Hurting Our Wallet, Hurting The Planet: Cause and Effect of Overconsumption

Stanley Cups: A large, insulated stainless steel tumbler, more specifically the Quencher H2.0 FlowState Tumbler, that has become the latest fad online until its recent downfall when consumers discovered lead in it.

Quencher H2.0 Flowstate Tumbler

Coquette aesthetic: A 2020s fashion trend that has taken social media by storm, characterised by sweet, romantic elements that are aimed to elevate femininity through the use of lace, pink and ribbons. 

Coquette Fashion

Drunk Elephant: A Houston-based skincare brand that has become the fixation of young teens. The B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Gel and Protini Polypeptide Cream have been especially popular, putting consumers in a chokehold.

Drunk Elephant

You may wonder: What do these seemingly random things have in common with each other? Look no further for the answer: These 3 objects have been excessively promoted on social media platforms, flooding TikTok For-You-Pages, leading to an alarming trend in overconsumption. 

Consumerism is defined as the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable, along with the preoccupation and inclination towards the buying of consumer goods. It’s no secret that social media influences our spending habits. Whether it’s influencers making endless posts to promote brand deals, or even our peers showing off their newest purchases, the constant bombardment encourages us to spend, spend, spend. 

Living in a capitalist country where economic success is determined by how much is bought and how much profit is made, it’s no wonder why companies are constantly pushing out advertisement after advertisement, and why commercialisation and consumerism are at an all time high. Such commercialisation is not unfamiliar in the average person’s life, especially online. Oftentimes, online users are able to spot said advertisements. Some may utilise ad blockers, while others have adapted the ability to completely tune out throughout the duration of an ad and tune back in after it’s over.

However, not all forms of advertising are so easy to point out. For example, sponsorships for YouTubers and other content creators; these content creators are becoming increasingly creative when it comes to sneaking sponsorships into their videos, either via seamless transitions from the video into the sponsor segment or by integrating the promotional products into the video itself (e.g., using lipstick from a sponsor in a makeup tutorial). A lot of the time, viewers aren’t even aware that they’re being promoted by a product or brand until the creator outright mentions it. 

But content creators aren’t the only ones evolving their advertising styles. With the advancement of technology, social media algorithms are able to create personalised ads tailored to each user’s interests, making them hard to turn away from. There are even companies that use augmented reality (AR) in their marketing, such as Watsons, which has its own mobile app that allows users to “try on” selected makeup and beauty products using their phone camera.

With these companies’ and brands’ never-ending efforts to appeal to their audience and reel in more sales and profit, along with manipulative marketing and advertising tactics, it’s no wonder that consumerism is able to reach the level that it’s at today. Alas, stocking up our closets and dressers with the season’s latest and buying new products and gadgets for that temporary dopamine hit doesn’t come without its consequences.

TikTok is one of the largest social media platforms, with over 1 billion monthly users. It also happens to be one of the platforms that facilitates “micro-trends”, defined by Trend Bible as “a niche or industry specific consumer behavioural trend.” Micro-trends usually last only for short periods of time, falling out of trend as quickly as they emerge. A few notable ones may be the cottagecore aesthetic, or as mentioned earlier, the coquette aesthetic and the Stanley Cup trend. The thing about these micro-trends is that although they only last briefly, they stir up the market, drive up the sales of a select few companies, and leave behind detrimental impacts on the environment that can take centuries to reverse. 

The effects of overconsumption and mass production on the environment have long been discussed among academics and environmentalists, even making its way into daily conversations and school curriculum. The clothing and textile industry is known as one of the largest polluters in the world. Fast fashion brands such as Shein churn out huge amounts of products every day. CEO Molly Miao has stated that each item is initially produced in small amounts.If said product gains popularity, it is then mass produced. As a result, Shein churns out the same amount of carbon dioxide as approximately 180 coal-fired plants. Textile dyeing and microfiber pollution from the use of synthetic textiles in the fashion industry is also a major source of water pollution. 

Mass production and over consumerism also depletes the Earth’s natural resources. As we know, the production of plastic requires fossil fuels, which are a finite, non-renewable  resource. Certain means of resource extraction, such as deforestation and strip mining, destroys ecosystems and pollute our surroundings. For example, bauxite mining, for the production of aluminium, caused the 2015-2016 Kuantan bauxite disaster.

Abandoned Bauxite Mines in Kuantan, Malaysia

Oftentimes the products we consume are produced from the labour of millions of underpaid, exploited workers. Of course, some can argue that companies have the utmost responsibility to ensure that the production process is as ethical as possible, and that is undoubtedly true. However, in this capitalist society, it begs the question as to whether overconsumption perpetuates worker exploitation.

Fast fashion is often produced in sweatshops. Sweatshops are referred to as a workplace where workers are employed at low wages and under unhealthy or oppressive conditions. Sweatshops are often described as “modern day slavery”, where workers are paid as little as 5 or 6 cents (USD) for each piece of clothing they complete. This unsustainable environment is a product of corporate greed and overwhelming market demand, plus a constantly changing trend cycle that is faster than it’s ever been.

As another example, mica mining has become one of the most controversial topics due to its links to child labour. Mica is incorporated in the production of paints, drywalls, and notably makeup as well. Mica is prized for its pearly lustre, taking residency in everything from eyeshadow palettes to lipsticks. It is reported that 60% of high quality mica comes from India, mostly from Bihar and Jharkhand, where children risk their lives by venturing into small, man-made tunnels at the risk of injury or even death. With all these health risks and exploitation imposed on others through our purchases, it’s hard to pose consumerism as a matter of our “right” to purchase, because at what point do their rights end, and ours start?

Children Mining Mica

Of course, it is no secret that overconsumption also affects consumers on a more personal level. Spending on the latest trends and dropping some cash on the newest pair of shoes may seem like a small deal at the time, but continual impulsive buying is sure to leave a dent in anyone’s wallet. As we all know, the cost of living continues to skyrocket as inflation ensures that we continue to pay more for less. Hence, excessive consumption may not be the wisest decision. 

Now that all the abysmal effects of consumerism have been laid out, what can be done to combat it? For starters, critical thinking should be fostered, along with the promotion of media literacy. With this, consumers will be able to better recognise the persuasive tactics and underlying motives behind advertisements and marketing campaigns. Individuals can also practise conscious or alternative consumption – opting to buy less or make more sustainable purchases. This can be done by only buying what is necessary or by shopping at thrift stores rather than fashion chains. If monitoring the production process of every item we purchase is too tedious, buying from local stores and small businesses can be just as helpful, as they generally generate less waste and pollution compared to large companies.
In conclusion, mass overconsumption is a societal ill that should be remedied. However, that is easier said than done. In a perfect world, consumer sovereignty would not just be an economic theory, rather a viable solution. Consumers would be able to spend their money as they wish, supporting companies that make an effort to protect  the environment and guarantee the welfare of workers. Unfortunately, that is not the case in our current world. Hence, we as consumers should be mindful and conscious of how we shop, and who we shop with. Hopefully, we as a society are able to move towards a greener, more sustainable future where landfills, sweatshops, and child labour are a thing of the past. 

Written By: Sarah Tan & Sarah Wong 
Edited By: Ruby

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