State of the World 2004: Story Ideas

To schedule an interview or to book an expert to discuss one of these stories, contact Susan Finkelpearl at sfinkelpearl@worldwatch.org or call 202.452.1992 x517.

THE CONSUMER SOCIETY

State of the World 2004 includes a wealth of story ideas. Here are three:

  1. Warning: Consumerism Can Be Dangerous to Your Health
  2. What do Makeup, Ice Cream, and Clean Drinking Water Have in Common?
  3. Does More Money Make Us Happier?

BEHIND THE SCENES

The following six stories are taken from vignettes in State of the World 2004 that trace the secret lives of common consumer items.

  1. Computers
  2. Soda
  3. Shrimp
  4. Plastic Bags
  5. Paper
  6. Chicken

1. Warning: Consumerism Can Be Dangerous to Your Health

Consumer goods and services are often sold on the premise that they make life easier and more fulfilling. But too often, beneath the surface of these claims, lay hidden costs.

Take a dream home in the suburbs. A study of more than 200,000 people in 448 U.S. counties found that those living in low-density suburban communities weighed 6 pounds more on average than those living in densely populated areas. Suburbanites were also found to be as likely as cigarette smokers to have high blood pressure.

Or, consider cars. Automobiles are often advertised as bringing freedom to their owners, yet in reality, the average U.S. adult now spends 72 minutes a day behind the wheel.

Fast food or highly processed food is typically marketed as saving time and money. Yet, in the United States, an estimated 65 percent of adults are overweight or obese, leading to an annual loss of 300,000 lives and to at least $117 billion in health care costs in 1999.

As consumers upgrade, store, or maintain possessions, they are also likely to experience time pressures linked to the need to work long hours to support consumption habits. In fact, Americans are some of the most overworked people in the industrial world, putting in 350 hours (nine workweeks) more on the job each year than the average European.


2. What do Makeup, Ice Cream, and Clean Drinking Water Have in Common?

Our world is one of contrasts. While 1.7 billion people earn enough to be classified as members of the "consumer class" (users of items including televisions, telephones, and the Internet, along with the culture and ideals these products transmit), as many as 2.8 billion people struggle to survive on less than $2 a day, and more than one billion lack reasonable access to safe drinking water. The 12 percent of the world's population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent.

Yet providing adequate food, clean water, and basic education for the world's poorest could all be achieved for less than people spend annually on makeup, ice cream, and pet food.

The chart below shows examples of what consumers worldwide spend on a variety of “luxury“ items compared to the finances needed to solve some of the world's most pressing humanitarian issues.

Table 1-6: Annual Expenditure On Luxury Items Compared With Funding Needed To Meet Selected Basic Needs

Product Annual Expenditure Social or Economic Goal Additional Annual Investment Needed to Achieve Goal

Makeup $18 billion Reproductive health care for all women $12 billion
Pet food in Europe and United States $17 billion Elimination of hunger and malnutrition $19 billion
Perfumes $15 billion Universal literacy $5 billion
Ocean cruises $14 billion Clean drinking water for all $10 billion
Ice cream in Europe $11 billion Immunizing every child $1.3 billion


3. Does More Money Make Us Happier?

If a person is very poor, there is no doubt that greater income can improve his or her life. But once the basics are secured, well-being does not necessarily correlate with wealth. Findings from the World Values Survey, an assessment of life satisfaction in more than 65 countries conducted between 1990 and 2000, indicate that income and happiness tend to track well until about $13,000 of annual income per person (in 1995 purchasing power parity). After that, additional income appears to yield only modest additions in self-reported happiness.

Most governments make ongoing growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) a leading priority, under the assumption that wealth secured is well-being delivered. Yet undue emphasis on generating wealth, particularly by encouraging heavy consumption, may be yielding disappointing returns. Overall quality of life is suffering in some of the world's richest countries as people experience greater stress and time pressures and less satisfying social relationships, and as the natural environment shows more and more signs of distress.

By redefining prosperity to emphasize a higher quality of life—rather than the mere accumulation of goods—individuals, communities, and governments can focus on delivering what people most desire. Indeed, a new understanding of “the good life“ can be built not around wealth, but around well-being: having basic needs met, along with freedom, health, security, and satisfying social roles.

BEHIND THE SCENES

The following six pieces appear in State of the World 2004. Each two-page vignette traces the secret life of a common consumer item.

1. COMPUTERS (page 44): The number of personal computers worldwide increased fivefold between 1988 and 2002—from 105 million to more than half a billion. By 2005, one computer will become obsolete for every new computer put on the market. The electronics industry is the world's largest and fastest-growing manufacturing industry, and due to the high rates of product obsolescence, electronic waste (e-waste) is growing rapidly. Only three percent of discarded computers are directed for reuse. About 50–80 percent of U.S. e-waste collected for recycling is sent to Asia, where substandard recycling facilities can have extreme impacts on human health and the environment.

2. SODA (page 94): In 2002, people drank 185 million liters of carbonated soft drink, making it the third most popular commercial beverage in the world after tea and milk. The average bottling plant churns out more than 300,000 liters of soft drink each day and uses up to 1.5 million liters of water—enough to meet the minimum requirements of at least 20,000 people. In the United States, as annual soda consumption doubled to 185 liters per person between 1970 and 2001, milk consumption fell 30 percent. The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, the two largest soft drink firms, are among the world's biggest advertisers, together spending $2.4 billion on advertisements in 2001.

3. SHRIMP (page 92): In 2001, more than 4.2 million tons of shrimp swam into the global marketplace. Today, huge quantities of shrimp are produced in the developing world for consumption in Japan, the United States, and Western Europe. Shrimp farming is one of the most lucrative—and ecologically destructive—fisheries in the world. Trawlers scour the seabed in a manner likened to clearcutting forests—destroying habitat and scooping up whatever lies in the path of the trawlers.

4. PLASTIC BAGS (page 22): Plastic bags are probably the most ubiquitous consumer item on earth. Their light weight, low cost, and water resistance make them so convenient for carrying groceries, clothing, and other routine purchases that it is hard to imagine life without them. But their manufacture and disposal are far from unobtrusive. These bags start as crude oil, natural gas, or other petrochemical derivatives, and many end up in landfills or go airborne, clogging gutters, sewers, and waterways. Factories around the world churned out roughly 4-5 trillion plastic bags in 2002. North America and Europe account for nearly 80 percent of the use of these products. Each year, Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags.

5. PAPER (page 142): For most of its history, paper existed as a precious and rare commodity. Now it covers the planet. In modern times we hardly notice most of the paper drifting through our lives. Globally, paper consumption increased more than sixfold over the latter half of the twentieth century. Today 93 percent of paper comes from trees, and paper production is responsible for about a fifth of the total wood harvest worldwide. 

6. CHICKEN (page 88): A chicken's tumultuous journey along the industrial food chain often involves painful de-beaking, a diet of antibiotics and growth promoters, and life inside a battery cage. Thanks to genetic manipulation and growth-promoting drugs mixed into feed, modern layers each produce more than three times as many eggs as chickens did a century ago.

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