Ecological transition: why we are overconsuming and how retailers can help us to stop this.

Transition écologique : pourquoi nous surconsommons et comment les acteurs du commerce peuvent nous aider à y remédier.

The impact human activity has on the climate is now well established. As we have been overconsuming for decades while aware of the consequences on the climate and biodiversity, it is now a matter of urgency to change our purchasing habits to make us more responsible consumers. As customers, this requires a change in our concept of contentment, if not happiness. And this is unlikely to happen (at least not everywhere), without a profound change in strategy from retailers.


Human beings are paradoxical. And it seems that they have never been as paradoxical as they are today. On the one hand, moderation is being promoted as a remedy to tackle global warming and deal with the economic and social consequences of events like the pandemic or the war in Ukraine.

On the other hand, especially on social media, we see a glorification of this idea of happiness that consists of always wanting to do better than others, to have a (seemingly) more interesting and fulfilled life, to arouse admiration, if not jealousy. For many, this admiration of the other is achieved through wealth, or more specifically through the proof of this wealth with photos and staging your daily life to appear flashy and refined. The infatuation of certain influencers with the city of Dubai is not surprising. Firstly, because it has the advantage of keeping its richest residents (almost entirely) tax-free: what is the point of accumulating wealth if the state ‘seizes’ it? But also because you can do just about anything there, if you have the means. Dubai is all about bling and excess. The exact opposite of moderation. 


A perpetual state of dissatisfaction guided by our own self-esteem, according to philosophers.


But are these Dubai-loving influencers happier than the average person? And more generally, does the accumulation of wealth, and specifically of consumer goods, bring happiness? 

For Epicurus, whose ethical philosophy is devoted to the definition and pursuit of happiness, it does not. The Greek philosopher considered that happiness lay in reaching a dual state of peace of mind and absence of physical pain. Once this state of happiness has been reached, “the living being no longer has to strive for something that is lacking, nor to seek anything else to perfect the well-being of the soul and the body” (Letter to Menoeceus, 4th century BC). Thus, the search for the satiation of certain desires, which he calls “vain desires” as opposed to natural or necessary desires, would lead Mankind into a perpetual state of dissatisfaction and would keep him from happiness rather than allowing him to get close to it. 


Closer to home, Giacomo Leopardi, the 19th century Italian poet and philosopher, believes that humankind’s own love is limitless, and provokes in them a desire for pleasure that also knows no limits. “But every pleasure, however intense and real, has its limits. Thus, no pleasure is proportional or equal to the measure of the love that every living being has for itself. Therefore, no pleasure can satisfy it.” And “the living being always desires more, since by essence he loves himself without limits” (Zibaldone, 1832)


So, just like a drug we have gotten used to, we consume more and more, in order to satisfy a desire for pleasures which, once obtained, struggle more and more to satisfy us. A drug whose driving force is our excessive ego. 


A promise of happiness that creates new needs.


In psychology, this propensity for human beings to be blasé about pleasure and, more generally, about strong emotions, was described by Brickman and Campbell in 1971 under the name ‘hedonic adaptation’. According to this theory, humans always tend to return to relatively stable level of happiness, regardless of the positive or negative events that they have faced up to now. Applied to the accumulation of wealth and the desire to consume, hedonic adaptation thus dictates that as a person earns more money, their desires increase, preventing further happiness.


So, if wealth and owning assets does not make us happy, why does our society value over-consumption so much? Humans are deeply social beings. They cannot live without others, without their company, without speaking to them. As well as this need for socialisation, there is the ego. This ego pushes the human being to compare themselves to the other and – inevitably – to be jealous of them. If we follow Leopardi’s reasoning, our love for ourselves pushes us to follow the crowd, to consume more and more to satisfy our ego in front of our fellow human beings, who also consume more and more… to satisfy their own. 


Obviously, marketing and advertising, which became increasing powerful in the second half of the 20th century, also have a lot to do with this. What could be better than the promise of being happy to sell products to people in a perpetual pursuit of happiness? Finally, there is no better way to make us want to satisfy our “vain desires” than marketing. Apple is a perfect example. For decades, Apple has been creating new consumer needs rather than satisfying existing ones, building a community of hundreds of millions of Apple addicts who are ready to queue for hours to buy the latest iPhone, even though their current one works perfectly.


Resisting the temptation to sell products that the customer doesn’t need.


At a time when the urgency of climate change is no longer in question, encouraging customers to overconsume, with the consequences that this implies for the climate, is illogical and anachronistic. Yet when you make a living selling products, it is complicated, if not impossible, to resist the temptation to sell products that your customers do not necessarily need. 


Despite this, on the contrary, some try to encourage their customers to consume less. This is the case, for example, with Patagonia, who has encouraged its customers since as early as 2016 to keep their clothes longer and repair them if necessary, rather than buying new ones. Without going that far, other players, such as Costco, with its warehouse club, have simply built their model on customer loyalty rather than consumption. In recent months, a growing number of retailers, such as Decathlon and Selfridges, have chosen to turn to more virtuous and sustainable types of consumption, such as renting. 


In the near future, it is not unreasonable to imagine the generalisation of these more responsible ways to spend, through a shift towards an economic retail model that is no longer based on the quantity of products sold, but on customer satisfaction, well-being and environmental responsibility.