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The Unintended Consequences of Prosperity: A Brief History of Consumerism 1.0: The Age of Indiscriminate Growth

By Erica Velis & Tom Zara


In the 1950s, people were the pride and potential of a nation—the bigger the boom, the better the buck — or so the thinking went. A growing population was widely perceived as a built-in guarantee of long-term prosperity and the foundation of an expanding economy. Understandably, most people in business saw great opportunity in the “baby boom.” It was a matter of simple math: more people meant more markets.

But that coin had another side. Prosperity enabled people to live longer and have more children, while also ensuring that most of those children would survive into adulthood. More people necessitated more homes, more roads, more community, and commercial facilities and, overall, more resources. Even at the time, some were prescient enough to point out the possible problems associated with population growth and ever-increasing productivity, but—reluctant to burst the enthusiasm of the times, the prospect of sure profit or the confidence of consumers—many hesitated to talk about, or even think about, the consequences of prosperity.

"For the first time in history, the present generation has grounds to worry whether the next human generation will inherit a planet worth living on. "

Since then, our fundamental problems have not changed that much, but they have certainly grown larger and more complex. As awareness of climate change grows, resource scarcity challenges our sense of security, and controversy escalates over issues like genetically modified foods and persistent environmental contaminants; slowly we have come to realize that we have entered a new era. For the first time in history, the present generation has grounds to worry whether the next human generation will inherit a planet worth living on.

We didn’t mean to do it…but we’ve created a global crisis.

If we examine the geopolitical, cultural, and environmental challenges we’re facing, and trace these problems back to their origins, it eventually becomes clear that they haven’t just “happened”—we created them. In our quest for a better quality of life, we made growth a mantra, consumption a duty, and waste an afterthought. The seismic cultural shift that occurred as a result led to an explosion of economic growth, but this success has come at a price. Though it may be difficult to look at the global picture today squarely and unflinchingly, we can no longer ignore the basic facts that stand before us:

Global Population: In 2011, the world population reached 7 billion. Increasing by about 70 million people every year, the world population has doubled in the past 45 years and is projected to reach 9 billion by mid-century. From stretched natural resources, such as fresh water supplies, to rising levels of pollution and atmospheric carbon, rapid population expansion has serious consequences for the planet.

Resource Depletion: Renewable resources are being exhausted at an alarming rate and non-renewable resources are growing more difficult to extract and more expensive. The end of affordable fossil fuels combined with deforestation, soil depletion, and water scarcity will present major challenges in the years ahead if we do not make more aggressive efforts to conserve natural resources and develop alternative sources of energy.

Pollution/Waste: A staggering population level plus increased productivity and accelerating demand for basic resources means an output of waste and pollution we’ve never seen before. With a smaller population and less production, dilution used to be the solution to pollution while landfills and waterways could, to a large extent, handle our waste. This is no longer the case.

Climate Change: An overwhelming scientific consensus supports the reality of human-induced global warming and the importance of prompt action to limit its impact. Even if recent projections are only partially true, the ramifications of inertia are nothing short of catastrophic. While there was once a time when organizations could operate without a thought to the atmosphere, glacial ice, and ocean acidification, that time has passed.

Species Extinction: While most companies are probably not particularly concerned about species extinction, we should consider that we depend on other species for our existence in many ways. Other species produce the oxygen we breathe, absorb the CO2 we exhale, decompose our sewage, provide our food, and maintain the fertility of our soil. We literally cannot survive without them—and we cannot produce consumable products without them—yet, if we go on with “business as usual,” our activity may cause over half of the world’s 30 million species to go extinct within the century.

"We have literacy, scientific understanding, historical perspective—and the Internet. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. "

Surely, we never meant for things to turn out this way. To be fair, it’s always been hard for humans to know the rate at which they can safely harvest natural resources without depleting them. From Plato’s descriptions of dry, degraded land near Athens to the disappearance of extraordinary animals from ancient New Zealand and Madagascar, there is abundant evidence that humans have caused environmental damage for millennia. However, the differences today are:

  • There are many more of us inhabiting the earth.
  • We have technologies that can do much greater damage, more quickly, than technology of the past ever could.
  • The damage is so widespread it doesn’t just affect local ecologies; it affects the entire planet.
  • As the developing world follows in the footsteps of wealthier nations, resource depletion, pollution, and climate change will accelerate exponentially.
  • Unlike ancient people, we have literacy, scientific understanding, historical perspective—and the Internet. In other words, ignorance is no longer an excuse.

In past historical eras, by the time the signs of decline were clear to the majority, it was too late to take action. Fortunately, we are more sophisticated today and better equipped to anticipate future problems before they get completely out of hand. While the magnitude of our global predicament is surely unprecedented, the potential and resources at our disposal to solve them are also unprecedented.


The future of consumerism: sustainable growth

While many of us have come to feel uneasy about the state of the world, it can be difficult to admit that we have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the status quo. Most of us recognize that damaging life-supporting ecosystems for short-term gain does not ultimately lead to prosperity, yet we have not fully embraced the obvious solution: sustainability.

In any culture, there are pervasive ideas—memes—that become so deeply embedded that they drive our behavior, goals, and priorities in ways we may not fully realize or comprehend. Transmitted endlessly through political speeches, news media, educational institutions, business culture, and now most other sectors is the idea of limitless growth. Further complicating matters, the concept of growth has become inextricably linked with the very positive idea of profit. In fact, most of today’s legal and economic systems are premised on the assumption that everything can grow without limit. However, what we need to remember about growth is that it has another, more complicated side—and that infinite growth is not physically possible on a finite planet with finite resources.

"Sustainable growth is key to the long-term success of both organizations and nations. Sustainability means responsible growth."

Sustainability, of course, implies limits—and that does not sit well with everyone. It could be that we’re resisting the call to sustainability, not because it’s unreasonable, but because we, as powerful, creative beings, simply object to the concept of limitation. In other cases, perhaps we simply don’t know how to change our habits or do things differently. Whatever the reason for our inaction, if we want continued prosperity, we need to fundamentally alter the way we think about our individual choices, their impact and our relationship with and responsibility to the rest of the world.

While some may believe that limits are a barrier to prosperity, the evidence seems to support the opposite: that sustainable growth is key to the long-term success of both organizations and nations. Sustainability doesn’t mean “zero growth,” it means responsible growth. It is the nature of human existence to produce and consume, to create and contribute. That will go on. What needs to change is the way we produce and consume. Sustainability and profitability are not mutually exclusive. In fact, sustainable measures save organizations money and boost both brand value as well as the bottom line, amounting to what economists call a win-win.

The idea of sustainable consumption may seem like an oxymoron, but it’s a balance we must find a way to attain. Businesses must answer the call to innovate and adapt their strategies and business models to a changing world. We must now use the same creativity and ingenuity we employed to create economic prosperity to address the problems prosperity has engendered. To secure a healthy, prosperous world for ourselves and future generations, we need the partnership and full engagement of global business leaders, from rich nations and poor, small countries and large, to galvanize a conceptual revolution that will pave the way for dynamic yet sustainable growth in the 21st century and beyond.

Tom Zara is Interbrand’s Global Practice Leader for Corporate Citizenship. Erica Velis is a Content Editor in Interbrand’s Global Marketing Communications department.