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Rethinking consumerism for the sake of young people’s mental health (and the planet)

By Chris Large, Global Action Plan, 24th May 2018

Blog Post Part I: Rethinking consumerism will not only boost environmental protection – it will also help to tackle the crisis in young people’s mental health

What if the solution to the mental health crisis facing young people is the same as tackling environmental degradation? That solution is at hand – moving beyond consumerism.

The environmental damage of consuming resources at the current rate is well known. Across the world, 60% more resources are consumed every year than the sustainable rate, driving the pollution, climate change, and ecosystem damage that are documented in ever more distressing detail.

Evidence about the effects of consumerism on mental health and wellbeing is also building, and it makes similarly painful reading. And yet consumerism remains one of society’s few unquestioned doctrines. We’re prepared to have lengthy debates about many complex issues, from EU membership to wearing religious symbols at work. But whether society should keep consuming at a rate which destroys the natural environment while damaging young people’s mental health is perhaps just too challenging a topic to confront. Maybe this is why projects to move society beyond consumerism receive the least funding from environment sector grant makers.

When faced with an economic downturn, politicians tell people to go out and spend on the high street as though their lives depended on it. The opposite is true. Society is dependent on a healthy environment, and it transpires that personal wellbeing is also boosted by breaking away from the consumerist pressure to buy, buy, buy.

Consumption and wellbeing

Social scientists have known for years that young people whose ‘operating system’ aims to accumulate ever more stuff (trainers, houses, jewellery, cars, bags, mobile phones) are less happy than those who prioritise heartier pursuits.

The traits of teens reporting higher wellbeing include spending time with friends and family, hobbies that expand the mind, finding a purpose inside or outside of work, exercising more, spending more time outdoors, and active community involvement.

Buying stuff to meet our needs of course plays an important role in people’s lives, but wellbeing studies illustrate that materialistic tendencies are linked to decreased life satisfaction, happiness, vitality and social cooperation, and increases in depression, anxiety, racism and antisocial behaviour.

With young people exposed to more advertising than ever before, including through social media, where their friends and others they follow might be being paid to promote that new jacket they’re wearing, shouldn’t we be discussing and debating the impacts of consumerism on wellbeing?

According to the Varkey Foundation, British millennials have the second worst mental wellbeing in the world, second only to Japan. Depression rates have doubled in a decade with as many as 24% of girls and 9% of boys aged 14 in the UK experiencing symptoms of depression. One in four young women between the ages of 16 and 24 report having self-harmed and 93% of teachers report increased levels of mental illness in children and young people. Is consumerism partly to blame?

Materialism and self-esteem

Consumerism thrives on the importance of appearance, as promoted by adverts, music videos and social media. Alongside wellbeing experts, I find it hard to imagine that this influence does not contribute to the mental health crisis. Charity YoungMindsexplains that “social media puts pressure on girls to live their lives in the public domain, to present a personal ‘brand’ from a young age, and to seek reassurance in the form of likes and shares”. A Girl Guidessurvey found that 42% of 11-16 year olds are “ashamed about the way they look” (most of the time or often) and the percentage of girls and young women aged 7 to 21 saying they are “happy with how they look” dropped from 73% to only 61% over five years.

UNICEF reports that those from low-income families may be particularly vulnerable to marketing efforts, with poorer 11-17 year olds being more materialistic than their wealthier counterparts, which appears to be associated with lower self-esteem among impoverished teens.

The long shadow of consumerism

Children living in the UK’s consumerist society are by no means the only children affected by the system that drives demand for goods. Consumerism casts a dark shadow on young people’s lives on the other side of the planet. For example, an estimated 20,000 children work in mines retrieving mica, the mineral that adds an iridescent shimmer to some eyeshadows and blushers.

I believe that this upsetting situation, at home and abroad, requires urgent action, and there is a major cause for hope among this bleak picture. The hope springs from the strength and simplicity of the post-consumerist destination. A life where young people experience less pressure to buy stuff and look good, and feel free to spend more time doing things that really make them happy, is also a life that preserves the ecosystems that underpin a prosperous society.

A bright post-consumerist future

To reach a post-consumerist society, the environment sector could lead by transforming the conversation about consumption. The real value to society lies in consuming less physical things, not just handling waste better or building the circular economy. It’s hard to envisage a sure-fire scenario for planetary sustainability in which the current level of consumption of physical goods is maintained, no matter what level of renewable energy and material recycling exists. That is before factoring in the increased consumption of materials by the growing middle-class of economically growing countries such as India and China.

The good news is that the studies of materialistic lifestyles show that people who rely less on physical materials for happiness (after base needs are met) are generally happier. Consuming less stuff isn’t about going backwards, or making a sacrifice – an accusation often levelled at the environment sector. Consuming less is about focusing on what really makes young people happy. When it comes to consumption levels in a wealthy society, it appears that less really is more.

Part two of this blog explores the interventions that the environment sector could deploy to move society beyond consumerism, and strengthen young people’s wellbeing.

A fully referenced version of this blog is available at

Chris is Senior Partner at Global Action Plan and has been at the organisation since 2005 working on environmental change programmes and informing policy. Follow him  @ChrisLarge1


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