Toward Dematerialization:

The Path of Ethical and Ecological Consumption

by Rolf Jucker

We all consume. Consuming is part of living. The starting point for any sensible theory or practice of consumption has to be the insight that every time you buy and/or consume something--be it a tiny battery to keep your watch going or be it a TV, a car or a hamburger, you are making an impact on the social, economic and ecological environment. In the words of Anwar Fazal, former president of the International Organisation of Consumer Unions (IOCU): "The act of buying is a vote for an economic and social model, for a particular way of producing goods. We are concerned with the quality of goods and the satisfactions we derive from them. But we cannot ignore the environmental impact, and working conditions under which products are made." Our relationship with these products or goods does not end with our enjoyment of possessing or consuming them. We are linked to them and perpetuate them and therefore share some direct responsibility for them.

We also bear some responsibility for the answers to the following questions:

Are the products produced in an environmentally harmful or sustainable manner?

Do the workers that produce them get a fair price?

Do they have safe and healthy working conditions?

Are the substances used in production and in the product itself safe or toxic?

Can the product be recycled at the end of its lifespan?

If not, is it biodegradable or does it release toxic substances when landfilled or incinerated (such as PVC, which releases Dioxin, one of the most toxic substance mankind has ever invented)?

Do we pay the price for all the social and environmental costs a product is creating or are these costs shifted onto other people (e.g. 'Third World' countries) or the public (e.g. environmental clean-up measures, usually paid for by the taxpayer)?

Does the company producing the goods deal with oppressive regimes, thereby furthering human rights abuses?

Is the company involved in arms production, nuclear energy, animal testing, factory farming, irresponsible marketing, or suppression of worker's rights?

Is the production company donating money to political parties?

Once we recognize our complicity in these conditions it becomes virtually impossible to buy anymore children's toys from China (in the face of Tibetan suffering), or other Southeast Asian countries (because of the way the factory workers are treated). Another example is the 'McLibel'-campaign. Triggered by the libel writs against Helen Steel and David Morris, an international cadre of supporters have exposed the worldwide business practices of McDonald's to public scrutiny which resulted in devastating condemnations of the company, particularly on ethical and environmental issues (see the 'McLibel Support Campaign', with full transcripts of all court documents and lots of background information on all relevant issues).

Promoted by slogans like 'consumer choice', the notion that we should approach all our decisions, whether they are political, such as voting, or personal, such as career choices, as 'ideal citizens' is accepted more and more. It means that we should make an effort to fully and independently inform ourselves about all aspects and consequences of our choices. If we take seriously the ethic that we should try not to buy any products which conflict in any significant way with our own moral, political, environmental and social beliefs, than there are important questions we should be able to answer with regard to any product we buy.

Constant propaganda suggesting that consumers are 'in the drivers seat', and that consumer satisfaction is the primary concern of the corporation, has been effective. But most advertising is really designed to divert scrutiny of the product, its quality and social and ecological impact. A clear trend in advertising is to provide less and less information about a product, but more and more seductions to build consumer loyalty via lifestyle, atmosphere, identification with a certain culture which is supposedly represented by the product in question. Advertising is obviously less about giving consumers full and independent information on a product, as it is to sell as much of the product as possible, boost profits and collect dividends for shareholders.

It is arguable that the success of business propaganda in persuading us, for so long, that we are free from propaganda is one of the most significant propaganda achievements of the twentieth century. --Alex Carey (Australian media analyst)

A good example of how corporations, despite their claims to provide consumers with more choice, are actively limiting such choice, is the introduction of genetically modified soya last year. Only one company (Monsanto in the USA) was selling genetically modified seeds and only 2% or less of the world's soya harvest was genetically modified. But nevertheless the industry (in other words the world's leading multinational chemical companies) claimed that it was impossible to segregate and label genetically modified soya, to make it distinguishable from non-modified soya, thus depriving the consumers of the chance to make his/her own choice. Amongst independent experts genetically modified food is considered to be a potential health risk, and it is believed that the chemical multinationals tried to face the consumer with a 'fait accompli'. After massive consumer protests, especially in Europe, there are now moves under way to segregate and label genetically modified foods. Suddenly, it seems to be possible.

