High on consumption – it’s time  for the world to sober up

High on consumption – it’s time for the world to sober up

By Sian Sutherland

We produce over 80 billion pieces of clothing each year, up 100 percent from two decades ago.[i] In 2018 Britons alone binned clothes worth £12.5 billion,[ii] while Americans throw away over 88 lbs of textiles annually.[iii] Year after year our addiction to the empty highs of fast fashion has grown more intense. We buy it. We use it. We get rid of it. And then we start the process all over again. These products bring us only a fleeting joy, yet have an irrevocable impact on our planet and our health. 

Our addiction to fast fashion mirrors our insatiable appetite for fast plastic. Fuelled by a seemingly endless supply of cheap throwaway materials, we will do anything to experience the dopamine rush that buying something new provides. Once the object is in your hands, the thrill is over and we set our sights on the next thing. But our endemic buy-buy-buy culture has done heart-breaking damage to the one thing we should hold most precious; our home, Planet Earth.

This explosion in consumption means that by 2030 the world is set be producing up to 5 times the current amount of indestructible plastic.  Unable to cope with the deluge of plastic waste created in the UK, Britons ship some 600,000 tonnes of plastic waste abroad each year.[iv] Americans are mostly unaware of the vast quantity of their own trash exported – in the name of ‘recycling’.  Where does all this plastic go? Much of it ends up in developing countries ill-equipped to deal with their own waste, let alone our plastic excesses. It’s a short inevitable trip to eventually ending up being burned or dumped in landfill or, worst of all, our ocean. One man’s trash is another man’s problem.

But there’s good news. People the world over are fighting back.  We are waking up to the truth that we will never, ever have enough of something we don’t actually need. In 2019 less is more. People are searching for something new to replace this empty high of over-consumption. Experiences now rate higher than yet more stuff.

Nothing embodies the growth of reductionism quite like the meteoric rise of Marie Kondo. In 2015 Time Magazine listed the Japanese tidying champion as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Neither a political leader, sporting icon or popstar, Kondo is in the business of creating clarity in people’s lives through the simple art of decluttering. Kondo’s central thesis is this – if it doesn’t spark joy in your heart, get rid of it. To date more than 5 million people worldwide have bought one of Kondo’s books, with millions more follow her Netflix series.

Searching for a new sense of order and purpose in their lives, millions of people have embarked on a mission to declutter. Across the US thrift stores are battling to keep up with the never-ending stream of Americans vowing to find new simplicity in their lives. Since January this year, thrift stores in Maryland have seen a 42 percent increase in donations. One donation centre in Washington D.C. in January this year reported a 367 percent year-on-year rise. Vintage is prized over fast fashion. 

With less belongings weighing us down, we need to fall in love again with the things we already own that bring us joy. After years of being forced to contend with an alphabet soup of plastic clutter, we can now take the time to appreciate the feeling of good quality, enduring products that have a weight and substance in your hand.  The future of design must be to create products with a permanent purpose. What an opportunity to create something beautiful and useful rather than slick packaging that is simply pre-trash.

As we move into the 2020s designers across the globe face a profound challenge. How can we deliver quality over quantity, joy over guilt, simplicity over clutter? Industry is being led by a new social pushback, brands are realising they must evolve or become redundant as their once-loyal customers seek more sustainable products. Responsibility is set to be ‘word of the year’ as brands are called to account for the materials they choose. Boards and shareholders hold a new culpability. Conscious consumption is not just a path for the enlightened few but now understood as the only way we can have all we hold dear in the future.  It’s exciting to witness businesses shift; especially as we appreciate that change is so hard at global scale.  We have to start somewhere, sometime. And 2019 is set to be the year that so many more of us woke up; realised the power we have in our wallets to vote for change and decided that we would be part of this new movement.  Less can be more. Sustainable can be cool, modern, aspirational not knitted armpit, hairy sandals. We are on the brink of something amazing and we must all champion those individuals, brands and businesses that are forging a new path. Trust me, we all have way more power than we think.


Sian Sutherland is co-founder of A Plastic Planet. The global campaign group has a simple goal – to ignite and inspire the world to turn off the plastic tap.


[i] https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/7539/fast-fashion-is-drowning-the-world-we-need-a-fashion-revolution/
[ii] https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/vanish-survey-shows-that-brits-throw-away-125-billion-worth-of-clothing-every-year-676271113.html
[iii] https://www.savers.com/sites/default/files/reusereport-june7.pdf
[iv] http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-8515/CBP-8515.pdf
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