One of the most valuable lessons I have learned along my journey into minimalism is the ability to critically think about my purchases. It enabled me to think outside of my own little world and assess the greater issues with the current economic standards not only for the world around me, but the workers and producers behind these cheap goods made available to society.
There’s no doubt about it, the up-rise of the global capitalist economy has created great wealth for few people, but also ignited many issues such as global warming and modern slavery. I have always been told growing up that the first step to healing is gaining awareness for the problem, and so the first step to healing the planet, in my eyes, is to become educated on the problems with the current economic system and its affects on the environment. Knowing the importance of recognition for the issues with the way our economy works, I have narrowed it down to 4 specific factors…
#1: Low quality, obsolete goods.
The first notable use of planned obsolescence was found in the light bulb industry. The Phoebus cartel, established in the early 1900’s, was put in place to control price and supply of all of the lightbulb companies. One of their main contributions in the industry was the implementation of planned obsolescence. The lifespan of a lightbulb had reached a point that made it very difficult for companies to make profits, therefore, posed a thousand-hour limit on bulb lifespans. Although the cartel justified the reduced bulb duration on increasing the quality of the product, Phoebus’s records, studied by University of Basel’s professor Markus Krajewski, showed that the only benefit of doing so was to increase sales. If you are interested on learning more about the lightbulb industry and planned obsolescence, check out J.B.Mackinnon’s article “The L.E.D. Quandary: Why Theres No Such Thing As “Built To Last”. Planned obsolescence and low quality goods has become a major contributing factor in the deterioration of our planet.
The problem with the implementation of planned obsolescence is that it creates a massive amount of waste, and continuously demands a massive amount of resources. The clothing industry is a great example of obsolescence and how the current economic system really aggressively affects the environment. For one, the production of clothing introduces many toxins and pollutants into the world as “More than 90% of that cotton is now genetically modified, using vast amounts of water as well as chemicals.” On top of that, fast-fashion companies, through the implementation of cheaply made, low quality goods, and micro trends, have transformed clothing into a disposable good. This infinitely changing fashion industry has led to great environmental degradation. Head over to the environmental impacts page of The True Cost to learn more about the effects of the fashion industry on our world.
#2: Companies have disregard for consumers, the environment, and workers.
Big profit companies show no real concern for consumers, the environment, and workers. They have one thing in mind, making money, and they will do whatever it takes to make/save a few extra bucks. I’m not referring to aggressive advertisement campaigns to spread the word about a product, but massive deforestation for more land to develop factories and farmland, fracking to extract more oil to feed the growing need for energy, spreading of nasty, toxic chemicals on crops to ensure a larger yield, the pollution of entire cities to power an army of factories providing cheap goods to the developing world, and the list goes on. All of these acts are in cause of a plethora of money hungry companies milking out every last cent that they can from the rapidly growing, highly demanding population of the 21st century.
The problem with this mindset is the lack of mindfulness for the effect of the modern economic system on our planet and populations. China is a prime example for how a rapidly developing economy can be destructive to surrounding habitats and how companies stop at nothing to provide cheap goods to elevate profits as “Its environmental problems are among the most severe of any major country, and are mostly getting worse.” Globalization has many accomplishments, one of those being the growing access of economies and workforces across the globe. Offshoring, being the act of moving manufacturing activities into another country to benefit from lower costs, is one of the major results of this occurrence. This shift of economic activity resulted in cheap consumer goods, income disparity, a growing middle class, and, unfortunately, the “race to the bottom.” Race to the bottom was the act of pushing down environmental laws and regulations to attract large corporations to produce in developing countries such as China. Obviously this lack of environmental protection in developing countries resulted in today’s environmental pressures. Consider “China’s Environment in a Globalizing World” by Jianguo Liu and Jared Diamond for more information on the impacts of globalization.
And thus, the modern economic system granting greedy firm owners access to cheap labor to make cheap goods, has greatly reduced environmental quality, developed a large sector of modern slavery, and created highly materialistic societies. The only way to fight this is to refuse to buy from companies that disregard human rights and environmental well being.
#3: We take more than we can give back.
Everything comes from somewhere, this is a known fact. Building a car demands extraction of various resources such as iron, coal, and in the case of an electric car, dozens of exotic metals. Increased demand for conventional farming demands the severely detrimental act of deforestation. Both of these result in the act of taking more from the earth than we can return to it, or quicker than it can regenerate. The fact of the matter is that the modern economic system, especially in first world countries, has enabled the aggressive and reckless consumption of products with total disregard for the fact that the production of these goods demands non- (or partially-) renewable resources, and create loads of CO2 and waste. It is imperative if we are to make a move in the healing direction on the environmental problem that the modern way of production and consumption will have to change. We can not expect the environmental change that we need without changing our current consumption habits. Remember, everything comes from somewhere.
This is a concept very strongly related with the obsolescence of the products on our markets. For one, products are no longer made with the same quality that they were made with before, this creates un-satisfaction on the consumers part as they are never truly happy with the product, resulting in the never-ending purchasing of products. Also, the need to be fashionable. Every season there is a new fashion trend. This results in the massive production of textiles, and the aggressive purchasing of fashion products. Advertisements and media have created this expectation for society, and keeping up with this infinitely changing expectation is tiring, and also creates a craving within the consumer to continue to buy clothes. The problem with “fashion”, pertaining to not only clothing and shoes, but also decorations and lifestyles, is that the very definition suggests obsolescence. A trend is an object or idea that is going to change, infinitely, and that is not sustainable.
The only logical way I see us moving forward is to drastically reduce the demand for goods. This calls for an uprise in mindful consuming from a large group of people. Many argue that what we need is innovation for more “eco-friendly” products. This is only half of the solution. Along with the continued technological advancement of everyday products, societies must demand a significantly smaller amount of goods. Consumers can do this by being aware of the environmental effects of production, and producers can do this by putting the environment over profits.
Many also argue that since the companies are going to produce these products, we might as well buy them. Looking at this logically, the goal of a company is to sell products. If the consumers decide not to buy their goods because their practices are detrimental to the environment, the company will eventually change their ways to appeal to those consumers. The only way for society to force companies to show more concern for the world and their workers is to force them to change their ways. Yes, the amount of people that refuse to buy conventional products is very small, but it is growing. Never believe that your lifestyle change doesn’t affect the bigger picture because it does. From the man who never once believed that his revolutionary acts would be insignificant, Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Here is how you can do that…
#1: look for the companies that give back, are eco-friendly, and promote fair trade
#2: buy quality over quantity and embrace a more minimal lifestyle
#3: educate yourself on environmental, political, economic, and human rights issues
If you want to become a warrior in the revolution against greedy, human rights defying, environment destroying companies, against habitat degradation, against over extraction, against consumer manipulation, against pollution, against income disparity, against unfair wages and shitty working conditions, against all that is detrimental to the world around you and, in turn, detrimental to you, it is imperative that you become a mindful consumer.