Is Consumerism Good?

Herman Miller Celle Chair

Often times the motto of the green revolution is “kill consumerism”. The idea is that buying products destroys the planet, therefore we should limit what we buy. If you dig deeply, someone may point you to this equation:

Total Impact = Unit Impact x Quantity

That is, the total impact that a product will have is equal to the impact of each unit sold multiplied by the quantity that is sold. By showing this equation you can quickly show that to limit the impacts of environmental degradation you must reduce the quantity of things sold. There are two major problems with this frame of thought:

1) We will never reduce the quantity of things sold to zero, therefore if Unit Impact is negative there is no way to be a “green” consumer, and

2) It relies on the assumption that Unit Impact is always negative!

What if you flip things around and Unit Impact becomes positive, does that mean consumerism is good? The equation will now show that the more you buy of something the better impact you are having. We could thing of the examples of critical medications. What about music lessons or wood burning stoves that can improve lives in Africa?

The idea of good consumerism can be seen in the ideas of Cradle to Cradle (C2C). The C2C methodology shows that if we make waste equal to food, and use the its precepts of eco-effectiveness, we can transform our current paradigm of bad consumerism to good consumerism. Of course, not all products are good, so we should be aware of the products we buy. But, maybe one day we will be able change the way we create products to move to a good consumerism society.


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