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Would you be more eco-conscious if you could afford it? The evidence suggests not

Published June 23, 2020
Photo by Park Street on Unsplash.

Would you be more eco-conscious if you could afford it? The evidence suggests not

Sustainable stuff is more expensive, right? So you’d make more sustainable choices if you could afford to. Right?

Not so, according to reams of evidence.

Australia is an increasingly wealthy nation, yet Australians are not exercising the increased power to make more ecologically-sound choices that comes with having more money.

Instead, the wealthiest Australian households are the worst for water use and greenhouse gas pollution, via their direct consumption or indirectly via their increased consumption of resource-intensive goods and services (ACF 2007). And it’s not as though all of this consumption is necessary; Australians have admitted to spending a total of $10.5 billion dollars on goods and services that were never or hardly used (Hamilton, Deniss and Baker 2005).

That’s a lot of water use, greenhouse gas emissions and packaging to satisfy nothing more than a psychological whim.

The Coalition of Australian Governments is currently working to reduce waste per person in Australia by 10 percent by 2030.

We could probably achieve this if we all simply stopped buying stuff we don’t need.

Interestingly though, the action plan to support this change doesn’t include any interventions on the buying habits of Australians, and their attitude towards waste and accumulating stuff.

Instead, the strategies focus on packaging design, making manufacturers responsible for increasing recycling rates, and more education about responsible waste disposal.

Nothing about interrupting the buying itself – yet there’s so much scope for such an approach.

These sorts of behavioural change strategies would influence the thinking of 47 percent of respondents to a national survey on wasteful spending who believe they cannot afford to buy everything they really need, despite living on the richest 20 percent of households (Hamilton, Deniss and Baker 2005). Read that again!

These strategies might also hone in on the guilt many Australians say they feel about their wasteful consumption, and break through the denial of those who don’t consider themselves wasteful despite evidence that they are (Hamilton, Deniss and Baker 2005).

However, instead of targeted interventions on wasteful behaviour, the Australian governments’ most recent waste management framework attempts to band-aid the correlation between increased national wealth and environmental degradation by focusing on product design and the distribution cycle. The framework completely ignores what could arguably be one of the most influential phases for any waste management strategy – the pre-purchase phase, or the point at which the consumer could avoid waste by not buying something.

This phase coincides with the ‘reduce’ component of the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra of the environmentally conscious. It’s a phase that Hamilton, Deniss and Baker (2005) observe governments are most reluctant to acknowledge, despite it being ‘unavoidable’ if we want to meet targets for reduced waste and really decouple wealth from environmental degradation.

The Australian’ government’s approach is hardly surprising – strategies designed to interrupt purchasing and ultimately influence consumers to buy less aren’t likely to go down well in a capitalist society.

But perhaps ecological sustainability and capitalism can co-exist.

It might sound radical to the die-hard capitalist, but there is a growing trend within European countries away from GDP growth as a primary economic objective and indicator of wellbeing. New “post-growth”, “ecological macroeconomic models” focus instead on economic stability for the pursuit of wellbeing and the restoration of the living world (The Guardian 2018).

There is a groundswell of support for such concepts in Australia; In 2010, a coalition of non-government organisations launched the Australian National Development Index to explore measures of progress and wellbeing beyond economic indicators. Regular Index ‘progress’ reports would force political focus on social wellbeing indicators such as health, justice and the environment. Similar wellbeing indexes are contributing to national policy debates in several countries including Italy, Wales, and Canada (Trounson 2017).

In these futuristic eco-aware capitalist societies, strategies that aim to reduce waste might not be so much about spending less, but about less mindless and wasteful spending. Consumers might be encouraged to prop up the economy by spending more on things that are actually fulfilling, such as experiences and relationships with people and nature, and in a manner that doesn’t degrade the environment as it occurs.

We can see the budding of these sorts of ideas already in Australia. Clothes hire membership services like Glam Corner are built on “circular fashion”, giving style savvy consumers the novelty of a new designer wardrobe every month without the environmental (and financial) impacts, or the guilt associated with spending money on clothes that end up unworn.

In the travel sector, Ecotourism Australia is a not for profit organisation focused on “inspiring environmentally sustainable and culturally responsible” travel, representing more than 500 operators and 1,600 products.

The reality is that the vast majority of Australians can ‘afford’ to make more sustainable choices. Their decisions are, in the end, dictated by psychosocial factors – not their income.

What influences your spending? Where can you make more environmentally-conscious choices?


Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). 2010. Australia’s Environment: Issues and Trends, Jan 2010. 4613.0. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS)

Australian Conservation Foundation. 2007. Consuming Australia: Main Findings. Australian Conservation Foundation.

Commonwealth of Australia. 2018. 2018 National Waste Policy: Less Waste More Resources. Commonwealth of Australia 2018.

Commonwealth of Australia. 2019. National Waste Policy Action Plan 2019. Commonwealth of Australia.

The Guardian. 2018. “The EU Needs A Stability and Wellbeing Pact, Not More Growth”. The Guardian. September, 17, 2018.

Hamilton, Clive, Richard Denniss and David Baker, 2005. Wasteful Consumption in Australia. Institute of Australia

Trounson, Andrew. 2017. “Beyond Growth: Adding Wellbeing to The Balance Sheet.” University of Melbourne.

WFM (Waste Management Review). 2019. “Time to Get Australia’s Product Stewardship Back on Track. Waste Management Review.” October 30, 2019.

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