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Discussion Paper: Consumerism and Waste

Modern human society consumes far more resources than we need, or that the Earth is able to produce in a sustainable way.[1] Economies are under pressure to grow their gross domestic product and companies are mandated to provide growing returns on investment to their shareholders. This means producing and encouraging the consumption of more and more goods. Consumerism is linked to the achievement of social aspirations, but at a devastating cost to human and planetary wellbeing. Products, and their packaging, are often quickly discarded, polluting the planet. Consumerism corrupts personal values and destroys relationships within and between human communities and with the living world that sustains us.

The desire for more material possessions is at odds with the teachings of all faiths. Unchecked consumerism transgresses and contradicts the spiritual ethos of living simply and within our means; it also creates an unequal and unjust society.

1.5 planets are needed to provide natural resources for current consumption rates[2]


Africa will produce 360 million tons of waste in 2040; this is 224 tons more than in 2018[3]


Plastic waste in Africa is growing exponentially – 13% of total waste generated in 2018[4]

Faith perspectives on consumerism and waste

The teachings of all religions emphasise the importance of living in peace and harmony with one another and with nature. Principles of compassion, generosity and simplicity are universal underpinning values. Pope Francis believes that “consumerism, spending more than we need, is a lack of austerity in life; this is an enemy of generosity”.[5] Islamic teachings are clear, “The servants of the Lord of Mercy are those who walk humbly on the earth …. Those who are neither wasteful nor niggardly when they spend, but keep to a just balance” (Qur’an 25:63-7). Buddhist teachings on the eight-fold path provide insights to the causes of dissatisfaction that often drive the desire for more material possessions. Guidance offered across faiths echoes the call to live simply, but there is little practical advice on how to address the seemingly unchecked consumerism that characterises modern society.


Questions to consider from a faith perspective

  • Does your faith say anything about consumerism and its negative effects on social and ecological justice? Is this elaborated on in written or oral teachings?
  • What could your faith community do, or do differently, that would address consumerism and waste? (If this is not an appropriate objective, what is the reason?)
  • Are concerns about consumerism and waste discussed, preached, talked or prayed about and acted upon in your faith community?
  • What might encourage and support people in your faith community to consider changing their buying and waste disposal habits?


Background to the issue of consumerism and waste

The human population in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to grow from 1.2 billion to between 3.5–5 billion people by 2100.[6] While most will experience unprecedented levels of poverty, the urbanised middle class is expanding rapidly. People are purchasing cars, fridges, televisions, mobile phones, clothing and other consumer goods. Consumer spending generated about 60% of the continent’s gross domestic product in 2018.[7] Household spending reached $1.6 trillion in 2019 and is expected to grow to $2.5 trillion by 2025.[8] Growing income levels indicate improved living standards for some, but there are grave implications for resource use and waste management. The current global economic system is premised on unlimited economic growth based on excessive resource extraction. Corporations are driven by the need to make profits for shareholders, often at any cost. The focus needs to be on sustainable production and consumption, defined as “the production and use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimizing the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardize the ability to meet the needs of future generations.”[9]

Given the wealth disparity and high levels of poverty and hunger for many in Africa, this does not mean everyone must consume less. It means ensuring “more efficient, better informed and less resource-intensive consumption, that creates opportunities to meet basic needs”.[10] It must involve protecting the natural resource base on which many still rely directly for livelihoods and survival and ensuring responsible waste disposal. While there is no waste in nature and everything is recycled, in human societies an increase in consumer spending is typically matched by growing volumes of waste. Waste generation in Africa is expected to grow by 200% by 2040.[11] Products are often designed to be discarded within a limited time frame, encouraging a “throw-away” culture. This results in mega-tons of non-biodegradable and often toxic waste. Waste management services are generally ineffective in African cities and are often non-existent in rural areas.[12] Mismanaged waste blocks waterways causing flooding and creating breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects and pathogens.[13] The burning of waste causes respiratory problems and releases toxins and greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change.[14] The composition of urban waste has shifted from the disposal of food-related waste to increased volumes of plastic and paper. About 13% of solid waste in Africa is plastic, posing risks to ocean life and human and animal health.[15] Increased purchasing of pre-packaged foods is associated with more food waste at the retail and consumption stages, and deteriorating nutritional standards. In highly consumerist societies, about 40% of food is wasted in stores and homes.[16] Rising consumer purchasing power is often accompanied by a shift in values. A significant driver of overconsumption is the marketing and advertising industries’ focus on selling material goods that are linked to aspirational lifestyles.

Fulfilment does not come through the accumulation of material possessions but through relationships with family, friends, community and the world around us. Over consumption diminishes our joy.


[1] Kurenlahti, M. & Salonen, A.O. 2018. Rethinking consumerism from the perspective of religion. Sustainability, 10:2454.

[2] 2019. Earth’s 2019 resources ‘budget’ spent by July 29:report.,our%20planet’s%20ecosystems%20can%20regenerate.

[3] Van Niekerk, S. & Weghmann, V. 2019. Municipal solid waste management services in Africa.

[4] WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report 2018.

[5] Esteves, J.A. 2018. Consumerism is the enemy of generosity, pope says.

[6] United Nations. n.d. World population prospects.

[7] Pandey, E. 2018. Africa’s growing middle class drives prosperity.

[8] Kazeem, Y. 2018. How big is Africa’s middle class.

[9] United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. n.d. Africa Review Report on sustainable consumption and production.

[10] United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. n.d. Africa Review Report on sustainable consumption and production.

[11] Van Niekerk, S. & Weghmann, V. 2019. Municipal solid waste management services in Africa.

[12] Van Niekerk, S. & Weghmann, V. 2019. Municipal solid waste management services in Africa.

[13] Van Niekerk, S. & Weghmann, V. 2019. Municipal solid waste management services in Africa.

[14] Van Niekerk, S. & Weghmann, V. 2019. Municipal solid waste management services in Africa.

[15] WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report 2018.

[16] Food and Agriculture Organization. n.d. Chapter 3: Extent of food losses and waste.


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