Quality Mark: Global consumption and the growing middle class

Increased consumption is providing a better standard of living for many around the world – but this must not happen at the expense of the planet, argues George Bagley

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As the world’s population expands and quality of life increases for a greater proportion of people, we are seeing increased consumption and the rise of the ‘global middle class’. This will impact the key elements that form the basis of sustainable development in several ways. 

The Brundtland Report defines sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

For context, some estimates now state that more than 50% of the world’s population – around 3.8 billion people – have access to a high enough disposable expenditure to be considered ‘middle class’ or ‘rich’. With this comes a voracious appetite for the material goods, products and services associated with a higher standard of living. 

What implications does this have for sustainable development? How do we ensure the quality of life of the current generation isn’t achieved at the expense of quality of life for future generations? 

One of the main issues with increased consumption is that it is highly resource intensive and is currently depleting natural resources at a greater rate than they are being replaced. It is important that we start to make more informed decisions about where products are produced, and what effect this has on the environment, society and the economy. This decision process is consumer led. It is up to us as to start making conscious decisions when buying products. 

Changing ideas about what is a ‘necessity’ are also responsible for increased consumption. Items such as phones and laptops, once deemed luxury items, are now necessities. This can be seen in China: once characterised by the thousands of bicycles on its streets, the country now has more than 235m cars. Changing our perceptions around what is a requirement in our day-to-day lives, as well as making already-owned items last longer, can help achieve a cumulative reduction in societal consumption. 

Increasingly meat-based diets are another example of how uncontrolled consumption can have environmental and societal impacts. Meat production uses large quantities of water and soy (for animal foods) and results in methane gas release – a main contributor to global warming. While diet is a personal choice, just a small reduction in meat consumption can have a positive impact. 

Consumption undoubtedly has had positive benefits in terms of allowing a greater proportion of the global population to reach a basic standard of living, and has also led to large-scale job creation. However, we have now reached a point where consumption is undermining the natural systems that humanity depends upon for survival. The World Bank has forecasted that waste generation will increase by 70% by 2050 if urgent action isn’t taken. It is imperative that we try to reduce our consumption and waste generation to reduce planetary impacts. 

The issues surrounding consumption are much more far-reaching than those presented in this article, but I hope that the areas highlighted help you consider how you may be able to make small changes that reduce your impact and ensure a sustainable quality of life for future generations. 

George Bagley is senior environmental consultant at BWB Consulting Ltd

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