ELEVENTH HOUR: How social media culture of consumerism is fueling the climate crisis

For better or for worse, online shopping and social media usage have skyrocketed since the pandemic started. Aggravated by social isolation and the monotony it brings, what used to be viewed as a luxury is now the norm—purchasing products and goods, from the most basic to the most frivolous, are right at our fingertips.

According to Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in his book Consuming Life, consumerist culture values individualism, transience over the duration, reinvention, and the ability to acquire things quickly. Through social media, this hurried culture has seamlessly forced itself upon us and permeated our daily lives. Whether it be advertisements on our feeds or influencers with large followings, the masses of online media and personalities are almost always trying to sell us something, whether it’s a product, feeling, or lifestyle. Oftentimes, there needs to be something bought for us to satisfy this aspiration.

Online shopping allows consumers to directly purchase goods or services from a seller over the internet using a web browser or mobile app. Due to social distancing, people have turned to online shopping more than ever before. (Pexels)

The breakneck speed of social media urges brands, influencers, and consumers to be on-trend to stay relevant, thus driving the promotion and purchasing of fashion items, food, home decor, and mobile electronics at an unprecedented rate. This mania of consumption has manifested itself in seemingly innocuous haul videos— especially from fast fashion brands—and flex culture, a way of showing off purchases that indicate an abundance of wealth.

On an alarming note, large e-commerce companies are not only offering the usual seasonal holiday sales but are now commonly seen promoting monthly sales in hopes of beating the competition and reaching higher targets. Combine these ubiquitous (and extremely tempting) sales with our need for instant gratification, and you get a recipe for climate disaster.

There are studies that show e-commerce produced fewer carbon dioxide emissions than traditional brick-and-mortar shopping, but what’s better for the environment isn’t quite clear cut, especially when factors like consumer behavior, logistics, and waste aren’t unaccounted for. With social media’s material-centric culture of consumerism, this notion that online shopping is largely more eco-friendly seems improbable.

The speed and frequency of online purchases are producing a phenomenal volume of plastic packaging waste that ends up in our oceans and landfills. Shopping from different distribution centers, purchasing from farther locations, and instances like missed deliveries and returns result in higher green gas emissions per purchase. Due to the overconsumption driven by social media, these negative environmental impacts will only worsen if this business-as-usual scenario is let on.

Plastic is the most common packaging material used for online purchases due to its low costs, durability, and light weight. While plastics provide a number of advantages, they have a large carbon footprint of production, can take thousands of years to fully degrade, and pollute the environment. (Pexels)

While online shopping is convenient for a multitude of reasons, there must be a fine line drawn between what’s necessary and what’s excessive. As e-commerce provides jobs for people and is the safer way of business in this pandemic, it should be noted that it’s a complex issue with regard to living sustainably. The burden lies among all of us, albeit in varying degrees. Businesses must foster more sustainable practices while consumers have the power to make mindful purchases that are less damaging to the environment.

Although pressuring sellers to be more sustainable and eco-friendlier is productive, it’s also important to question the systems in place. Rather than shaming individuals who are most likely just trying to make a living, we should all be supporting green practices and policies, and giving more power to sustainable businesses so that their competition will follow.

To stop feeding this system of overconsumption, I believe that there must be more green jobs, more sustainable policies, and a more even distribution of wealth. If green jobs are much more accessible and basic needs are being met, would sellers still resort to exploitative and unsustainable means to earn a living? From career choices to purchasing decisions, I believe that individuals would uphold more eco-friendly lifestyles if given the chance—greed, materialism, and ignorance aside.

While most of the burden lies on policymakers and businesses, consumers also have the power to make sensible purchasing decisions, such as choosing to buy less, locally, and for longevity. (Pexels)

While this culture of consumerism has seeped into our daily lives, we do have the power to educate ourselves and be more conscious about our purchasing decisions. Be wary of what you typically see online and adopt perspectives that are good for ourselves and the environment.

Buy less, choose well, and make your purchases last. Be intentional with who you follow online, support local and eco-friendly businesses, and do what you can in demanding more sustainable alternatives from brands. Focus on how your life feels rather than how it looks online, where people feel that they constantly need to prove their status and identity through never-ending, avoidable purchases.

Online shopping is here to stay, but what we can do is to be more mindful of our lifestyle choices. Let us not be carelessly swayed by the demands of a consumerist culture, as they are not in favor of the planet’s health, and therefore, not in favor of us.

About the author

Danna Peña is a writer, editor, and social media professional who is passionate about mindful living, sustainability, and purposeful storytelling. She has written over 90 articles for various local publications and has worked with advertising agencies, a news publication, and e-commerce brands throughout her career. In 2020, she was selected to be a Southeast Asian Journalism Fellow for Climate Tracker, and in 2021, she finished the global virtual training led by former US Vice President Al Gore and became a certified Climate Reality Leader.