Few homages to our fast-paced, disconnected and global world rival the next-day delivery. Say your phone has started getting a little old. The camera doesn’t seem as good as when you first got it and the battery life has become unpredictable. You turn to your laptop and with a few clicks you’ve arranged for a new one to arrive at your front door tomorrow morning – all you’ll have to do is swap your SIM card over.
A mere 18 hours later, the delivery driver hands you the new phone, nestled in bubble wrap and packaging to get safely to your door.
We are rarely pressed to stop and consider the incredible monument to human civilisation and development contained within the modern process of buying things. Physical journeys across vast oceans were once the pinnacle of human progress and innovation. In the 17th century, the journey from Britain to China took anywhere between six and nine months depending on weather conditions.
Now, a container ship makes the route from the UK to China in 28 days, while a plane traverses the distance in around 12 hours. In the fourth quarter of 2022 alone, Apple shipped 72.3 million iPhones across the world, while making just one iPhone requires a supply chain that involves 43 countries spanning six continents.
But hidden within the magical 18-hour appearance of your new phone are the countless people who have worked on the innovation and design of it. The rare metals that have been mined from deep within the earth and shipped across the world to produce it. The labour it has taken to assemble it. The carbon emissions and energy used to manufacture it. The hours spent on marketing and packaging the product so that you were aware of it. The tracking codes and sorting algorithms created to link it to online ordering capabilities. The delivery driver who picked it up from a sorting warehouse, drove to your house and rang your doorbell.
Technological advancements and increased globalisation have combined to make the consumer experience as easy as clicking and then waiting a matter of hours. But with this abundant convenience and simplicity it has become easy – perhaps even inviting – to forget the time, energy, effort and impact contained within the items we purchase.
With an urgent need to mitigate our increasingly volatile climate and dwindling natural resources, is the first step to more sustainable consumerism reconnecting with the things that we buy?
When you think about it, there is stuff everywhere. There’s stuff in our wardrobes, in our kitchens, in our living rooms. There’s stuff in our cars, in our gardens and on our desk at work. And the house and the car are both just bigger versions of stuff. Some stuff is intangible too – the Ubers, haircuts, holiday insurance and gym memberships.
Our relationship with material objects starts early. Researchers at Harvard University found that by the age of two, children have already grasped basic owner–object associations. Another study even found that by just nine months of age, infants protest when other children take, or are about to take, objects away from them. But the way we interact with material possessions is not inherently superficial or materialistic.
Russell Belk, a research professor at the Schulich School of Business in Ontario, studies the meaning of possessions, gift-giving, sharing and materialism. “When we get into symbolic possessions, these are things that represent us. In that sense, we wax and wane depending upon how our possessions prosper,” he commented on the Speaking of Psychology podcast.
It’s clear that not only are we aware of the concept of ownership from a young age, but that material possessions can become extensions of our sense of self.
“The way we interact with material possessions is not inherently superficial or materialistic.”
Then there is the link between buying new things and the rush of dopamine that we experience. In her book Minding the Climate, Harvard neurosurgeon Ann-Christine Duhaime demonstrates that our brains are evolved to seek out these dopamine hits: “All things being equal, we are predisposed to try to acquire more and more stuff, and to try and work less to get it.”
Russell also links our difficulty in letting go of meaningful possessions to what they represent about our lives and loved ones. When Russell’s mother died, he had to undergo the painful process of sorting through the collection of things and possessions from the span of her life. “It was like throwing away a piece of my mother.”
The combination of a shiny new object being assimilated as an extension of our self, as well as becoming imbued with emotional weight, has a powerful impact on our mood and self-esteem. It’s easy, therefore, to see why the act of abundant accumulation and ownership of things can become a nearly addictive process. So what happens to our connection with material possessions in an age of material abundance and next-day delivery?
Speaking on Deloitte’s The Green Room podcast, Associate Director of Circular Economy at Deloitte James Pennington points to the end result of a ‘take-make-waste’ model of consumption. “Essentially, we dig things out of the ground, we make them into products and then we put them back into the ground as landfill – in forms where they cannot be used again,” he explains. “It’s a linear economy.”
“It’s clear that not only are we aware of the concept of ownership from a young age, but that material possessions can become extensions of our sense of self.”
Saasha Celestial-One, Co-founder of the food-sharing app Olio, argues that the disposable nature of many of our modern products has contributed to the prevalence of linear consumption, where things are easily replaced and so less valuable. “If you took any given product and asked how we made it 40 or 50 years ago, it was probably not disposable. But today, the disposable way really is so embedded in our culture that people don’t even think twice about it.”
We now live in an age where, for many, it’s not a disaster if something breaks or stops working. You can order a replacement and expect to have it arrive on your doorstep the very next day in an incredible feat of innovation, production and energy. But it’s a feat that we rarely consider.
The power of the consumer
Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the negative impact that buying material things in abundant and unrestricted quantities has on our planet. Our linear model of consumption is leading us down a dead end.
Particularly paired with the increased pace of consumption, itself driven by digitalisation and globalisation, this kind of consumption means that we are drawing on our natural resources too quickly without allowing them a chance to recover.
