Material Consumption Produces Costly Side Affects On Health And Well Being

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By Jules Pretty | The Guardian

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The past half century has seen dramatic lifestyle changes for people in affluent countries. Per person, GDP in the UK has risen nearly four-fold. Each of us consumes more, has more stuff, benefits from abundant technology and transport, there is more diverse food and better housing, and we live longer.

Yet there is a worrying fact: average well being and happiness across whole populations has not changed over 50 years. Scientists at Baylor University explored the relationship between materialism and life satisfaction and found some interesting results.


This seems odd. Every government in all affluent countries wants their economy to grow; all engage in collective panic when material consumption slows or stops. In the poorest countries, of course, more consumption is good. It means food, shelter, water, education, transport. Yet after about $10,000 (£6,300) per capita GDP, the returns for well being flatten off.

One explanation for this is that material consumption also produces many costly side effects on both human health and the natural environment. It gives with one hand and takes away with the other. The external costs of modern living have risen dramatically. Now we have to spend to solve the problems created by the very material consumption we thought was solely good. The costs of conditions and diseases caused by modern lifestyles are eye-watering. We have calculated that seven conditions – mental illness, dementia, obesity, physical inactivity, diabetes, loneliness and cardiovascular disease – now cost Britain’s NHS £60bn a year and result in £184bn of costs to the whole economy. The revenue expenditure of the NHS is some £100bn annually.

Many of these costs are avoidable. This is an opportunity for business, but it will need new thinking. Put another way, a substantial financial dividend could be released by a greener and healthier economy that emphasizes healthy food, regular engagement with nature and physical activity, the enhancement of social bonds, and attention to creating healthy minds.

A priority is to substitute activities that increase both environmentally-sustainable consumption, to save the planet, and non-material consumption behaviors, to increase well being and reduce health costs.

“For decades, consumerism has been on a collision course with the environment, with consumer appetites draining the planet of natural resources and accelerating global warming,” said researcher Miriam Tatzel.

As part of this, I suggest there are two priorities for business: firstly, they must identify actions to improve the well being and health of the workforce, as greater well being improves productivity, engagement and retention. Secondly, they must identify the new goods and services they could develop that would drive greener and healthier economies.


For the first, this means incentivizing behaviors that improve well being, for example healthy food, more physical activity, greater engagement with natural places, more volunteering and probably fewer hours at work. Across the OECD countries, those with the lowest hours worked per year have the greatest well being; long hours might look clever but appear counterproductive.

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