“More, new, better” are the biggest drivers of the climate crisis, deforestation, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution, pesticide contamination, and pretty well every other environmental problem. “More, new, better” are the central pillars of a dangerously dysfunctional consumer society embraced by nearly every country.
Despite growing public awareness of multiple environmental crises, our rates of consumption continue to increase. Adjusted for inflation, consumer spending in the US has grown 400% since the first Earth Day in 1970. The US population is 60% larger than 1970, not 400% higher – so clearly people are buying a heck of a lot more stuff today. We have so much stuff, it is spilling out of our homes and creating the self-storage industry.
None of this is an accident. We are victims of a decades-long, unprecedented propaganda effort to convince each of us that contentment, happiness, self-worth, identity, and even good citizenship comes from buying “more, new, better” stuff. This “more, new, better” propaganda is backed by government and business and powered by a US $750 billion annual global advertising budget. That’s about $100 every year for every person on the planet – while more than 700 million people live on less than $2 a day.
Adjusted for inflation, consumer spending in the US has grown 400% since the first Earth Day in 1970.
Of that $750 billion, some $300 billion a year is now being spent in online advertising: banner ads, rich media, advertorial and sponsorship, online video, social media and more. That’s ten times more than a decade ago. Why? Because that’s where we are. Globally, the average daily time spent online was almost seven hours during the pandemic. We are exposed to as many as 5,000 advertisements per day.
Irresistable (and moral) imperative
Don’t think advertising affects you? You’d be wrong, according to researchers.
Steven Sweldens, Professor of Consumer Behavior and Marketing at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, trained people to resist ads for certain brands in a series of experiments. It didn’t work. “Advertising imagery had automatic, uncontrollable effects,” he concluded.
Products are linked to pleasing images and music that will appeal to certain individuals. This is called “evaluative conditioning.” Those positive links to celebrities, images, or sounds in ads moves us to favour certain brands and purchase them.
During breaks in the experiments, people were given a variety of bottled water brands to drink. “Sure enough, those with the most positive image association were consumed in greater quantities,” he found.
Our ability to resist the appeal of ad campaigns employing powerful images appears extremely limited. Sweldens warns that advertising has become so effective we’re losing our ability to choose. Governments need to play a bigger role in regulating advertising, he said.
Mass consumption was touted as the solution for everything including poverty, war, inequality, democracy, and personal well-being and happiness.
However, governments have been one of the biggest backers of “more, new, better” propaganda. After the end of World World II, policymakers and business and labour leaders put mass consumption at the centre of their plans for a prosperous postwar recovery.
The American Dream was firmly linked to consumerism. Mass consumption was touted as the solution for everything including poverty, war, inequality, democracy, and personal well-being and happiness.
An analysis of messaging by the US government over the past 40 years concluded that the government continuously links moral values to markets. More significantly, for the neoliberal market system to work, the state cannot restrict itself to ensuring free and fair competition, but also must shape consumer subjectivities to support the system.
According to that analysis, the US government has had a major role in promoting the concept that “the general good was best served not by frugality or even moderation, but by individuals pursuing personal wants in a flourishing mass consumption marketplace.”
That message has now spread throughout the world thanks to hundreds of billions of dollars in advertising, media, and in government policies and statements.
The road to a higher quality of life
A good anti-consumption rule of thumb is that every time you spend a dollar you’re consuming. If you’re spending more, your impact on the planet is likely increasing. Spend less and it’s probably decreasing.
Making the decision to spend less frees up time to spend with family, friends, going outside, on hobbies or getting involved with your community. Those are activities that bring meaning, satisfaction and joy into our lives – in other words, a higher quality of life.
“More, better, new” product advertising must become “durable, reusable, repairable” advertising.
An anti-consumption society is all about quality, not quantity. In this new society economic goals would no longer be focused on increasing GDP but on balancing a good quality of life for all without severely impacting nature or the climate. That is the very conclusion from the IPBES-IPCC Co-sponsored Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Climate Change – the first-ever collaboration between biodiversity scientists and climate scientist on how to successfully tackle climate, nature, inequality, and other challenges we face.
This society would make durable goods that are repairable, with tax subsidies to make repairing cheaper than buying new. Planned obsolescence would be banned and products would be required to last. This society would be akin to what’s known as a Circular Economy. For this to be successful, “more, better, new” product advertising must become “durable, reusable, repairable” advertising.
Thankfully, governments in Europe finally understand this and are working towards creating the first major circular economy. The rest of the world must soon follow.
Stephen Leahy is an award-winning environmental journalist and a contributor to National Geographic, The Guardian, and the Atlantic. He also publishes Need to Know: Science and Insight, a weekly newsletter which this article is adapted from. leahy.substack.com