Overconsumption in America

By | May 2nd, 2015 | Upfront

How the U.S. gobbles up global resources

The U.S. accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, but consumes 30 percent of global resources, according to the Story of Stuff Project fact sheet. From environmental activists to economists, many Americans don’t realize just how much ‘stuff’ they consume.

In December 2007, activist Annie Leonard and some folks at Free Range Studios decided to take on the process of consumption in an easy-to-digest form. The group released “Story of Stuff,” a 20-minute YouTube video that has garnered more than 3.1 million views. The video explains modern manufacturing, “from extraction, to production, to distribution, to consumption, to disposal.” A key takeaway is: “You cannot run a linear system on a finite planet.”

The original video has led to a series of online videos and various other related projects. The Story of Stuff Project is a movement of at least 850,000 members worldwide. Michael O’Heaney, executive director of The Story of Stuff Project, explained their filmmaking process.

“We spend a lot of time figuring out how to distill complex topics without dumbing them down. We try to steer clear of tons and facts and figures and connect what we’re talking about to the viewers’ lived experience,” O’Heaney said. “The stick figures and humor help a lot too — environmental communications has tended to overdo it with the gloom and doom … We try to be honest and treat our viewers like adults.”

In addition to the videos, the project produces podcasts and has released a book, facilitates community-based efforts through workshops, and partners with other organizations to fight corporate and government corruption. According to the project’s 2015 member poll, the top five priorities among members are: protecting clean water, fighting corporate corruption, eliminating toxins, protecting the climate, and less stuff.

Though the first video is U.S.-centric, the group recently began a project called Community Launchpad. The Project will work with leaders of community-led projects worldwide to share their stories and assist with meeting their goals. They selected 10 of 150 submissions.

“We looked for a few factors in evaluating projects: a compelling story, relevance to The Story of Stuff’s mission, potential for impact and creative, transformative ideas,” O’Heaney said. “We also sought geographic diversity.”

Overconsumption is not contained to the U.S. Only 12 percent of the global population lives in North America and Western Europe, but this population is responsible for 60 percent of private consumption spending, according to the WorldWatch Institute, an environmental research group. Conversely, a third of the world population lives in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, but this population accounts for only 3.2 percent of private consumption spending.

Consumption inequality isn’t just an issue between “the West and the rest” — it’s also an issue in the U.S., where consumption inequality is growing nearly as quickly as income inequality. Translation: the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and their income levels relate to their consumption habits.

Though this may sound logical, it was actually rather contested among economists leading up to the publication of an April 2012 report in the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “The Evolution of Income, Consumption, and Leisure Inequality in The US, 1980-2010.”

The paper’s researchers write there is mounting evidence to suggest the previous method of measuring consumption inequality, the Consumer Expenditure Survey, “is plagued by serious non-classical measurement error, which hinders the extent to which definitive conclusions can be made about the extent to which consumption inequality has evolved over the last three decades.”

The researchers recognize that for reasons such as skill-biased technology changes, institutional factors and international trade, wage inequality has greatly increased since the 1980s. Using alternative measurement methods, the researchers concluded “consumption inequality within the U.S. between 1980 and 2010 has increased by nearly the same amount as income inequality.”

Erik Hurst, an economics professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and one of the paper’s three authors, said the economics community has embraced the paper’s findings.

“If you ask most economists, they will say consumption inequality and income inequality have been tracking each other,” he said. “It felt right to more people … They kind of knew that the findings in some of these other papers just didn’t seem to match some of their instincts.”

In the paper, they write, “consumption inequality might…provide a more reliable measure of inequality in long-term living standards than income,” and recognize the value in studying both income and consumption trends simultaneously.

“Consumption’s a better measure of well-being than income,” Hurst said. For example, he said, if someone loses their job, but has a large savings or seeks government aid, the income loss may not impact their consumption habits.

In his paper “The Retirement of Consumption Puzzle,” Hurst found, “declines in spending during retirement for the average household are limited to the categories of food and work related expenses… [but] even though food spending declines during retirement, actual food intake remains constant.”

Part of The Story of Stuff Project’s goal, according to O’Heaney, is to counter the myth “that the individual consumer is the problem and that the solution is for sale at the grocery store.” The Project, he said, presents both overconsumption and underconsumption as systemic problems.

“Too often we’re made to feel guilty for making the less environmentally or socially friendly choices we make,” he said. “We see our job not as scolding individual consumers, but helping them understand the systemic underpinnings of the consumption problem. And from there, we hope they’ll start seeing themselves as part of the solution.”

Jessica Corbett is a senior journalism major who enjoys shaming the system. You can email her at jcorbet2@ithaca.edu.

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