Walking through a number of town centres in the run-up to Christmas and the New Year sales I was struck by how many people were out shopping. Reasons vary, but I do feel that a good part of what makes shopping so attractive as an activity is that many of the products on display have a large embodied energy content / carbon footprint that we rarely pay a true price for.
By embodied content which I have discussed in previous posts, I mean the cumulative quantity of energy consumed, as well as the carbon dioxide emitted in sourcing, manufacturing and delivering to market the raw materials and finished products we buy. To these 'life cycle costs' one can add the fuel consumed in driving to, as well as the energy needed to run the malls we frequent. These now represent the pinnacle of 'retail therapy' where ever in the World one looks.
There was a time when people purchased (or bartered) only those goods that they really needed. However sometime during the twentieth century, we seem to have become serial consumers hooked on the purchase of products no longer essential to our physical well-being, but ones which are marketed mainly to satisfy our material desires. Most of these products such as electronics, fashion accessories, cosmetics, jewellery and foodstuffs have a high resource content. This also includes life-style aspirational, big ticket items such as cars, homes and even holidays.
Modern consumers in both the developed and developing nations of the World only see the glamorous side of shopping malls. Although designed to enhance the shopping experience, in practice they are little more than material hubs that consume resources and generate waste in the process of bringing consumer and product together. And even if shoppers were aware of this, many would find it difficult to change a habit that has become a modern way of life!
A brief search of property statistics reveals there were some 819 shopping centres and 1340 retail parks in the UK in 2009. At the same time, consumption (retailing and supply of services) is now reported to represent as much as two thirds of the UK's economy and that of other developed nations. This is a major change from 50 years ago when manufacturing constituted the largest sector of our economy. The carbon footprint of goods produced in the UK may have fallen dramatically, but those of imported goods widely displayed and purchased in our shopping centers continues to grow.
The fact that consumer spending drives the modern economy limits choices available to governments. Efforts to raise additional revenue or improve people's perception of well being invariably rely on a drive to increase gross domestic product which only serves to grow the carbon footprint of a nation. We also run our economies in a 'sanitized' mode that increasingly removes consumers from the processes of manufacture and where society and those reporting this fact, draw comfort from the mistaken idea that things can only improve. In reality, we have simply outsourced the hard work and emissions to nations such as China.
I suspect such a state of affairs can only last for a decade or two before the planet's ability to sustain an ever growing number of consumers and all our shopping malls will be overwhelmed.