The casualties of consumption (it’s not just the environment)

Written by Holly Hickman

Many have seen the film ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’. The protagonist, ‘Girl in the Green Scarf’, racks up masses of debt due to her compulsive spending. She muses “when I shop the world gets better…and then it’s not anymore and I have to do it again”[1]. She is depicted as an addict and ends up joining ‘Shopaholics Anonymous’. Yet perhaps the everyday shopper is more like her than they think. 

The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) reported in 2014 population rates of mental health issues increased by 0.8% from 2007 to 2014 [2]. Furthermore, analysis from the World Mental Health Survey found rates of mental health problems increase as countries get richer, compared to physical illness and mortality [3]. Recent evidence demonstrates that MHIs are a rising issue and they are now considered a key factor in global development, evident from the choice to include them in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals [4].

Economic growth (as a physical expansion of the economy) [5] requires increasing demand from consumers. Once needs have been met, beyond that are wants, and to want, we must be dissatisfied with something. Companies are tasked with generating our dissatisfaction, along with goods and services. GDP is the current measure of economic growth: which only measures the total value of goods and services produced [6]. However, GDP cannot distinguish whether this increase has a net positive or negative impact on our society as a whole. Has the new scarf that you bought added to your quality of life, or did it leave you feeling guilty for overspending? Herman Daly, a leading ecological economist, argues when the costs exceed the benefits, this is actually uneconomic growth [7]

Uneconomic growth adds increasing pressure to our own ecosystem: expanding the economy and using up vital resources beyond safe levels. This term has been dubbed unsustainable scale [8]. Unsustainable scale also has an impact on us: the costs of uneconomic growth are not placed solely on our environment, but on our mental health too. The psychology of consumption is based upon the dopamine-reward system: buying releases a short-term pleasure hormone [9]. It lasts for a moment, the feelings fade, and you do it again: the same as other patterns of addictive behaviour; be it cocaine, sex or sugar. Companies capitalise on these basic biological processes so that we continue consuming past levels of need. Research shows that drug and alcohol addicts are more likely to suffer from MHIs [10]. Consumption has become a widespread addiction, and with it MHIs, have increased.

Marx described how capitalism creates a disconnect and makes workers feel alienated due to the lack of meaning in their lives, and their monotonous jobs [11]. But perhaps it is consumption rather than production that is behind these feelings? Companies promise that their products will create meaning and long-term value, instead, it is short-term high, a buzz that quickly fades. The cycle of spending, the constant ups and downs, creates long-term MHIs. And the worst part, citizens are being encouraged to do this. The media demonises drug addicts yet encourage us to keep shopping. 

The research supports the consumption theory too. Materialism has a positive correlation with depression, self-criticism and social anxiety, while materialism as a personal value also has a positive correlation with depression, anxiety and stress [12]Kate Raworth, an Oxford economist, describes the “treadmill of consumerism”: we all are searching for identity and connection [13]. When the burst of dopamine fades, we feel empty and look for something new. How do we get off of the treadmill? The answer is not to buy a cross-trainer.

Non-consumption-based activities are an alternative. Multiple researchers found that accessing green spaces raises wellbeing [14]. Yet we are not on a treadmill alone. We are in a gym, all on treadmills, side by side. We are constantly influenced by others, and while others still value new things, it is hard to simply ignore that. To step away from consumption, it must be done through community. Make it a challenge with friends not to impulse buy for a month. Instead of dry January, have fashion free February. And instead of being ‘Girl in the Green Scarf’, become ‘Girl in the Green Space’.

However, it is not solely our responsibility to simply stop consuming. That is akin to telling an alcoholic to sit in a bar, but not order a drink. Structural changes are required to change the way we live. We are fed messages from companies’ day-in, day-out that we will be ‘better humans’ if we have that new phone or dress. Responsibility must also lie with governments to introduce regulation on demand-creating behaviours like advertising, and to introduce taxes levied on production. If messages are changed, and we believe we are enough as we are, maybe this will then begin to tackle the problems that unsustainable scale creates for both our minds, and the planet.






[1] Arora, J. (2019) 15 Quotes From ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic That’ll Speak To the I-Have-Nothing-To-Wear-Girl In Us’. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Nov. 2019].

[2] NHS Digital. (2016). Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey: Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, England, 2014 – NHS Digital. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[3] Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Alonso, J., Chatterji, S., Lee, S., Üstün, T. and Kessler, R. (2009). The WHO World Mental Health (WMH) Surveys. Die Psychiatrie, 06(01), pp.5-9.

[4] UN (2015). The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. [ebook] New York: UN General Assembly. Available at: [Accessed on 14 Oct. 2019]

[5] Daly, H.E., Farley, J., 2011. Just distribution. Chapter 23 in Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications, 2nd ed. Island Press, Washington, DC, pp. 253-255.

[6] Kubiszewski, I., Costanza, R., Franco, C., Lawn, P., Talberth, J., Jackson, T., Aylmer, C., 2013. Beyond GDP: Measuring and achieving global genuine progress. Ecological economics. 93, 57-68.

[7] Daly, H.E., 2005. Ecological economics: The concept of scale and its relation to allocation, distribution, and uneconomic growth, Chapter 23 in E. Fullbrook (Ed.) A guide to what’s wrong with economics , Anthem Press, London

[8] Daly, H.E., Farley, J., 2011. Sustainable scale. Chapter 22 in  Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications, 2nd ed. Island Press, Washington, DC, pp. 427-440

[9] Svoboda, E. (2010) Shopaholic. Psychology Today. 43(5). pp30-31.

[10] (2019). Comorbidity: Addiction and Other Mental Illness. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[11] Gouldner, A. (1980) Alienation from Hegel to Marx. New York: Oxford University Press, pp.177-198.

[12] Solomon, M. and Lowrey, T.  (2017) The Routledge Companion to Consumer Behaviour. Routledge. Oxford, UK.

[13] Raworth, K (2012) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. Random House, London.

[14] Clark, A. (2018) Four Decades of the Economics of Happiness: Where Next? Review of Income and Wealth. 64(2).