“People share items on our app not just because they know it’s wrong to throw it away, but because they realise it will benefit someone else. That is a hardwired human instinct: to want to share something of value with another human.”Saasha Celestial-One, Co-founder of Olio
Consumer trends have begun reflecting a desire for change. In its 2023 survey into consumer attitudes to sustainability and sustainable behaviours, Deloitte has found that more consumers adopted sustainable lifestyles in 2023 compared with 2022. The research, covering a breadth of consumer views on finance, energy, food and travel, in relation to sustainability, provides detailed insight into the shifting needs and demands of the modern consumer and provides a comprehensive set of data points to measure progress.
Anne-Marie Malley, Vice Chair and Sustainability and Climate Lead at Deloitte, has a front-row view of this shifting consumer demand. “Business has to understand that a significant change is taking place,” she explains. “Our research has shown that one in three consumers have chosen to not buy a brand because they believe it’s not sustainable.”
There are a myriad of potential factors driving this shift: the pandemic placing attention back on the things physically in front of us; globalisation falling out of favour due to geopolitics; new generational thinking; the cost of living crisis altering spending habits. All have culminated in a rise in values-based purchases, a prioritisation of local over global and a shift from products to services.
And the majority of these business changes are working symbiotically with sustainability needs. Deloitte found that when considering a purchase, most consumers value durability (58%) followed by repairability (39%) and biodiversity (37%) over recyclability or biodegradability.
Olio is one of the businesses working hard to change this ‘take-make-waste’ model. It is tackling overconsumption head-on by providing an app that allows people to share things they no longer need – primarily food, but also clothes, books, toys and more.
Saasha argues that it’s also to do with how we relate to the items we buy. We need to reinvigorate a sense of value within them: “People share food and household items on our app not just because they know it’s wrong to throw it away, but because they realise it will benefit someone else. That is a hardwired human instinct: to want to share something of value with another human.”
With individuals changing their approach to consumption, business has no choice but to evolve to meet their altered needs. But alongside reactive change, companies must also step up to actively drive consumer habits towards a more sustainable future. The question is – how?
Out with the old
Many see business as the cause of our collective overconsumption and disconnection from the products we buy. The question now gaining traction is whether this is built into capitalism, or whether our businesses could also be part of the solution.
“Businesses are increasingly coming to see that the very abundant, resource-rich past that we’ve been relying on and we’ve perhaps taken for granted as an economy is no longer fit for the future we’re stepping into,” says Hege Sæbjørnsen, Global Circular Associate Director at Ingka Group, an IKEA retailer.
IKEA has been on a journey of sustainability for years, and in 2018 set its moonshot commitment to become a circular company as well as a climate positive company. “We strive for ‘democratic design’: that’s design, form, function, low price, sustainability and quality,” Hege explains. “Recycling is the last resort.”
“We are an 80-year-old company that has perfected a linear model of production. Now it’s about re-engineering our products to enable them to be consumed in circular ways.”Hege Sæbjørnsen, Global Circular Associate Director at Ingka Group
Before its products even reach the point of recycling, the company has committed to the circular economy through various schemes, including one to buy back and resell second-hand IKEA furniture, and a spare parts library for repairs scheme. It’s also currently testing leasing models.
“We are an 80-year-old company that has perfected a linear model of production,” explains Hege. “Now it’s about re-engineering our products to enable them to be consumed in circular ways.”
And that’s the key question for businesses today – legacy and new. How can they move from linear to circular?
Clothing brand Asphalte is one company aiming to redefine how we think about the consumer model. Less than a decade old, the men’s fashion company has developed a new business model to target fast-fashion waste and linear consumption: pre-ordering.
In 2016, Asphalte Co-founder and CEO William Hauvette knew there must be a more sustainable way for fashion brands to operate – rather than the current model that sees an industry overproducing stock while 60% of the garments are discarded by their owners within a year.
William explains: “30 or 40 years ago, the feeling and the psychology at the time was, ‘let’s buy as much stuff as we can’. Now, a growing number of consumers are much more aware of environmental impact. We think that Asphalte’s consumption model has the potential to rewrite the way we do business in order to meet the demands of a new era.”
“We think that Asphalte’s consumption model has the potential to rewrite the way we do business in order to meet the demands of a new era.”William Hauvette, Co-founder and CEO of Asphalte
Asphalte only produces the specific number of garments ordered. It means there is no wasted product. It also means that customers wait up to two or three months to receive their purchase – but far from compromising consumer experience, the real-time production of a high-quality piece of clothing seems to increase Asphalte’s customer satisfaction and adds value to the product.
“From the start, we wanted to create a connection between the customer and what they are buying,” William says. “We do that by involving our customers in the production process – asking what they want and which designs they like. We also tell the story behind the product, including all steps of the supply chain. Our customers then have to wait for their product. It results in a totally different connection to the item when they receive it two months later.”
Hege concurs with the need for a recalibration of how we prioritise sustainability when it comes to consumer models: “I think people do value their things, and they feel bad about letting things go to waste. But the issue comes when it no longer is convenient or cost-effective to be more sustainable.”
