Michelle McGagh is a bold woman. A personal finance journalist, she has just completed a year in which she vowed to spend no money at all except on essential bills, simple food, and charitable donations. It was a tall order and a tough experience but her perseverance rewarded her with new confidence, skills and insights.
McGagh’s experiment is telling in a society in which each household owes an average of about £2,400 on credit cards. Consumer debt causes great distress to many people, and is closely associated with mental ill health, so any advice on how to reduce spending is welcome.
But debt is not the only serious consequence of consumerism. Our collective demand for energy, water, land, meat, palm oil, timber, and much else besides is rapidly and irreversibly depleting and polluting the resources and eco-systems on which everyone depends. Leonardo DiCaprio’s new film Before the Flood brings this vividly into focus.
Spending per se, though, does not necessarily result in material consumption. One could spend a fortune on the environmentally benign business of buying antiques, planting trees, or commissioning music. But spending money can be used to better benefit the environment if used to buy a train ticket rather than a cheap flight, or better quality, longer-lasting goods, or solar panels.
But generally speaking, spending does translate directly into material consumption. Clothes exemplify prevailing attitudes and behaviours. The average UK household spends about £1,700 a year on clothes. About 30% of these garments remains in wardrobes unworn and an estimated £140m worth are sent to landfill every year.
Such casual consumption and waste creation is highly problematic, given the research that suggests three of the nine planetary boundaries essential for avoiding unacceptable environmental change have already been crossed. It’s time to recognise that every manufactured item or service we buy is at several environmental costs. As well as asking ourselves whether we can afford a particular purchase or experience, we also need to ask whether the Earth can really afford to provide it?