The deregulation of the telephone or gas market in Britain is another point in case. Deregulation is always sold as in the interest of consumers, offering them more choice. But the only information you usually get from companies and regulators (such as OFTEL or OFGAS) is price comparisons. All the interesting and, for an informed choice, important information-- e.g. who owns the companies, what are the companies' environmental etc. records--is virtually impossible to get.

In response to industry's attempt to prevent consumers from getting relevant information, and on the basis of some very successful consumer boycott movements (South Africa under Apartheid, CFC reduction, whales, hamburgers and rainforests, genetically modified soya etc.) independent research is being made available to consumers. We now have the power to buy and invest according to our ethical, political and environmental beliefs. This 'ethical consumption' often involves a so-called 'fully-screened approach' which checks companies against criteria such as pollution, environmental policy, involvement in nuclear power, animal testing, factory farming, oppressive regimes, workers' rights, marketing, armaments and political donations. This allows the consumer to 'vote' whenever you buy something, to cast your vote for fair trade, good social conditions for workers, for environmentally friendly production etc.

The advantages of such a system are obvious: You can influence the market directly without waiting for government action by buying 'good' products and not buying 'bad' ones (and letting them know, perhaps on their website, why you did or did not do business with them). Democracy in consumption is increased, and consumer dependence on advertising for product information is reduced. (There are also several sites on the web offering consumers "green" products, including EcoMall, Green Market, Real Goods, and Go-Organic)

When the consumer finally begins to exercise the virtually untapped power of citizen action consumers will take their logical place at the head of the economic process. --Ralph Nader

Ethical consumption is a reorientation of consumers from passive purchasers, who willingly and uncritically accept advertising messages, to active, responsible citizens who see the dynamic connection between their purchases and their values. It is to be expected that industry will fight back. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) tries to outlaw and suppress attempts to provide more consumer information (such as ecolabels etc.), on the basis that they obstruct competition. The struggle to preserve real choice is particularly difficult in a society where "free access to information" is, in principle, a right, but which in reality, as Noam Chomsky aptly put it, works rather differently: "In a perfectly functioning capitalist democracy, with no illegitimate abuse of power, freedom will be in effect a kind of commodity; effectively, a person will have as much of it as he can buy."

Current economic production with its worship of 'growth' is simply unsustainable for the future, a view globally accepted at the Rio and Rio+5 conferences. The easiest way to substantiate that claim is to project western consumption levels onto the whole world (which is the 'hidden' aim of the current world economy and the worship of 'growth'): the biosphere can't cope. It is estimated that we would need three additional planet Earth's to do it.

Sustainable action results in effects compatible with healthy and enduring human life on Earth. Sustainable use, in order words, only spends the interest and not the capital. Since current levels of air, water and soil contamination, and the intense exploitation of natural resources cannot persist, we must recognize that our consumer society is not sustainable. This economic technosphere of human activity is just a subsystem of the biosphere. The biosphere is the life-support system of all forms of life on Earth and all forms of economic activity inescapably depend on it (and not the other way round as some economists try to make us believe).

To return our economic systems to the fold of sustainability, only so much of a renewable resource should be used as is regenerated in the same period; only such an amount of material/waste/products should be released into the environment as nature can process and digest; and the turnover of energy and materials must be lowered to a safe level.

In order to bring that down to a practical and measurable level for consumers, Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees have developed a system called 'ecological footprint' which can be used to measure the impact of one's lifestyle or even particular purchases and compare them to a level which would guarantee sustainability for the whole world. What the system essentially does is to calculate the area of land you would need in order to balance out the negative ecological impact our lifestyle has on nature. For example, you calculate the area of forest you would need to absorb the amount of Carbon dioxide you produce by driving so and so many miles per annum with your car or by flying to America. The results can then be compared. While for a sustainable level of economic activity every person on Earth would have 1.7 hectares (17'000m2) available, the average British person uses 4.8 hectares (2.8 times too much), the average US-American 8.6 hectares (5 times too much), the average German 4.9 hectares (that is 2.9 times too much) whereas the average Indian uses 0.8 hectares (roughly half of what they 'could'). These calculations give us an indication of the factor by which we have to reduce our ecological footprint in order to become sustainable.

