The dangerous narrative of sustainable consumption


Take two people.

‘Person A’ has a car. A yearly supply of new clothes. Imported food. Consumer goods. Plastic bottles of drink, wrappers, straws. Computers. An iPhone. A fully decorated and furnished house. They take a few flights a year.

‘Person B’ has a space to sleep on the dirt floor of a family home in which they subside on crops grown locally. And they don’t have any of that stuff, or take any of those trips; in part because they don’t have the money.

It’s clear who is making more impact on the environment.

Slogan hoodie, seemingly unironically produced by Pull & Bear.

And yet, when we measure how ‘green’ a country is, we’re using flawed logic to show that Person B is somehow ‘worse’.

Take the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), produced by Yale University and Columbia University in collaboration with the World Economic Forum.

In this index, Switzerland – one of the world’s richest countries – is also the world’s ‘greenest’; and Burundi – one of the world’s poorest and hungriest countries – comes bottom.

Now, the EPI creators don’t actually use the word ‘green’. But others do. It’s easy to see why they’d make that link. After all, something called the Environmental Performance Index must be linked directly to overall environmental impact; right?

Wrong.

The EPI measures things like air quality, water quality and sanitation. All laudable goals.

But there’s something it doesn’t measure. Consumption.

This is a dangerous narrative. It’s wilfully ignoring issues that are plain to see for anyone willing to look. It’s dangerous because it tells us that a country that has way more than enough is somehow greener (and therefore more righteous) than a country that has nowhere near enough.

Consumption is the huge elephant in the room that nobody talks about. And why? Because it’s easier to ignore it. And here are two reasons.

  • It’s inconvenient because it would mean we’d need to encourage people to buy less stuff, and risk damaging the economy.
  • It’s also inconvenient because we can outsource its impact. A country like Switzerland might not be polluting as much as a manufacturing giant, such as China. But they sure as hell are using the products that required all the polluting activity in the first place, just to be made. In other words, they’ve transferred their pollution elsewhere. And yet ultimately, borders are porous and artificial – but we’re all part of the same planet.

We’ve got to change the narrative that tells us it’s ok to always aim for more, because we can do so sustainably. This narrative is an all out lie, because everything we produce has some environmental impact.

We have to challenge the narrative that tells us its ok to strive for more than enough. Instead, striving for simply enough could help us get to a better place. Only then we can start to define a new narrative that can face up to the reality of the task ahead of us.

Finding your ‘enough’

e·nough
/iˈnəf/

determiner & pronoun

  1. as much or as many as required

We often think of ‘enough’ as being something objective.

You either have enough, or you don’t.

And yet –

Enough money to you might be way more than enough for someone else. The same amount of money might be nowhere near what another considers sufficient to live.

So when we talk about enough being ‘as much or as many as required’, we have to acknowledge the innate subjectivity of how much is required.

And to explore that further, we might start by asking ourselves, ‘What’s it required for?’.

There are situations where enough is fixed. Where it’s a non-negotiable. “Do you have enough money for a flight from New York to London?”. Prices might go up and down, but unless you have a way of completely circumventing the pricing structure, you’re going to need a certain amount. And you’ll either have it or you don’t.

But how about we reframed it?

Why are you going to London in the first place?

Let’s say – because you were planning a memorable family holiday. Did you need to make it London? What would ‘enough’ be in the context of creating a memorable family holiday? Will your kids even be old enough to remember it properly? Would they enjoy spending time together near your home just as much?

Suddenly, by reframing as ‘do you have enough for a memorable family holiday’, the question has changed – and so has the answer.

This blog is my exploration of what it means to think about the concept of ‘enough’. Why? Because understanding your personal ‘enough’ is the path to contentment. It’s not meant to be a preachy ode to minimalism. It’s about working out your own threshold. And perhaps, once you understand it, you can even change your definition. We’ll find out. Together.

Cover photo: Andreas Gursky