In much of the world, consumption is based on three key steps:

Take - Raw materials are taken from the natural environment.  This can be materials extracted from the earth, from the forests, from the oceans, or anywhere else in our environment that provides us with materials we can use.

Make - These raw materials are transported from their original location and manufactured into a product of some sort.  This could be a child’s toy, a chair or bottle of wine.  This product is then transported to the marketplace where it is purchased and consumed.

Waste - There are a number of sources for waste in this step.  In the “make” stage, waste is created in the production of the item.  Once the product is used, the packaging it comes in or eventually the product itself is no longer useable and often gets disposed of. 

While each step of this process has an impact on the natural environment, most consumers don’t see the effects.  They don’t see when the source materials are taken from the earth.  They don’t see the process of creating the product.  After they use the product or dispose of the packaging, they don’t see where it goes.  There is an inherent disconnect between the consumption of products and the effect that it has on the natural environment.  In an increasingly global economy, the impact of consumption becomes even more difficult to understand.

This issue is compounded by the fact that the more and more of the world is joining the “consumer class.”  According to the WorldWatch Institute, global private consumption expenditures—the amount spent on goods and services at the household level—topped $20 trillion in 2000, a four-fold increase over 1960 (in 1995 dollars).  As more of the world population benefits from development and an increased standard of living, this increase in consumption puts an ever-increasing strain on the capacity of environmental systems to provide the source materials for products and to deal with the waste that accompanies their production and consumption.

While the West has been a consumer culture for some time, there is a shift to an increasingly consumer culture around the world.  While the consumption of stuff isn’t a new phenomenon, the importance of owning things as a central value of a society is seen in more and more parts of the world.  Combined with the take-make-waste model of production, the natural environment is put under a great strain.

Encouraging new work has evolved in recent years to investigate how we can build products that do not create waste in their creation, use or disposal and imitate the way things are created in nature.  Rather than continuing create artificial systems and products that have a negative environmental legacy, prominent concepts such as “cradle-to-cradle” design and “biomimicry” are looking at ways to create products, cities and systems using designs found naturally such as “non-toxic adhesives inspired by geckos, energy efficient buildings inspired by termite mounds, and resistance-free antibiotics inspired by red seaweed.” (Biomimicry Institute)  By imitating natural systems, this shift on how to make things is an essential step towards reducing the impact that consumption on our global environment.

12 percent of the world’s population lives in North America and Western Europe and accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, but a third of humanity that lives in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent. (WorldWatch institute)

The world's annual consumption of plastic materials has increased from around 5 million tonnes in the 1950s to nearly 100 million tonnes today. (WasteOnline)

Stats + Figures


Translator: John Lewis (Calgary, Canada), President, Intelligent Futures; Founder, Environmental Translation Project

Consumption + The Environment

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