According to The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." There are many issues related to this important concept that have global implications. The purpose of this essay is to discuss the issue of consumption and how it affects the ability of the environment to continue sustainable living. This essay will first describe the issue and illustrate key points that relate consumption with sustainability. The next part of this argument will discuss the role of businesses and corporations and their relationship with this issue. The essay will conclude with commentary and conclusions about the current trends and future responses to consumption and the potential implications for businesses.
The Issue of Consumption
Consumption is a unique term that relates to the sustainability of any system. It would appear that consumption must be counter-balanced with some energizing source that can successfully negate the harmful effects of this trend. Shah (2011) described the problem in a very simple way. He suggested that "Today's consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating. If the trends continue without change -- not redistributing from high-income to low-income consumers, not shifting from polluting to cleaner goods and production technologies, not promoting goods that empower poor producers, not shifting priority from consumption for conspicuous display to meeting basic needs -- today's problems of consumption and human development will worsen. " Before accepting this fact however it is important to define and contextualize this idea of consumption and how it mixes with sustainability.
Sustainability is a vague term and needs other words to help give this expression some sort of value or quality. Lammers (2011) portrayed the media's use of the word 'sustainability' as trendy and not explicitly clear. He claimed that sustainability is "a good concept gone bad by mis- and overuse. It's come to be a squishy, feel-good catchall for doing the right thing. Used properly, it describes practices through which the global economy can grow without creating a fatal drain on resources. "Contrary to this argument, consumption itself is a simple term that can be applied everywhere and at all levels. Consumption is essentially taking and using a resource, whether it is natural, unnatural, material, immaterial, global or local. When dealing with complex, global issues, simplicity and honest approaches must be used to help eliminate the immense potential for confusion and misunderstanding. There are many distractions and a focused approach requires solutions to have an inherent flexibility that can be responsive to the needs of the many.
Consumption is a local and global issue. We must consume to live. The global market thrives only when consumption is at the correct levels. In essence consumption is the heart of every action or inaction nature or humans perceive or carry out. Tilford (2011) suggested that "by making conspicuous consumption our way of life, we have kept an "enormously productive economy" running full tilt. Unprecedented levels of consumption have powered unparalleled economic growth, with predictable material benefits."
Consumption, like everything else, is multidimensional and has negative components as well. As a human being, over-consumption of things like food, alcohol or sleep has immediate and recognizable after effects. Subtle hints by the human body will inform its user to slow down or take it easy. These alarms take the form of a hangover, heartburn or lethargy. But what is so obvious and easy to recognize by individuals is very difficult to identify and maintain at a more collective level. For some reason when society puts its collective mind together things tend to disconnect and results stray from intentions.
Business, Consumption and Sustainability
Capitalism has taken over the world and this new order presents some challenges that have not been met in many cases. The trade and exchange of goods has brought much development to the world, however this has occurred at a significant price. Profits are usually seen as justifying certain ends despite the means in which they were accomplished. For many years now, insatiable appetites for market share and profit margins have fueled the way humans interact with each other on this planet, and perhaps elsewhere in space. Businesses are now caught in a very tricky situation that forces corporate leaders to balance their sales with conservative attitudes regarding over-consumption. A new vision of environmental balance is essential for leadership in the business community to navigate this problem. This old and outadated model is not a very strong way to operate and perhaps a new way of doing things is on the horizon.
This new trend of corporate interests operating under sustainable guidelines has been mostly a failure and presents a case of an almost unwinnable situation. This may be a case of letting the wolves guard the chicken coop. Kropp (2011) remarked on this balancing act international corporations must perform to not only appease regulators, but also simply survive as a viable entity. He claimed that "according to the nearly 3,000 executives from the commercial sector surveyed, sustainability is now part of the permanent management agenda at 70% of companies. Furthermore, two-thirds of respondents state that sustainability is necessary to be competitive in today's economy and almost one-third says that sustainability contributes to increased profitability." However not all is as good as it appears, he continued his report by mentioning that "sustainability may have become a permanent part of the management agenda at most companies by now, but it ranks only eighth in importance among management's agenda items."
Ihlen and Roper (2011) analyzed the world's largest corporations and how they communicate about sustainability and sustainable development. In this report they pointed out a certain problem in this area. They claimed that "the most striking finding however, is that so many of the corporations no longer argue that they are on a journey towards sustainability, but they have already integrated sustainability principles and that they have worked like this for years. Such arguments arguably inhibit the change in business models that commentators call for" (p.1). Trust and accountability are immediate concerns, but is regulation even the answer? Can business and corporations be trusted to act in the best interests of the global village? It is up to the participants in this exchange to contribute to the process and have their say heard. Consumer must not be relegated to their role as bystander and should contribute by consuming in the name of sustainable and reasonable reasons.
The problem of consumption and its effect on sustaining life on earth is the balance between quantity and quality. The emphasis on 'the most' or 'the biggest', or 'the most frequent' seems to always overshadow the idea of 'the best.' The design of disposable items, however convenient, is placing a huge burden on the collective shoulders of the world's population. Products are engineered to wear out and break down to further reinforce the idea of consumption and production. In order for consumption to be scaled back, a new model must be composed to include ideas that focus on limiting production while focusing on quality.
The over-reliance and constant promotion of technology fuels this fire, by suggesting that older products cannot perform as well as newer ones. A new emphasis on durability and quality needs to take hold in order to reestablish a balanced relationship with our technological processes. While this may be true, it is by design that it is true. Money is made through the exchange of goods and their consumption, diminishing the positive effects of quality and craftsmanship.
Commentary and Conclusions
In my opinion, a massive overhaul is needed at the individual consumer level in order to steer the collective away from a death due to over consumption, snapping any chance of living sustainable lives. Life itself is not permanently sustainable, everything dies and everything is consumed by nature varying only in time intervals. This idea however has been taken to the polar extreme as a scorched earth policy by many organizations seems to take advantage of this indisputable fact.
The individual must decide for himself or herself what quality of life is necessary for them to survive. Global organizations are too often composed of attitudes that do not serve anyone's interest but their own. Tidwell (2013) suggested that a broader definition of sustainability be used. He claimed that "through innovative partnerships and involvement from a multitude of stakeholders, an opportunity emerges to collaborate and spark real change. By evolving the way we view sustainability and breaking away from a narrowed focus on just the environment, we will move closer to a broader definition around the core of corporate responsibility." I agree with this statement however these concepts must be adopted by everyone at all levels of the system, otherwise corruption and injustice will surely come out ahead.
In the end we must make amends with our consumption and become balanced in our approach to…