Responsibility of consumers

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Who might have the power to reach a global change of view on sustainable globalisation?

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Research Question

Why does the behavior of consumers in developed countries effect the sustainable consumption in a dangerous way and what can encourage a shift in values away from consumerism?

Thesis Statement

People define their individual well-being particularly about the way they consume. Especially, in developed countries material consumption is understood as an indicator for well-being. On the one hand it is, because consumption displays a psychological desire and on the other hand the way people consume is explainable as a value of the society.

Map Of The Theme

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About The Right Degree Of Individual Consumption And How It Serves The Individual Well-being


  • Introduction
  • About The Issue Of Inadequate Consumption
  • On The Way For Solutions – The Problem Of Definition For “well-being”
  • The Nature Of The Consumer’s Behavior
  • Conclusion - Capability For Changes By Policies


“Pay attention to the environment! Don’t throw away anything! Keep your waste with you!” Every one of us knows these or similar well-intentioned imperatives, which remind us to take care about our environment of people and nature. But how effective are those terms of good will pressure? Do they really persuade people in a way to act conscious with respect of their social and natural environment? I want to pick up these questions in a more specific way, in a context of consumer behavior in times of ongoing globalization. Referring to Held, McGrew, Goldblatt and Perraton (1999) “Globalization can be conceived as a process (or set of processes) which embodies a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations and transactions, expressed in transcontinental or interregional flows and networks of activity, interaction and power”. Held et al. characterizes these changes, amongst other things, as an intensification and growing magnitude of interconnectedness and flows of trade, migration and culture. Another type of change is the speeding up of global interactions and processes. Communication increases the velocity of the diffusion of ideas, goods, information, capital and people. This also includes the diffusion of ethical values, which take an important role for the following argumentations in this text. Another, rather minor, relevant aspect of globalization in this text will be the impact of those deepening changes of individual behavior to our natural environmental resources, the ecosystem.

Referring to the aspects mentioned above, we can say, that life of everyone becomes more and more complex. We get the impression, it runs faster and faster. This is one characteristic of globalization. One specific phenomenon, which occurs thereby, is that our behavior as consumers seems also to be effected by the changes of globalization. Furthermore, the different kinds of consumerism seem to drift apart the degree of well-being along the world (Goodwin, Nelson, Ackerman and Weisskopf, 2007). In this case, consumption must be understand as the individual behavior, which serves the satisfaction of everyone’s basic needs (like food, housing and security) and also higher-order needs (like participation in everyone’s society and the own social status). Thereby it will be implied that this individual kind of consumption, besides other factors, serves individual well-being. Thus well-being in this context is understood as multi-factorial feeling of satisfaction of a person. In the following lines I will point out the negative effects of consumerism in industrial countries to the social and natural environment. In addition, I try to explore possibilities for a change of our consumption to become more sustainable and figure out, where institutions and politics can support this process.

About The Issue Of Inadequate Consumption

Today, a very important factor of the relations between the ecosystem services and human well-being in rather capitalist societies is the way we consume goods and services. The most serious influence takes the consume behavior of people in well-developed countries, like the U.S. and Western-Europe (Goodwin et al., 2007). One rising negative aspect is the difference in absolute well-being(1) between people in different countries. Rich people become richer and poor people, e.g. in Africa, become poorer. This phenomenon is typical for globalization processes and that is the point, why this becomes a bigger issue, as described next. Due to increasing mobility and communication-technologies, people from different social origins and cultures get closer. As possible consequence, people think of their individual well-being in comparison to other people and often feel deprived, further they get unhappy. This happens, because referring to psychological researches, people’s perception of their own well-being depends on the consumption patterns they see in the people around them (Goodwin et al., 2007). And of course, the capability of consumption is an important determinant for human well-being (Butler et al., 2003). But excessive consumption does not only effect poor people in the indirect way, as explained above. Also people of affluent societies could be infected by the negative aspects of consumerism. Indeed, increasing consumption is surely a high important goal, when people have insufficient goods. But, as human become richer and richer, it is also important to recognize that more consumption could also have negative effects of oneself. Nowadays, our societies in the U.S. and Europe suffer from diseases of affluence like obesity, diabetes and psychological disturbances from certain kinds of overstimulation (Goodwin et al., 2007). Goodwin et al. announce these psychological disturbances by demonstrating a paradox in consumption: Thus different economists have explained, that the reason for consumption in affluent societies is less staying alive and healthy than achieving status. The paradox occurs due to the use of reference groups for comparison one person’s well-being. “we can apparently never have enough to be satisfied, because there is always (unless we are Bill Gates) someone with more than we have.” (Goodwin et al., 2007, “Affluenca” section, para. 4). Although this phenomenon implicates, that the society emphasizes the consumption of material goods, so that subjective feelings of happiness and satisfaction can be maintained only by continually ratcheting up the pleasures to be had by consuming them.

(1)The United Nations define absolute poverty as subsistence on less than one US-Dollar per day.

On The Way For Solutions – The Problem Of Definition For “well-being”

As described above, well-being is often defined only economic. The United Nations define the absolute poverty about Dollars or as a ability to consume related to the reference group of a person. This obviously drove to the wide-spread thinking, that consumption increases happiness. Actually, surveys of U.S. citizens proved that nowadays the average of people is a little less happy than people which were asked in past decades. Although the purchase power form 1957 to 1998 has doubled (Goodwin et al., 2007). Factors, which aren’t related to consumption, like good health and good relationships, often contribute in a bigger part to people’s self-reported sense of satisfaction.

