Sustainable Design Awards Toolkit

Section 1.3 - Consumerism and its effects

The majority of the developed world live in a consumerist society. Mechanically functional products are discarded because they are no longer fashionably functional, for example; kitchen appliances, clothes, carpets, cars etc. What Europeans spend annually on ice-cream alone would provide water and sanitation for the world's population5. To purchase is to make a decision, and to make a decision is to exercise control. There is a prevailing attitude that to own is to be comfortable.
To own a coffee-bean grinder allows fresh coffee to be ground and enjoyed when and where the user wishes, rather than having the coffee ground at the place of purchase, and the ground coffee then going stale or losing its freshness.
However, 100% of coffee drinkers owning a grinder of their own has far more environmental implications than one coffee shop owning a grinder which is used by everybody.

Three different ways of reducing the environmental impact of grinding coffee:
Re-design grinders to be more sustainable, e.g. use renewable energy sources, materials with low environmental impacts and less raw material Develop a container which keeps ground coffee fresh for a longer period so users can still enjoy fresh coffee, e.g. using recyclable foil Arrange distribution of freshly ground coffee - in the same way that milk is delivered in the UK

One of the most dominant factors in both traditional and sustainable design today is cost. To reduce cost is to increase profits.

"Why should I pay €500 for a table which is locally made when I can get one from a superstore for €75?"

The €500 table is hand crafted by a skilled tradesperson, using sustainable materials and will last for 40 years.

The €75 table is mass-produced in a factory with poor working conditions in a third world country, which takes advantage of poverty in the region. It uses less material, but this is not sustainable, and it will last for 4 years.

"Why should I pay €80 for an environmentally friendly bookshelf when I can get a normal one from a superstore for €20?"

How could a designer or salesperson use their expertise to encourage the consumer to buy this more sustainable product?

Cardboard bookshelf which is its own packaging

Fifty years ago, furnishing a house was very expensive, and products would be considered very carefully before anything was bought. The consumer was more likely to demand higher quality items, which would not need replacing for years, and would be prepared to inspect the products close up. This often meant that the products were made locally, or distributed to local retailers. Now consumers spend less time considering the quality and lifespan of the products, and many purchases are made from catalogues or over the Internet, where the buyer does not even see the product until it is delivered to their house. The global nature of the internet means that consumers can buy things which are not manufactured locally, and require long-distance transportation. Factors which influence today's purchases are more changeable - for example current fashions, and whether the item "fits in" with the consumer's other belongings. Products become less "precious" as they are more easily replaceable. As mass production and competition brings down prices, consumers have more flexibility, and tend to change their home environment more often, either through re-decorating or replacing old furniture.

This "throw-away society" does have positive social implications. As people buy new things to replace old ones, more second hand items are made available, giving other people the opportunity to change their environment. Second hand goods are often sold through charity shops, providing a service to the community's poorer citizens, and also raising money for different charities. In this way, furnishing a house can be more affordable through the re-use of mechanically functional products.

Current trends show that consumers are beginning to return to the more old fashioned behaviour of rejecting cheaper, poorer quality items in favour of higher quality products. This is partly due to a current fashion of "individuality" where mass produced products are rejected for hand made ones. This may have a positive environmental effect, but it is not a solution.

5Source: - last visited 21-06-202

Sustainability Issues
1.1  What is sustainability?
1.2  The effect of globalisation
1.3  Consumerism and its effect
1.4  Manufacture Abroad
1.5  Fair trade
1.6  Success stories
Toolkit Index
Section 1.
Sustainability Issues
Section 2.
Companies and Products
Section 3.
Ecodesign Tools
Section 4.
Inspirational current work

Cardboard Bookshelf which is it's own packaging

Interior Design Room Photograph