A friend of mine recently said that many wealthy students at her university want to “adopt the poor student lifestyle for the aesthetic”.
An example she gave was the opening of a new café on campus, where everything on the menu is priced at R12; this is a great deal no doubt, especially for students on a budget.
My friend went on to voice her frustrations, because the café was created with the intention of offering treats for students operating on a student budget, but that “richer” students came in and bought everything, leaving nothing for the students who actually are on a budget, and then still complained about what they bought.
This scenario then prompted the question: why buy it if it's not for you and why buy more than what is necessary?
“No ethical consumption under capitalism” is a phrase that was meant to take the wrongful blame off of poor communities and place it onto the big corporations who are truly responsible for unethical consumption practices.
This phrase does not mean individuals should indulge in fast fashion in excess, especially if they have the means to support small businesses and ethical brands.
Over time, the phrase has warped into a justification for the excessive support of fast fashion companies in particular.
“No ethical consumption” has come to mean that since there is no way to do no harm under the capitalist system we live in, why bother trying to minimise harm (to people, to the planet) at all?
This way of thinking is incredibly negative and wasteful.
It definitely feels good to treat ourselves with nice things, but to treat ourselves in excess all at once, without stopping to consider who and what these harmful actions and practices are actually impacting and influencing, is very apathetic of us.
There’s been an online trend that has developed in recent years (most popularly on apps such as TikTok) to participate in thrifting instead of getting your clothes from an established store, like Mr Price or Woolworths.
Thrifting does have its benefits such as up-cycling, finding quality pieces of clothing for lower prices, reducing the waste that comes from the making of clothes, as well as reducing the waste created from disposing of clothes we don’t wear anymore.
But, middle-class and/or wealthy individuals have taken on the practice of thrifting in bulk and then reselling the clothing for higher prices.
Or, some buy clothes in bulk but keep it for themselves, despite having more than enough clothing items in their wardrobes that aren’t all being worn; like buying three pairs of jeans because they were marked down, but already owning another three pairs of the same jeans.
This overconsumption is incredibly harmful, as thrifting in bulk takes away clothes from those individuals who rely on the lower pricing of thrift shops because they cannot afford a pair of jeans from Woolworths.
“Overconsumption has gradually pushed the planet towards ecological collapse,” says Andile Zulu, Energy Democracy Officer at the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC), in an interview with Careers Portal.
“The planet’s resources are finite and so overconsumption has resulted in a rapid decline in essential resources. This amplifies resource scarcity across societies, which then produces economic instability, political conflict and social disharmony,” he elaborates.
While our excessive spending habits may not be the direct, sole or root cause of the climate crisis, it is definitely a contributing factor.
It’s crucial to recognize that the consequences of climate change, while definitely affecting everyone, will have a more drastic impact on the livelihoods and minds of those living in low-income communities, which mainly house Black South Africans and people of colour.
According to Zulu, low-income individuals are devastated by overconsumption in two important ways.
“Firstly, endless consumption intensifies the economic exploitation endured by workers who produce the goods and services we all demand and depend on. In order to drive down the costs of production and meet the demands of consumers, capitalists will firstly cut the cost of labour.
This exploitation looks like slashing employee benefits, not paying for overtime, overlooking safety and health regulations, making employees work on short term contracts, etc.
Secondly, overconsumption disturbs the ecological balance of the planet’s numerous natural environments (like industrial fishing kills biodiversity in ocean floors and industrial agriculture ruins fertile soil).
Low-income individuals often do not have the resources to protect themselves or adapt to the destruction released by climate change when ecological balance is ruined (for example, droughts in Afghanistan [are] causing an immigration crisis because the majority of the poor are farmers),” explains Zulu.
A middle-class family might be able to install an air-conditioner in their home if a heat wave persists (as a result of climate change), but a low-income family will not be able to afford the same relief.
Plenty of debate and discourse about who is to blame for the climate crisis has taken place, along with an unspoken, unfair and unrealistic responsibility placed on the average person to do their part to help combat the deterioration of our planet.
The responsibility of the climate crisis doesn’t only fall on the shoulders of a select group of people; the whole world finds itself in the thick of this monumental catastrophe, and so those with power to implement significant change (governments, the rich, large businesses/companies) need to join the fight.
The 1% of the world's richest people emit more than double what the poorest half of the world emits.
