The world has never been more affluent and the population endowed with more of the comforts and luxuries of modern life. With this increasing wealth came a surging demand for consumer products, which have silently taken their toll on the environment. 

Truth is, the world is drowning in stuff. Stuff that gets crammed into our closets,  stuff that gets thrown out and piles up in landfills, pollutes our oceans or washes up on shore. Stuff that exacerbates the release of billions of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere every single day.

This trend of consumerism, broadly encompassing our excessive demand for material goods and overconsumption, has been likened to a curse on the environment due to the extent of harm caused, as well as its long-lasting effects, which are difficult to escape from. According to The Carbon Majors Report, just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. But the people using these companies’ products, are us.

Coming back to the root of the problem ー why do we buy more than we need?

Buying for status, social acceptance, personal desire or even as a means of expressing care and love to those around us, the list of reasons as to why we purchase things go on and on. We link material goods with greater satisfaction in our lives. On the contrary, a range of studies actually found that materialistic values may stem from early insecurities and are linked to lower life satisfaction. Increased consumption doesn’t actually directly correlate with increased happiness. In fact this phenomenon is called The Easterlin Paradox. The Easterlin Paradox is a finding in happiness economics formulated in 1974 by Richard Easterlin which states that at a point in time, happiness varies directly with income. But over time, happiness does not trend upward as income continues to grow.

Furthermore, advertisers have perfected tactics to convince us to purchase things. Through strategic product placements, tapping on current trends and the fame of world-renowned celebrities, it’s no surprise that customers often fall prey to marketing ploys. In 2007, the market research firm Yankelovich estimated that the average person saw up to 5,000 ads per day. Fast forward to 2021, and although there are no official figures, the average person is now estimated to encounter between 6,000 to 10,000 ads every single day. Advertisements on Instagram, television or billboards don’t actually show us what the products are, but show us what we could be with their products. We are exposed to these messages associated with happiness and heightened satisfaction so many times and from so many angles, that we slowly begin to believe it. In reality, they change very little of our material circumstances.

This can be further explored in the case of greenwashing. Greenwashing is a form of misleading marketing that conveys a false impression or provides misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. By using packaging adorned with green leaves, trees or “100% natural” labels to push towards an eco-friendlier consumer product, many companies market their products as green to entice a customer into buying a product that is by no means environmentally friendly. In some cases, upon conducting further research on products or closely reading the labels, one may find these “eco-friendly” labels to be entirely false. Greenwashing plays into a consumer’s desire to live a greener lifestyle, without necessarily creating a sustainable product yet marketing it as one.

So how do we stop this rampant consumption fuelled by capitalist growth? How can we be a part of the solution?

Foremostly, be conscious of your own actions and shop intentionally. It is easy to fall prey to the countless marketing strategies that our favourite brands take on. Be it using our hollywood idols in their advertisements, or releasing a supposedly upgraded premium version of the perfume you already own that you’ve just got to have as well ー spoiler alert: you don’t actually need it. As tough as it may sound, even just choosing to rotate your fashion choices every two weeks, instead of constantly purchasing new clothes, can make a world of a difference. Besides, being caught in the same outfit twice isn’t really the end of the world. On a deeper level, one of the greenest things to do is to buy fewer things, even if these products are labelled as “green”. That said, when deciding whether or not to purchase something, take a step back and ask yourself, “Do I really need this? Or do I just want it?”. If your answer is the latter, maybe it would be a better idea to save your money.

Secondly, educate those around you! As a teenager myself, whenever I am shopping with my girls we often find cute items and ask each other whether or not we should purchase it. More often than not, I am easily swayed by the grins on their faces and the incessant nodding of their heads. Remind the people around you not to make unnecessary purchases and fall into the detrimental cycle of consumerism. You never know how you can positively influence the people around you and how you can inspire others to want to make a difference as well. After all, if not you, then who?

Lastly, get involved! Play a part in the movement. If you’re truly passionate about change, you’ve come to the right place! YOUTHTOPIA is all about change. Get involved in different projects that support this cause and that are actively trying to raise awareness for it. Do your own research and find out more about the impacts your everyday actions have on our planet.  Some of my favourite organisations that push forth ethical consumerism include The Sustainability Project (Singapore), Shop Ethical! (Australia) and Redress (Hong Kong). We need to craft a more just and ethical way of living well on this planet, and we can’t do it alone.

Oftentimes, we belittle the impact we can make on the world as individuals. We tend to lose sight of the potential collective impact of our actions. Truth is, if every person in the world thought that way, we would be in deep trouble.

We should be acting now.