Writing by Naya Sudra. Artwork by Alina Sandauer.
As Halloween is fast approaching, people have begun to purchase costumes and decorations they will use once before storing them in the back of their closet, only to be replaced next year. Owning the newest iPhone update, following the latest fashion trends, and possessing the most up-to-date gadgets has become a symbol of status in our society. We live in a globalised world, making it easier than ever to access the constantly evolving technology from all around the globe. In order to always stay on top of the curve, there has been an increase in consumption. To meet this growing demand, there must also be an increase in production. With this growth comes substantial effects on society and the environment.
The ultimate goal of transnational corporations (TNCs) is to maximise their profit; they do so by relying on cheap labour and lower production costs. This has led to large companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Unilever outsourcing manufacturing to countries where they can circumvent stricter labour and environmental regulations. Amazon has famously made headlines in recent years for the dire conditions of the warehouses, as well as complaints that workers have been underpaid. Despite this, Amazon remains one of the most successful companies in the world with a market value of over $1 trillion. As well as the commonality of this exploitation of workers, reports have shown that TNCs account for around one fifth of global carbon emissions. Some corporations like Apple and Unilever have taken pledges to reduce their emissions, however, there has been a noticeable lack of action amongst TNCs as a whole.
The aforementioned lower production costs almost always result in a lower quality of goods. One of the most notable examples of this in our society is fast fashion. Take Shein, an online brand that produces thousands of new garments each day to accommodate the growing demand. The cheaper clothes also come with a slew of human rights violations involved in production, with Channel 4 recently broadcasting an exposé titled ‘Untold: Inside the Shein Machine’. The documentary shows cases of workers being paid as little as 3p per garment; this is well below what one needs to live on. Despite this, buying from brands such as Shein is sometimes necessary for those without the disposable income to afford more ethical brands. This group of people is also more likely to buy clothes and other items in a way that will ensure they get the most use out of the product, therefore reducing their waste. However, the declining quality of clothes from fast fashion brands means that a person gets fewer wears out of the clothes before they are unusable, and so they must buy more. This supports the notion that it is ‘expensive to be poor’ as people end up spending more money than they would have if purchasing a higher quality product. This inaccessibility prevents people from moving up the social mobility ladder as they are unable to invest in goods and services that will increase their standard of living.
Looking at the other side, those with the income to spare contribute to the environmental impacts of mass consumption. People will often use and discard clothing items when they no longer accommodate current fashion trends; this leads to mass waste. It is important to note that brands play a significant role in pushing this rhetoric that we must own the most in style garments. The next chance for fast fashion brands to shine will come not long after Halloween with a mass consumption goldmine in the form of Black Friday. Companies like PrettyLittleThing have been criticised in the past for their incredibly prices with items on offer for less than £1. This encourages people to spend money on inadequate quality clothing with a low wear life. This then increases the volume of waste which can often carry chemicals and toxins which are harmful to both people and the environment.
As shown, mass consumption exacerbates social and environmental issues, as well as highlights the fundamental issue with globalisation. ‘As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer;’ evidence has repeatedly shown that consumerism widens the inequality gap. The World Economic Forum reported that in 2021, the world’s richest 10% of the population owned a staggering 76% of the global wealth while the poorest 50% only owned 2%.
This dramatic unequal wealth distribution leads onto the concept of billionaires. A common take, and one that I support, is that there is no ethical way to reach that level of wealth without means of exploitation. Major companies like Tesla and Amazon were founded by two of the richest men in the world, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, respectively. These men have both heavily influenced consumer culture, albeit in separate ways. Elon Musk’s brand revolves less around mass consumerism and more around technologically advanced and innovative products. He paints himself as an environmental entrepreneur. Nonetheless, the famous Tesla electric cars require the need for cobalt to create the lithium-ion batteries used to power the car. The supply of this cobalt has been linked to dangerous working conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and so Tesla has been accused of human rights abuse. Amazon, on the other hand, heavily relies on mass consumerism as it acts as a facilitator. The company is so popular as it promises fast and affordable goods, and yet as previously mentioned, there have been consistent claims that the company mistreats the workers who are responsible for delivering on this promise. This demonstrates two billionaires with different public ambitions and shows that they are both complicit in unethical practices. The existence of billionaires has much deeper roots in capitalism and globalisation, however, this hopefully provides a surface-level insight into how they can promote mass consumption.
Overall, this is not to say that we should never make material purchases again, but rather examine the amount of what we are buying in regard to what we actually need. Minimising consumption can be achieved by buying less and buying second hand. In the end, it is important to note that mass consumption is a much larger societal issue than one that can be dealt with on an individual scale. In the end, we must each do our best to contribute to the solution when and where we can.