While practices that ordinary people can implement and partake in on the ground, such as recycling, using public transport instead of cars, reducing water wastage, eating as a vegan/vegetarian, etc., are definitely welcomed and should be continued, there is only so much that those practices can do that will make a large enough impact.
Using paper straws instead of plastic ones definitely reduces the amount of plastic that freely floats in our oceans, but a government policy that taxes the largest contributors of greenhouse gases would put out some of the fire that is literally burning a hole in our planet’s ozone layer.
“Although it is important to be conscious of climate change and the destruction unleashed by consumerism, consciousness without meaningful political action leaves one ultimately disempowered and impotent in the face of climate disaster,” says Zulu.
Zulu adds that the habit of shifting the blame onto consumers (particularly the poor and working-class) for the outcomes of capitalist production by “economic and political elites” is an effective strategy used to curb responsibility for the crises they create.
It begs the question: what is the point of recycling, saving water, using material shopping bags instead of plastic ones, taking the bus instead of a car, using solar energy, etc., if those with the biggest impact on the wellbeing of our planet aren’t doing their part?
“It is much easier to blame the everyday person who forgets to put their can in the recycling, than to admit that climate change is a capitalist issue and one that can only be solved by drastically reducing emissions on an industrial and commercial scale and at the national and international level,” writes Courtney Morgan, a human Geographer and climate justice activist.
“It is valuable to support small, ethical businesses and attempt to recycle in one’s home or community. But, these steps cannot be the end of one’s political action. Detrimental practices will not stop until the economic system which requires those practices is either deeply reformed or overturned.
Simply put, capitalism - through the dictatorship of those who privately own the means of economic production - will maintain detrimental practices for the sake of maximising profits. Until capitalism is overcome, detrimental practices such as overconsumption will remain,” continues Zulu.
Shopping for the “aesthetics” is another thing that is incredibly harmful towards the planet, as many trends are short-lived, and not all plastic can be recycled, thus becoming collected in landfills and/or getting burned, which contributes to pollution.
“‘Hauls’ are one of the numerous ways in which capitalism produces social practices and ideologies which both conceal and justify exploitation at the heart of the system. If one can feel good, popular, desired or cool for having certain kinds of clothes or a certain amount of clothes, then it becomes very easy to overlook, ignore or not to be interested in the impact of one’s consumption on the planet,” says Zulu.
While “going green” is a good thing, it is not possible for everyone to do so.
Not everyone can afford to practise climate consciousness, as a lot of people are just trying to survive; and again, large corporations should take the most responsibility.
“It is unjust to expect people to reduce their emissions on an individual scale. But even those who are able to, of course it is not a problem for people to recycle, eat less meat, use less water if they so choose, but this is not the focus of climate action and should never be. We have to have collective action to call on governments and corporations to drastically reduce emissions, and implement meaningful and ambitious mitigation and adaptation measures,” explains Morgan.
A family with a sustainable flow of income might be able to switch to vegetarianism, therefore reducing the amount of methane (a greenhouse gas) produced by cattle; but with the cost of living being so steep, it would be unfair to expect the same from a family surviving on a significantly lower income.
The latter family would buy what is affordable to them, as well as what will sustain them.
“Low-income individuals, in terms of a carbon footprint, do not significantly contribute to global emissions or ecological destruction when compared to the rich. In most countries, it is the wealthy and rich who are responsible for the highest levels of carbon emissions due to overconsumption and wasteful living. Moreover, one can’t forget that working class people, the poor and precarious are not in control of economic production. So why must they be blamed for the emissions of Shell or the environmentally-unfriendly practices of Nescafé?,” elaborates Zulu.
Rather than condemn upper-middle-class people for thrifting, says Zulu, we should be holding capitalists (industrialists and corporate business owners especially) accountable for how they price clothing, food, fuel and many other fundamental goods.
“We should be questioning why certain goods and services are commodified in the first place. For example, if housing is a fundamental need one requires to live and have basic dignity as a human being - why do we allow the provision of housing to be privatised and commodified?”
As individuals, we should be attempting to implement environmentally good and ethically sound practices when it comes to consumption. But, the most crucial step to take is being involved in a collective political struggle against the domination of capital, concludes Zulu.
Overconsumption may be damaging, but the inability of low-income people to access affordable goods, services and products is a consequence of our economic system and a problem worth solving as well.
The planet and the livelihoods of its people go hand-in-hand.