One of the biggest obstacles to ecologically sound production and consumption is that the costs we pay for services and goods 'lie', that is they do not involve all the costs that would accumulate if ecological damage during production and costs for recycling and/or waste management had to be accounted for. That is partly because the traditional (and still most influential) theories of economy simply forget about the resources and waste problem.

We can only ignore these aspects at our peril. That is why a team of international economists and ecologists have tried to calculate the value (since the leading capitalists only understand anything if it is expressed in terms of Dollars) of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital which we generally exploit without giving a thought. If we had to pay for ecosystem services such as gas, climate and water regulation, water supply, erosion control and sediment retention, soil formation, nutrient cycling, waste treatment, pollination, biological control, refugia, food production, raw materials, genetic resources, recreation and cultural services at market prices, it would cost us, on a conservative estimate, US$33 trillion per year globally. That is 1.8 times the total global gross national product (US$18 trillion per year). Therefore Costanza et al. rightly conclude: "The economies of the Earth would grind to a halt without the services of ecological life-support systems, so in one sense their total value to the economy is infinite."

There are two related concepts which attempt to take the entire social, environmental and other costs of a product into account. The first are so-called Life Cycle Analyses (LCA). They try to integrate not only the amount and variety of raw material that is needed to produce certain goods, but also the energy that goes into production (grey energy), the environmental and other costs of packaging, the likely lifespan, and the costs for recycling or waste management. Only with a LCA can you really assess whether a product is 'green'. It is on the basis of LCAs that you can see the advantage of recycled paper over virgin paper, of terry diapers over disposables, of glass bottles over aluminum cans, etc.

Batteries are another example. We through away more than 20,000 tonnes of mixed battery waste each year in the UK alone. 20,000 tonnes of batteries equals 870 semi-trailer truck loads (@ 23t) or in other words an 8 miles nose-to-tail queue of semi-trailer trucks. We throw these batteries away, despite the fact that most materials used are non-renewable, scarce (like cadmium), or produce emissions like Carbon dioxide, and cause Acid Rain. Additionally, Zinc, Manganese Dioxide, Alkaline, Nickel and particularly Cadmium are highly toxic substances which cannot be properly recycled or safely disposed of. Wherever possible, buy products which do not run on batteries. More and more products are available which either run electrically or are mechanically driven, like watches which derive their energy from the movement of your arm, or the Freeplay radio (pictured left) which, wound up for 20 seconds, plays for 60 minutes, etc.

Transport, packaging, and storage are also important factors which determine whether a product is ethically and ecologically fit to consume. In Germany, 20% of energy and material consumption is used to put food onto the table (that includes diesel for tractors, crops for factory farming, energy for the food industry, petrol for long distance lorries, electricity for cooling in supermarkets, energy for cooking, plus infrastructure [pipelines, motorways, factories, lorry fleets etc.]). A single average German yogurt is transported around 8,000 kilometers before it gets to the table. A single tomato from the Canary Islands uses enough energy to keep a light bulb on for almost 4 days just to get to a UK kitchen. The alternative is to buy local products wherever possible, and in the case of food, only local organic products, since their production uses 50% less energy and materials, compared with similar quantity and quality of conventional agricultural products.

Another interesting example, particularly since it focuses on an industry which still is caught up in the frenzy of 'more, faster, higher', are computers. With the average life expectancy of three to four years, PC's consume more than 50% of their total energy during their production, and not in their use. And since a PC is manufactured out of roughly 700 different materials, and the way they are manufactured at the moment means that most of these components cannot be recycled and are thrown into landfills, the biggest problem with PC's is after you stop using them.

