average less than 25% of total water use in Europe and has actually decreased in all regions of Europe in the past decade. This reduction can be directly linked to the water pricing and metering measures put in place to ensure the price of water better reflects its true costs.

How we travel

Higher disposable incomes, longer distances between home, work and school, more shopping and leisure activities, and deteriorating public transport which is becoming more and more expensive, are all factors in the shift towards the private car in recent decades. The number of households with two or more cars is on the rise.

New Zealand is a car-dominant society and growing energy consumption and emissions of GHGs from personal travel are increasingly contributing to climate change. The building of new roads has fragmented natural habitats and affected biodiversity, and noise from traffic is also a problem.

Technologies such as hybrid cars and fuels cells may help to reduce emissions but as long as consumption keeps growing, the net benefit may continue to be overwhelmed by growth in demand.

There are other prices to pay for our excessive car use. Congestion makes urban areas less and less accessible and leads to significant costs in terms of delivery delays and lost working hours, not to mention raised stress levels.

Another growing cause for concern is the escalation in plane trips. People are tending to visit more remote destinations and are taking more short breaks, partly as a result of the current low air fares. Aviation now almost matches rail transport in terms of total passenger kilometres travelled, and it is currently growing much faster than the economy. The environmental concern is mainly based on the high level of aircraft fuel emissions, which contribute to climate change.

On the plus side of personal travel, the numbers of walkers and cyclists are on the increase.

What can be done to ‘bend the trend’

The first global political agreement on the need for sustainable consumption was made at the UN Conference on Environment and Development at Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In 2002 the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg agreed to develop a framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production, and there is commitment to strategies for sustainability.

Given the different types of consumer behaviour and influencing factors in New Zealand it is a complex challenge to design and implement suitable measures. Nevertheless public authorities at the global, national, regional and local levels can influence the sustainability of consumption and production by providing a framework within which business and consumers can operate. The tools available include:

  • legal and regulatory instruments (such as directives, laws and regulations)
  • market-based instruments (such as taxes and charges, tradable permits and subsidy removal)
  • enabling technological improvements
  • education and information availability.

In practice, the challenge is to implement the right combination of policy instruments that take different groups of consumers into account in order to achieve the most sustainable results.

Business has an instrumental role in enabling and carrying out sustainable consumption and production. Operating within the framework provided by public authorities and meeting the demands of consumers, the challenge for business is to provide goods and services which are profitable and sustainable, when they are being both produced and consumed.

Consumers have arguably an important role to play since it is we who decide what goods and services to consume and in what amounts.

Provided that information on the environmental effects of the goods and services is available within the framework set by public authorities, and that prices are affordable, consumers can choose to buy goods and services that are sustainable through their life-cycle from production to consumption.

Other options for consumers include sustainable energy resources, modes of transport which have the least impact on the environment, reducing our use of water and generating less waste.