by Jonny Hughes, Chief Executive Officer, WCMC and honorary member of Green Angel Syndicate
It is autumn, and as sure as the leaves on the trees turn from green to gold, so begins the retailers’ inevitable long haul towards Christmas. John Lewis Oxford Street unveiled its Christmas display on 26th September, just three days after the official start of autumn and a full three months ahead of the festival itself.
Despite all the effort that retailers have traditionally put into persuading us to buy and buy more over the last three months of the year, the peak of the shopping season, it seems that not everyone is convinced. There is a growing movement of conscious consumerism that is gaining support, particularly amongst young adults and those overwhelmed by the amount of ‘stuff’ in their lives.
We know from research that status anxiety is linked to competitive buying and that those who place a high value on wealth, status and acquisition of material things show higher rates of depression and lower sociability. A study led by psychologist Galen Bodenhausen, of Northwestern University in the US, concluded that “irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mindset, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in well-being, including negative affect and social disengagement”. Retail therapy is a myth.
Founded in 2009 the Minimalist movement helps people live more meaningful lives with less. The focus is not so much about having less, but more about “making room for more: more time, more passion, more creativity, more experiences, more contribution, more contentment, more freedom”. The movement claims to have helped over 20 million people through their website, books and podcasts.
While some adopt lower consumption lifestyles for their own wellbeing, an increasing number are doing it in response to the climate emergency. Reduced demand for consumer goods cuts pollution and energy consumption, and takes pressure off global ecosystems. Even if we manage to recycle 100 per cent of materials in a circular economy and achieve 100 per cent renewable energy, purchasing fewer products in the first place will still be the best option for reducing our environmental impact.
So if over-consumption is bad for our wellbeing, our sociability and our planet, the media tends to focus only on the downsides of lower retail sales. I can’t remember ever reading a story reporting poor Christmas sales having helped hard-working families cope better financially whilst reducing our national environmental footprint. The unspoken assumption in these reports appears to be that strong retail sales are a sign of a growing economy and that is good for jobs. The economy must keep on growing for the sake of jobs, even if we long since stopped needing so many of the goods and materials it produces. But something has to give. We can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. Nor can we have millions of people without meaningful work.
What does this mean for angel investors on a mission to fight global heating? Can successful fast-growth businesses be built on the principles of minimal, mindful purchasing? Are we on the brink of a sudden shift in consumer behaviour as the crises in climate and nature really start to rise up the public consciousness? In the coming decades, environmentalists will need the innovation, investment and commitment of the green business community to meet this challenge.
It’s not enough for us just to call for zero GDP growth or degrowth – we must devise strategies to help people live lives filled with purpose and ambition. The solution lies partly in a truly circular economy, encompassing both natural and manufactured capital. It also lies partly in our evolution into a species that values quality above novelty, experience above material trappings, and nature above artifice.
Follow Jonny on Twitter @JonnyEcology.
The UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) works with scientists and policy makers worldwide to place biodiversity at the heart of environment and development decision-making to enable enlightened choices for people and the planet. Based in Cambridge, UK, UNEP-WCMC is a collaboration between UN Environment Programme and the UK charity, WCMC.