Obviously, referring to those studies, there should be a chance to persuade people to change their behavior of consumerism.

The Nature Of The Consumer’s Behavior

However, before I start exploring ideas for solutions, we must be aware of the theory that causes people to consume as they do and as they possibly could.

Moral-philosopher L.W. Sumner (1996) mainly distinguishes between mental state theories and objective theories of human well-being. The most basic mental state theory, hedonism, posits only two states which appoint the quality of one’s life: pleasure and pain. Sumner has expanded these rather physical states as the mental state of happiness. He described happiness as a positive feeling a person has towards its life as a whole. This state contains two components: The cognitive component is judging the person’s life according to its own standard. The affective component implies a feeling of satisfaction or fulfillment from towards living up to the own standards. In summary, there is no single set of values, characteristics and lifestyles for quality of life. So, according to the mental state theory, the feeling of well-being remains strongly subjective.

Another approach of explaining the link between well-being and consumption is the objective theory. The objective theory assumes that there are certain different things about people’s life which are necessary conditions for well-being. They are described objective because they apply to all human beings regardless of experience. Furthermore they these things are independent of the awareness of attitudes of them by a person. Environmental ethics philosopher Philip Cafaro ties in with this objective approach by the theory of prudential virtue and vice (Sandler & Cafaro, 2005). After that, consuming, at least when it extends beyond the satisfaction of basic needs, seems to reinforce certain vices in our character, for example: gluttony and greed. If there were a chance to demonstrate that these particular vices have a negative impact on the individual and with it a reduction of well-being, a decrease of consumerism could be achieved.

Conclusion - Capability For Changes By Policies

On the one hand, keeping in mind the mental state theory, policies aimed at decreasing consumption in any way would have negative impacts on those people who link their happiness directly to their consumption. That’s because the feeling of happiness is absolutely subjective. However, some studies like those mentioned in the section “On the way for solutions – The problem of definition for ‘well-being’” above, suggests that this link between happiness and consumption could be less strong. Anyway, happiness has an important influence of well-being, but not seems to be the only factor.

On the other hand, according to the rather objective theory of prudential virtue and vice, a limitation of consumption by certain policies seems to be a possible solution. The key maybe is not simply to remind consumer to be more sustainable and threaten people with restrictions, but to demonstrate which negative impacts the consumerism has for the individual. In this way, a think of the individual well-being could be reached. All in all, there is a must to be aware that well-being, independent from the grounded theory, must be understood as a theoretic psychological construct. Therefore evidence-based surveys will likely never deliver absolutely clear answers for all determinants of human behavior and well-being.

In summary, to gain a more sustainable consumption in affluent societies seems to be more possible by arguing it’s pros than remind the cons of excessive consumerism for the individual. One additional argument against affluent consumption, which demonstrates the paradoxes of consumption, is the heavy impact on the ecosystem. The mass consumption of material goods that use up natural resources and generate waste means also a degradation of the ecosystem. Because of the life-style of people, especially in the U.S., these consequences for the environment are out of proportion to their population. Policies should set people less under pressure, e.g. by putting higher taxes on environmental harmful goods, to reduce their consumerism. Sooner they have to follow rather self-interest-theories by highlighting the disadvantages for one’s well-being that appear when consumerism rises more and more.

List Of References

Held, D. and McGrew, A., Goldblatt, D. and Perraton, J. (1999). Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press.

David Held is Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science at the LSE; Anthony McGrew is Professor of International Relations at Southampton University. They have described basic definitions and functions of globalization processes.

Goodwin, N. R., Nelson, J. A., Ackerman, J. A. & Weisskopf, T. (2007, August 21). Consumption and well-being. In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Retrieved November 26, 2008 from

In “Consumption and well-being” the consequences of inadequate consumption, especially for the ecological system, are explained by referring to the old and the new utility theory. Goodwin et al. provide many facts to underline their arguments.

Butler, C., Chambers, R., Duraiappah, A., McMichael, A., & Niu, W. (2003). Ecosystems and Human Well-Being. In: Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (Ed.), Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: A Framework for Assessment (pp. 71-84). Washington: Island Press.

A lot of ecological and economic philosopher try to explain the relation between the ecosystems and human well-being from different perspectives.

Sumner, L. W. (1996). Welfare, happiness and ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Moral-philosopher L.W. Sumner distinguishes between mental state theories and objective theories of human well-being.

Sandler, R. & Cafaro, P. (2005). Environmental Virtue Ethics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Philosopher Philip Cafaro, as a specialist in environmental ethics, tie in with the objective approach by the theory of prudential virtue and vice.

Further aktual projects on well-being and consumption:

Soper, K. & T, Lyn (forthcoming, 2008). Alternative Hedonism and the Theory and Politics of Consumption. Retrieved December 1, 2008 from

Kate Soper and Thomas Lyn from London Metropolitan University explored some media indices and theoretical implications of an emerging disaffection with “consumerist” consumption. They search for an “alternative hedonism” concept of thinking about human fulfilment and its possibility for promoting sustainable consumption. But the release of their study is outstanding yet.

Barnett, C., Cloke, P., Clarke, N., & Malpass, A. (2007). Governing the subjects and spaces of ethical consumption. Retrieved December 1, 2008 from

This research develops a theoretically informed understanding of the pragmatics of ethical action in consumption processes. Furthermore there is a research for practical strategies used by campaigning organizations and policy makers to encourage the adoption of ethical consumption behavior.