EAST HAVEN, Connecticut — Overconsumption of goods is a global issue that has serious consequences and ethical implications for the environment, consumers and impoverished communities. It is the action of consuming something in excess or using available goods to a point where one is unable to replenish or reuse them. The causes and impact of overconsumption are extremely complex, however, there are solutions possible to fix these issues and help communities and environments.
The Rise in Consumerism
A range of factors drives and perpetuates overconsumption. One major factor is the rise in consumerism, which has become deeply ingrained in many developed societies. Individuals in developed nations are highly encouraged to buy more goods, that are often of lower quality, as a way to keep the economy growing.
Shareen Hertel, a Professor at the University of Connecticut who specializes on labor and economics rights issues spoke with The Borgen Project and stated, “We have developed a system of incentives in this post-Second World War period that was predicated on the idea of pushing costs down so we could consume more. One of the inherent instabilities in our system is that everyone wants to work, but we’re consuming at a level where we don’t fully account for the cost of decent work and decent environmental standards.” These societal norms have created a culture of excess around the world to the point where there is an extremely high demand for the production of items but not enough regulations or laws for people to get decent wages and ethical treatment.
Another cause of overconsumption could be the growth of online shopping which has made it much easier for people to buy goods from all over the world in an instant. Specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic, online shopping became a new staple consumer behavior due to not being able to physically go to stores in person. Even though the pandemic regulations are no longer there, many consumers have continued to shop online because of convenience. A 2021 survey asked 8,600 people globally how often in the past year they had bought material goods and the way they bought them, results found that over 50% of them used digital devices to shop online.
Impacts on Impoverished Communities
The impact of overconsumption on communities living in poverty is multifaceted. One of the most significant impacts is labor exploitation in developing countries. Many argue that for nations to trade within the global market then the dignity and human rights of all workers need to be up to a certain standard. Many consumer goods are produced in countries where workers are not paid well and labor laws or regulations are extremely lax. This leads to the exploitation of workers.
In 2016, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) released an analysis of working conditions in Asian countries. The study found that countries in poverty work longer hours than wealthier and developed nations and the conditions that they work in generally reflect the economic and social conditions of their country, which lead to issues such as malnutrition, poverty and low education levels.
One infamous case that many often cite when talking about insufficient labor laws and working conditions is the Rana Plaza Collapse where 1,100 factory workers in Bangladesh died after a factory collapse. Due to this horrific event, many organizations and governmental bodies work to ensure that safety is a main concern that is invested in and no longer overlooked.
Child labor is another huge impact that overconsumption has on communities in poverty in developing countries. In 2020, UNICEF released a Children’s Rights in the Footwear and Garment Supply Chain report. The report finds that specifically in the garment and footwear industry, child laborers work under the same conditions as adult workers and experience a lot of hazardous and dangerous work.
In Vietnam, an estimated 18% of factories are not compliant with child labor laws and employment of those under 18 years old. The report also stated that the further down in the supply chain the less monitoring and auditing of working conditions there is, which makes it a place where children can work without the risk of authorities discovering them.
This large portion of child laborers who work specifically in the textile and garment sectors are partly due to globalization and global consumers because the factories that they work in are keeping up with high levels of demand.
There are many organizations that work towards helping impact of overconsumption and advocating for workers rights. One of those organizations, the National Consumers League (NCL), has provided governments and companies with a consumer’s perspective on child labor and safety in workplaces since 1899. It identifies as an advocacy organization whose mission is to promote and protect “social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.”
Regarding what consumers can do to change a culture of overconsumption Hertel stated: “Typically, the discourse that people try to justify low standards is to say that consumers just won’t pay more. But, I would argue that American consumers who know more are willing to pay more. They certainly want more transparent information. I would argue consumer responsibility and less items rather than a glut of low-wage low-quality items. The other big thing is Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Americans are less pre-disposed or willing to consume used items than most other parts of the world.”
– Kellyjohana Ahumada