“I think people do value their things, and they feel bad about letting things go to waste. But the issue comes when it no longer is convenient or cost-effective to be more sustainable.”Hege Sæbjørnsen, Global Circular Associate Director at Ingka Group
“Currently in the fashion industry,” William explains, “with the lack of transparency or sustainability, the customer pays a high price for good-quality items, or a normal price for bad quality. Asphalte’s vision is to cut out those margins so that consumers don’t need to compromise on price or quality.”
Deloitte’s research found that the most common barrier to consumers adopting a more sustainable lifestyle is affordability, with a 10 percentage-point increase from 2022 to 2023. “That’s the role that companies can play,” Hege continues. “To tackle that need and make it easier for consumers to make the right decisions.”
Emily Cromwell, Sustainability and Climate lead for the consumer industry at Deloitte, points to an increased need for businesses to take the initiative during a cost of living crisis that has seen consumers’ sustainability choices restricted due to affordability. “The onus is on brands to persuade people to make greener choices by offering more affordability and availability,” she says on a recent episode of The Green Room podcast.
“It’s also important that consumers receive enough information to understand why they would choose more sustainable products and to encourage consistent, sustainable behaviours going forward.”
One of the key ways that organisations need to change is around transparency. Deloitte’s survey found that 32% of consumers would feel an improved sense of trust in brands if they had transparent, accountable and responsible supply chains.
Asphalte aims to do this by telling the story of its products – the whole story. “We also share the mistakes that we make because we recognise the importance of building authentic trust with our customers,” William explains.
Fixing a complicated problem requires nuanced and collaborative solutions. “The sustainability problem requires an entire ecosystem to change,” Anne-Marie says. “At Deloitte, we’re well positioned to bring different organisations and voices together. We have a responsibility to amplify the conversation and bring as many organisations along as possible.”
The tacit understanding that things need to change is evidenced by other legacy industries like global shipping pioneering new initiatives like wind powered cargo ships. It’s clear that solutions on both a business and individual level are needed, and that business must be the driving force of this change.
Reconnecting to the things we buy
That there is a problem with our current model of production, consumption and disposal is relatively undisputed. However, the depth of responsibility – and where exactly it lies – is still falling into place. Hege emphasises that change is needed on a transformational scale: “We must think systemically – beyond the walls of our organisation.”
“We’re now asking ourselves,” Anne-Marie says, “how we can use our business and the scale of a brand like Deloitte to create a platform where we can drive better collaboration amongst our clients, stakeholders and government. An example of this in action is our work with The Earthshot Prize, where we identify solutions to the planet’s most pressing problems and support the winners and finalists to scale their ideas.”
When founding Asphalte, William’s vision was to become a pioneer for a new way to do business. “Today, business often has more influence than governments in how our world is being shaped. We have to ensure that it is a positive influence: if Asphalte can pioneer a new model of consumption, and demonstrate that it is viable, other businesses will follow us.”
Yet even the biggest businesses are made up of individual people. The evidence that we have a biological propensity for buying things – driven by the fact that objects can enhance our sense of self as well as powerful dopamine responses – points towards a need for a deeper mindset shift in individuals alongside corporate change.
The same science that illustrates our propensity for buying things also suggests that change is possible. Robert Sapolsky, professor of neurology at Stanford University, assessed the role that dopamine plays in our reward seeking behaviour. He concludes that the dopamine hit we get from a reward is not actually related to the reward itself: “Dopamine is more about anticipation of reward than about reward itself.”
So perhaps part of our problem with abundant and unsustainable consumerism is that we’re motivated by the feeling that happens right before we buy something, rather than the feeling we get from owning it. When the motivation for consumption comes from the build up, the actual things we buy become superfluous – a mere vehicle for our next hit. To address our linear consumption, the change must also take place within our mindsets – the way we think about our possessions and their lifespans, the energy and resources, as well as our responsibility to other people.
Alongside other structural changes like reduced purchasing and more circularity, the psychological anticipation we experience can be refigured to stem from a sustainable economy, rather than abundant and linear consumption.
As William observes: “The connection with the product is so important. As a consumer, I care a lot more about things that I know the story of.”
Annie-Marie echoes this sentiment, “I think consumers are increasingly looking for a better understanding and connection to things that they buy, as well as to the organisations from whom they buy them. The opportunity is there for businesses that can make sustainable choices more affordable and are able to share better information around the impact of their products on the environment.”
“The opportunity is there for businesses that can make sustainable choices more affordable and are able to share better information around the impact of their products on the environment.”Anne-Marie Malley, Vice Chair and Sustainability and Climate Lead at Deloitte
If we can change our relationship with the things that we buy and reconnect with an awareness of the incredible production and distribution process, we can bind the emotional payoff to the things themselves – rather than the act of buying them.
By repairing this connection and reinvigorating the value contained within the things that we buy, we can, by extension, begin to repair our relationship with ourselves, others and the planet that we collectively inhabit. And it seems that business is stepping up to the challenge.