business consumerism food shopping waste

The consumerism waste trap

This morning I’ve been thinking about the fact that in this country, we throw away half of the food that we produce. 20% of that is thrown away on farms, as good enough to eat, but not good enough to sell.

Most of it is wasted by consumers. As a nation, we discard one third of the food we buy.

Think about that for a minute. We complain about rising food prices, and are too dependent on imports. We want to live more sustainably. Landfill is a serious problem. There are lots of hungry people in the world. And we throw away a third of our food – all of these would be addressed if we bought a third less in the first place.

The trouble is, if we all bought a third less, supermarket profits would fall by a third, and that would hurt the economy. In a time of economic slowdown, that’s the last thing we want to do. So, we need to keep quiet and keep wasting food, for the sake of the economy. This is one of the reasons why consumerism is a vicious trap.

Not only that, consumerism runs on growth. (Consumerism is capitalism gone wrong. Capitalism at its best is supposed to use market forces to meet needs and use competition to keep prices stable. Consumerism is what happens when all needs are met, and in the interests of further profits, new needs are created.) The supermarket investors don’t just want profits, they demand higher profits than last year. The same again will not do. But since we’re already buying one third more than we need, the only way the supermarkets can make more money is if they sell us even more. Maybe next year we’ll throw away 35% of what we buy, or 40%. The logic of the growth-based economy makes that a good thing, not the tragedy it is. This is why consumerism is evil.

Unfortunately, under these kinds of unsustainable conditions, the economy really is running on borrowed time. If it takes a slowdown, or even a crash, to make us realise this, then so be it.


  1. ‘Only a radical change of diet can halt looming food crises’, is the stark title of a very sobering article by Rosie Boycott in yesterday’s ‘Guardian’. If I was more clever with my laptop I would find it on the website and put in a link right here *. But being somewhat clueless in that direction I need to ask the indulgence of some other more cyber-savvy reader to do it for me, so others can benefit from Rosie Boycott’s observations. The essence of the crisis, Rosie argues, is the convergence of rising oil prices and the increasing pressures on arable land, gravely aggravated by climate change and in particular its effect on the global water cycle. If what she suggests is true, then we may soon see obesity become a thing of the past.

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