How is overconsumption bad for the environment?

We’re not talking about the times we ‘over-consume’ on sweet treats or fast food; overconsumption is a ‘situation where resource use has outpaced the sustainable capacity.’ But how is overconsumption bad for the environment? Surely if we dispose of everything correctly, and buy sustainable things, it’s not so bad? Unfortunately not…

We’ve all heard of the 3 Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle). In this post, we’re focusing on the importance of the first R – by reducing what we consume we can help to protect the planet and its precious resources.

The word "reduce" on a wooden background, indicating reducing our overconsumption of resources

8 minutes to read

by /11th February 2022

What is overconsumption and why is it so bad?

Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. Since it began, EOD has moved the wrong way – in 2021 it fell on the 29th July, in 2016 it was the 3rd of August, and back in 2003, it was the 8th of September. We’re all essentially consuming enough resources for 1.7 Earths – gobbling up resources at a rate 1.7 times faster than the Earth can regenerate. Our one Earth won’t be able to keep up with our consumption rates forever.

Overconsumption and mining for resources

Many of the metals used to build the electronic devices we all use on a daily basis (including the one I’m using to write this post, and the one you’re using to read it), are limited and mined via unethical labour practices in overseas countries. Metal is everywhere: our homes, offices, cars, public transport, public buildings, all the way down to the cutlery we use.

The production of mined metal is expected to increase by 250% by 2030. Mining for these essential resources doesn’t come without a price; mining destroys the ecosystem, produces air pollution, the oil and chemicals used often spill and contaminate the natural surroundings, and acid mine drainage takes thousands of years!

There is also the relatively new but potentially hugely damaging practice of deep-sea mining. That’s one for another, longer article, but if you’d like to find out more, this article from The Guardian is a good starting point and also explains the environmental implications.

The journey of the resource

It’s not just the extraction of the resources that we need to think about – we also need to consider the journey.

Take a laptop, for example. The ‘ingredients’ needed to create its various parts are all sent to numerous different factories, where the parts are then assembled. Those parts are all shipped to the main factory (which produces emissions of its own) where the end product is created, which is then shipped all over the country/the world into different storage facilities. Then the item is either held in the storage facility if it’s being sold online, or it is sent to a shop where we finally purchase the item. Let’s not forget the item still needs to go on a journey to our homes.

All of these journeys have one thing in common: they require energy and produce emissions as a result. Many companies haven’t yet switched to a renewable energy model, and so the majority of these journeys use fossil fuels and contribute to global warming.

The more we consume, the more logistical journeys happen, and the more fossil fuels are burned. The more fossil fuels burned, the more mining occurs to get more fossil fuels, and the warmer the planet becomes.

Overconsumption of water

For those of us in a cooler part of the world where we rarely experience droughts, we’d be forgiven for thinking our water consumption is not a problem. But it takes 14 litres of water to make one cup of coffee – generating up to 60.27kg of CO2.

Treating water to make it safe for drinking is an energy-intensive process, producing huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Water is also not a finite resource, and as water is essential to all life on Earth, droughts will damage ecosystems and ruin biodiversity. Something as simple as using a bowl for washing up, rather than a running tap, could save about 666kg of CO2 a year!

Overconsumption isn’t just about buying things, it’s about using more natural resources than we need. For more tips on saving water, check out the post we wrote for Water Saving Week.

The environmental effects of overconsumption are not immediately obvious

20% of the world’s population is responsible for the consumption of 80% of the planet’s resources, and humans today extract and use around 50% more natural resources than 30 years ago. Consumption by wealthy households is responsible for the most human impact on the environment, and it is these people who will experience the least effects of a polluted planet.

Their living conditions will continue to be clean and habitable, they will have access to a variety of fresh food and clean drinking water, and they won’t experience deforestation or the destruction of natural habitats for mining. So, although overconsumption has a devastating effect on a huge majority of the world’s population, the people responsible for the vast majority of overconsumption won’t feel its effects for quite some time.

When people are fighting for access to things that are a basic human right, such as clean water and food, not everyone will win that fight, resulting in sickness and death that could easily be preventable.

‘Sustainable’ consumption

Whilst many of us are waking up to the problems of overconsumption, so have those businesses that are most guilty of promoting overconsumption. Now, don’t get us wrong – choosing to buy sustainable options over their less sustainable counterparts is a great achievement for the planet and will help to solve the problems of the climate crisis and plastic pollution.

But buying fewer things remains to be the single best thing we can do for the planet – even if all those things are sustainable. Sustainable products still require resources and energy to be created and transported, and some of those resources may not be as sustainable as advertised. For example, some items that are biodegradable or are plastic-free may weigh a lot more than plastic items, so could produce more carbon dioxide throughout their lifecycle.

One of the most powerful ways that businesses have started to scrap the age-old way of producing and eventually discarding materials is through adopting the circular economy model. By avoiding creating waste through reuse, we can create a system whereby we no longer consider a product’s “end of life” because it doesn’t have one. You can read more about the circular economy model here.

A diagram showing linear vs circular economy.

Consuming less is the best thing we can do

The effects of overconsumption are all interconnected. But by consuming less, buying fewer things, and generally only using the resources we truly need, we can help to reduce these environmental effects and preserve the resources for those who need them. There’s no need to get confused over which type of plastic is better, or which type of wood is more sustainable – by simply buying fewer things, we’ll all be making a difference.

Take a dare in the Ailuna app today to start your journey towards a sustainable life. Don’t forget to tag us on Instagram and share your sustainable habits with us!


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