Another concept to assess the overall impact of a product is called 'ecological backpack'. The German scientist Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek has developed this idea, trying to assess what he calls MIPS (i.e. materials intensity per service unit). MIPS takes into account that to produce a tonne of most materials, such as metal, it takes multiple tonnes of ore, hundreds of thousands of liters of water, energy and material for transport, hills and hills of very often toxic overburden from mining which destroys living areas. MIPS sums up the total of material used over a life cycle to produce a certain amount of a product. A few examples: the 'ecological backpack' of a single car is roughly 15 tonnes, the catalyst alone accounts for 2-3 tonnes because of the platin. A golden wedding ring of 10 grammes produces 3,5 tonnes in the goldmine alone. 1 tonne of coal produces/uses 3 tonnes of overburden and water. 1 litre of orange juice produces up to 100 kgs of earth- and water movement. Asf. It is now interesting to compare the impact of various materials, in order to know which ones have a smaller impact. If you buy a fruit plate made from local wood its 'ecological backpack' is likely to be around 4 times heavier than the weight of the plate. If you buy the same plate in copper, the backpack is around a 1000 times heavier than the plate.

If the principle were taken seriously that the producer has to take responsibility for the full life cycle of a product and that prices should tell the truth about all costs involved from design, raw-material extraction, production, transport, marketing, usage to disposal, the world economy would reorganize itself overnight into regional markets. The reality is somewhat different. There are hundreds of subsidies, and most of them environmentally damaging, that distort the prices (e.g. EU agricultural subsidies, subsidies for electricity and cars in the USA, etc.). There are even tax advantages for environmentally senseless behaviour. In general, it can be said that the costs of environmental, social and health damage caused by, say cars or industry, are externalized, meaning that not the producer or user are paying the costs they created, but the state, i.e. all the taxpayers. Various estimates put the accumulated costs of subsidies, necessary clean ups, follow-on costs, pollution and wasteful use of resources at roughly half of GNP.

If you attempt to calculate the social costs of private cars fueled by fossil fuels- -costs which have to be shared by the whole population, not just the users who amount to less than 50% of it- -you arrive at a figure of around 5% of GNP. Those costs include accidents, loss of time through traffic jams, pollution and other environmental damage, destruction of roads, land use, etc.

Only by making those who create the costs pay for them can markets work properly and insure that you will face the full costs if you decide to buy environmentally damaging products. More importantly, it means that you would benefit financially if you care to buy environmentally sound products.

A series of questions should be asked before every purchase:

Do I really need this?

Can I buy it secondhand?

Can I borrow, rent, lease or share it?

Can we own it as a group?

Can I build it myself?

This set of questions starts from the assumption that we need a shift in perspective, away from the product towards the service we require. For example, we don't want the washing machine, we want clean, dry washing; we don't want the drill, we want to have a picture hanged. So we need to establish first what service we want and then try to find out how this service can be provided in a sustainable manner. In other words: we have to take a fresh and penetrating new look at our needs.

Where is it produced?

Can I buy the same product locally?

Can I assess the overall environmental impact of buying this product, including production, energy and materials usage, transport, advertising, packaging, and disposal?

Does this product last as long as possible or can I only use it once? Is it upgradable, reusable, recyclable?

Does the producer guarantee to take the product back and recycle it at the end of its lifetime (particularly important with products that use a lot of resources in production, e.g. fridges, washing machines, TVs, stereos, cars, etc.)?

Is the product the most energy and materials efficient model on the market, using environmentally harmless substances, both during production and in the product itself (i.e. no use of toxic substances or PVC etc.).

If it is a foreign product: Are environmental standards observed in production?

Do the actual producers (i.e. factory workers or farmers) get a fair price?

Are their working conditions safe and healthy or would a Western worker under no circumstances work in such a factory?

Does production of these goods take away high quality farming land from food production for the local population (cash crops, cut flowers, etc)?

Reducing our ecological footprint is an important aspect of sustainability, but improving our own environment is not good enough if we are simultaneously degrading other people's (for example through imports). In order to make progress towards a sustainable lifestyle--which we owe both to our children and to poorer countries--we need to check how products stand up against the above mentioned criteria of a 'fully-screened' approach. Ultimately we even have to go one step further: rather than buy new we need to reduce, reuse and recycle. Yet, if we bear in mind that around 50% of all materials used and moved by mankind cannot be recycled, the ultimate challenge is to dematerialise our materialistic lifestyles.