By Libby Peake, Green Alliance, 10th October 2023
I recently spoke to someone who had spent years working for one of the UK’s major environmental campaign groups. She observed that, in their desire to appeal to the public, and because of a misguided fear of being labelled as ‘dirty hippies’, they were afraid to talk about consumption. The idea that they could bluntly point out the truth that we need to buy and use a lot less – without being lazily labelled – was a non-starter.
The UK’s major green organisations do of course have important campaigns that touch on aspects of consumption, notably those around fast fashion, plastic waste and forest destruction. But these rarely centre on the idea that, as a society, we need to drastically reduce our resource use.
But that’s exactly what the environmental science shows is needed if we are to have a chance of solving the joint climate and nature crises. According to the UN, extracting and processing resources, in the form of food, fuel and materials, drives a shocking 50 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. We can’t solve climate change if we don’t address our consumption habits.
Links between consumption and other forms of environmental devastation are even stronger. Again, the UN research shows that resource extraction and processing are driving more than 90 per cent of global biodiversity loss and water stress. This problem must be looked at square in the face to prevent nature’s ongoing destruction.
Hardly any funding goes towards ending overconsumption
Another reason this is a neglected ‘Cinderella cause’ for campaign groups is that, year on year, it also fails to attract funding. In every issue of Where the Green Grants Went, through which the Environmental Funders’ Network (EFN) tracks UK funding patterns, the thematic issue of ‘consumption and waste’ is consistently at the bottom of the pile in terms of funding received. In the latest report, covering the three financial years from 2016 to 2019, these issues received just 0.8 per cent of total grants (totalling £4.8 million).
EFN’s reports consistently call for consumption to be given the attention and funding its importance merits. Most recently, it noted: “certain key issues continue to be broadly overlooked by funders, in particular consumption and waste. It’s hard to understate how much our consumer culture drives environmental degradation – the world’s ecosystems have been transformed by our buying habits – so the lack of attention to this particular issue is disconcerting.”
So why is it that campaign groups and funders are neglecting this fundamental driver of environmental harm? As my friend highlighted, environmental organisations have hesitated to be labelled as hairshirters by advocating for people to consume less. They don’t want to frighten people, especially politicians, by suggesting that we need to significantly overhaul how society functions and what we value.
Instead of talking about big changes, then, funders and campaigners are going for what is winnable within the current framework. This is understandable on a number of levels. Campaigners want to feel like they have made a difference and funders want to know that their funds have had an impact. In this context, the UK environment sector has had major wins in recent years that deserve celebrating: phasing out coal, making renewables the cheapest form of new energy, ensuring farmers will be rewarded for nature friendly practices and passing the Environment Act, the UK’s first major piece of environmental legislation in decades, to name but a few.
A new vision to end overconsumption will help us win fast and win big
But I still can’t help thinking of veteran US environmentalist Bill McKibben’s point, first made a few years ago, that winning slowly is the same as losing. As the Climate Change Committee’s latest progress report to Parliament shows, we are currently losing badly when it comes to climate change. That damning assessment showed that credible plans exist to deliver only a quarter of the emissions reductions the UK needs by 2030 – and that was before recent government rollbacks put us further off course. Assessments of the state of nature tell a similarly devastating tale. Earlier this year, the Office for Environmental Protection evaluated 23 environmental targets in England and “found none where government’s progress was demonstrably on track”, with targets around water quality and halting the decline in species abundance at significant risk of not being achieved. And that’s before you even start to look at the impact our consumption has on biodiversity abroad. Three quarters of the materials used to meet UK demand are sourced from overseas, often from areas with far greater biodiversity than the UK.
We must be much more ambitious. What is winnable now is important, and increasingly, so is defending and reinstating the policies that have been so recklessly put at risk by the government’s new stance. But we must also turn our attention to what we need to win in the long run.
And what of that ‘dirty hippy’ label? The worry is around telling people what they can’t have. But what if we tell people what could be ours – what we stand to gain from a different approach? In fact, loss is what is built into the high consumption model. If we continue on this trajectory, we will lose a stable climate and the nature that we love and rely on; we will lose a liveable environment. The pandemic affected people’s habits radically and increased appreciation of the natural world. It showed that change is possible. And there is evidence that, disillusioned with modern life, people are increasingly valuing experiences over stuff.
Winning on this front would usher in a world where people have access to the high quality products they need for a good life rather than the low quality, throwaway goods that are filling our landfills and destroying habitats and communities around the world. This is a vision of a nature-rich, nourishing world where we leave behind the devastating mental health impacts associated with overconsumption. It can only be realised, though, if all of us – researchers, campaign groups, the public, the media and, crucially, funders of change – understand it, want it and believe in it.
Libby Peake is head of resource policy at independent think tank Green Alliance, where she leads the work on all things to do with consumption, material use and waste.
Want to think more about how we address consumption? Libby recommends the following:
Green Alliance publications: Targeting success (report); Why the UK needs a new approach to resources (video); By popular demand: what people want from a resource efficient economy.