According to the United Nations, resource consumption is projected to increase by 71% by the year 2050. This staggering statistic calls for significant changes in our approach to consumption. Neil Walker, Forum's Senior Change Designer, emphasises the need for a systemic shift in our consumption patterns. This transformation can be done through various means, including reducing resource options, shaping culture and mindsets, and establishing channels to mainstream innovative consumption practices. 

With the world’s population having recently exceeded eight billion, one fact is now certain – our level of consumption must and cannot be maintained. 

Today, we are consuming more resources than our planet can provide and replenish, and we’re doing so faster than ever before. E-waste, for example, is the most rapidly growing waste stream globally and is expected to double from 2014-2030. In apparel, more than half of fast fashion items are disposed of in less than one year. If consumption continues at these rates, we will need the equivalent of three planets to sustain our lifestyles by 2050. And, while it’s imperative that these startling levels of consumption are addressed, we must do so in a way that still provides people with a home to live in, good health and enough nutritious food to eat. 

So how can we maintain and increase standards of living for people around the world, while also reducing material production? Our current take-make-waste consumption model is unfit for a world constrained by finite boundaries. It must be replaced with one in which resources are circulated and nature is consistently replenishing and regenerating, and where everyone has the means to flourish. 

How to transform consumption

Many technical and practical solutions to the resource consumption problem have been proposed, yet material consumption continues to rise globally, even during the pandemic . Circular economics, well-being economics, carbon pricing, degrowth, decoupling, resource passports, zero-waste lifestyles, minimalism, digitization of products and services, sharing and subscription economics, and hyper-localisation are just some of the leading ideas and movements in play.

However, incremental change and piecemeal solutions will not be enough. Transforming consumption necessitates each of us looking beyond technical and social solutions and innovations at something more fundamental: how we can redefine what’s considered “the good life”. It’s then about establishing new narratives and relationships between consumers and the material products they covet. In practice, this means three things. Let’s take each in turn.

1. Making fewer resource consumption options available, and each more affordable, accessible and attractive. 

Dematerialisation might seem like a challenging concept, but in fact it’s already all around us. Peer-to-peer models that maximize resource utilization are common in tool hire (for example, Home Depot’s tool rental), vehicles (Turo) and accommodation (Airbnb). These all offer a range of affordable options and deliver income generation for the customer and value for the company. 

Product as a service (PaaS) models ensure quality and affordability. They put the onus on companies to maintain / ensure after-life care of products. This incentivizes innovation for recycling or re-use, something Interface was able to implement through its carpet initiative. The rise of audio and ebooks is another example of digitizing products and thus decoupling them from paper and pulp consumption.

For many companies, however, such approaches would mark a significant shift in business model. Though the market for models which reduce resource use is growing, it is not doing so evenly and the value proposition is yet to be widely understood.

2. Shaping culture in ways that motivate people to adopt new consumption behaviors and to rethink how and why they consume resources

Consumers are increasingly factoring in sustainability when making purchasing decisions. In 2022, 34% of surveyed UK consumers actively chose to stop purchasing from companies due to sustainability concerns, while 66% of US consumers said they would pay more for sustainable products, and 88% of Indian consumers said they’re willing to spend more on locally or sustainably made products. Although switching to a more sustainably produced cotton t-shirt is a positive shift, we cannot expect to produce 27 million, or more, tons of cotton every year without transgressing planetary boundaries.

Western-born consumption behaviors are arguably now globalized, predicated on a set of values that emphasizes the continual need for more “stuff” as our collective raison d’etre when it comes to building a “good life”. Ritu Verma, speaking at the recent Beyond Growth conference in Brussels, highlighted the difference between the fleeting happiness of our current consumption habits, and a deeper wellbeing brought about by a change in what we value. This values shift is not an alien concept and may even remind us of previous generations; generations with a preference for products that are well-made and durable, and who valued self-sufficiency in repairs and products which ultimately helped provide a sense of place, of bringing people together, of identity. 

We also know that businesses can have a big impact. While Patagonia has long championed  DIY repair  videos, now Apple, which has been guarded in the past, is on board. Fortunately, retailers are increasingly seeing the value of promoting local merchants and producers. The role business can play in this cultural shift is significant, but requires courage.

3. Providing triggers to rapidly mainstream new ways of consuming

Lastly, the potential to create transformation by promoting new ways of consumption is undeniable. In the late 1990s, Africa had few mobile phones, was not seen as an attractive place to invest, and had little infrastructure. Then came the ambitious intervention of Mo Ibrahim’s Celtel. Within a few years, demand was exploding after investment in infrastructure and new policies created tipping points. 

In the US, resource use per person increased five fold from 1900 to 1995, the majority of consumption happening in the final 25 years, in big part due to the wider availability of credit, economies of scale generating cost efficiencies, and some very effective marketing. Although it can be challenging to conceive of a new system and the role that individuals and  businesses collectively can play, the reality is that triggers for new ways of consumption are both common and necessary.

Looking ahead

Perhaps most importantly, we must dare to reimagine and encourage discourse around these potential futures. Organizations like Forum for the Future have spent years exploring alternative futures for consumption, creating future scenarios for businesses and working on initiatives such as Reimagining Consumption, which explores economic levers of change with a focus on equity, diversity and inclusion.

Where has this left us? More aware than ever of the scale of the challenge and the intransigence of the status quo. 

We are further away from our goals, and nearly all indicators forecast an upward trajectory for resource use. While there are many obstacles, none are insurmountable. There are ways to unlock the systemic shifts we need, by creating a vision of what’s possible, providing tangible pathways and demonstrating potential, and shifting mindsets to redefine value. And with partnership, courage and creativity from business, the possibilities are endless.