Call for More Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns in Today’s World Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC


The World Summit one Sustainable Development (WSSD) which met in Johannesburg in 2002 called for A 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production. The 19th Session of the UN Commission on Sustainably Development in May 2011, is also addressing this issue.

The scale of the crisis in this area was highlighted by a Report from the WorldWatch Institute called, The State of the World Report 2010. The Report was collaborative effort by sixty renowned researchers and many people working at grass-roots level. The run-away nature of global consumption is mind-boggling. The researchers found that there has been a six-fold increase between 1960 and 2008, that is from $4.9 trillion to $30.5 trillion.  Even with the population growth, per capita consumption has tripled, helped by sophisticated advertising by transnational corporations. Increased consumption means consuming more of the earth’s resources.


Aggressive advertising is probably the most important factor in spreading the culture of consumerism. In 2008, global advertising reached $643 billion. The media in its various forms promotes consumerism. The author Duane Elgin was correct when he wrote that “to control a society you don’t need to control its  courts, you don’t need to control its armies, all you need to do is control its stories. And it is television and Madison Avenue that is telling us most of the stories most of the time to most of the people.”[1]  The link between Madison Avenue and advertising began in the early 1920s when many advertising companies were situated on that street. In 1957, Vance Packard’s book, Hidden Persuaders explored how advertising agencies use the insights of psychological research and depth psychology to manipulate the expectations of the public in an effort to get them to buy more products [2] He accused the industry of using subliminal messages in order to induce the consumer to buy more goods. Even though the book sold over one million copies, the power of advertising corporations grew and grew in the U.S and later in Europe and right across the world.

In the U.S., an individual hears hundreds of advertisements every day and of course, they have been hearing these since the day they were born.  Consumerism and consequent unsustainable lifestyles were confined to Europe, the US and Australia until a few decades ago. Today, consumerism has taken a hold right around the world, and is practiced by millions of people in Brazil, India, China and other emerging industrial economies. In the past decade advertising has grown by 20% per annum in emerging economies such as China and India.[3] Many see consumerism like a tsunami which has engulfed human cultures and is degrading the Earth’s ecosystems. Left unaddressed, we risk global disaster.

Planned obsolescence

Another factor which drives consumerism is known as planned obsolescence or built in obsolescence. It means manufacturing things that will be functional only for a limited period of time. In a presentation to an advertising conference in 1954  Brooks Stevens, a designer of appliances, automobiles, motorcycles and furnished used the phrase as a title for a talk.[4]  He suggested that new and improved products are in constant demand by consumers and that corporations can best respond to this demand by manufacturing items that do not last very long.  Many people even here in the United States may not have heard of Brooks Stevens, but in 1991 on the occasions of his 80th birthday the Chicago Tribune newspaper wrote that while many of its current readers would not have heard of Stevens in the 1950s he was a household name in the U.S.[5]On the occasion of his eightieth birthday in 1991, a Chicago Tribune retrospective began with the words “Brooks Stevens is hardly a household name.”4 But that was not the case in the 1950s, when he was recognized as America’s controversial “crown prince of obsolescence.”5 Stevens claimed—publicly and often—that it was he who actually invented the phrase “planned obsolescence,” and he was certainly the term’s most vocal champion. Due to his efforts at self- promotion, many …  A few examples of planned obsolescence will suffice. In 1921, General Motors’ executive committee began to articulate a principle which would be known as Sloanism after the longtime president of GM, Alfred P Sloan. This meant that planned obsolescence and product differentiation, highlighting different aspects of motoring such as speed, power, style and elegance became central to GM’s way of building cars.[6]  A favourite slogan was “a car for every purse and purpose.” A recent example of planned obsolescence is Apple’s launch of iPad 2 in March 2011. This device is 33 per cent thinner and up to 15 percent lighter than the original iPad. It has other features such as cameras etc. The underlying message is that one needs to get rid of the iPad which was bought less than 12 months ago and buy this new device.  We expect that another similar device will appear in 2012 making iPad2 redundant.

There has not been much mention of the role either of advertising and planned obsolescence in creating a very unsustainable world.  One can only wonder why?  Could it be that the corporations, which make all these consumer goods with such short life spans, are so powerful that they can stifles this kind of analysis even here at the UN Commission on Sustainable Development?


[1]  Ibid page 13.

[2]  Vance Packard, 1957, The Hidden Persuaders, Longmans.

[3]  Ibid page 11.

[5]  From made to break and related webpages.

[6] From the Secret History of Lead, The Nation and related webpages. …


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