Why Americans Love To Shop And What It's Doing To The Planet : Consider This from NPR Buying stuff is a part of this country's DNA. It's a tradition that really took off near the end of World War II, when the American economy was thriving and the market exploded with products Americans didn't even know they wanted. And even in an economy rocked by a pandemic, buying is on track to exceed 2020 levels this holiday season.

The result of all that spending means consumption drives 70% of our country's GDP, but it's also the leading driver of nearly every environmental issue our planet faces.

Journalist J.B. MacKinnon, who also wrote "The Day the World Stops Shopping, How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves," discusses how curbing consumption could positively affect a warming planet.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Why Americans Love To Shop And What It's Doing To The Planet

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It is December, the festive season, twinkling lights, gathering with family and friends...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Find the perfect gift for every gamer at GameStop's holiday sale.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It's the J.C. Penney biggest home sale.

KELLY: ...And shopping. Being urged to buy year-round is something Americans have been subjected to since World War II was coming to an end.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The reconversion of war plans to peacetime pursuits is going ahead at full speed, and once more, the automobile factories are humming.

KELLY: After and during the Great Depression and a war, Americans welcomed a thriving economy, more jobs, better pay.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Prices on these 1946 models will be slightly higher, but with all priorities lifted, America will be on wheels once more.

KELLY: Gone were the days when it was a civilian's duty to ration and conserve supplies. In postwar times, it became an American's duty to buy. A caption from a 1947 Life magazine photo spread read, family status must improve. It should buy more for itself to better the living of others. So to meet this new demand and enthusiasm, the market exploded - all kinds of new products, products Americans didn't even know they wanted.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You can...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) ...Freeze it...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) ...Stack it...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) ...Any which way.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It won't leak or spill. Tupperware keeps aroma and flavor locked in.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) It's Procter & Gamble's Golden Fluffo, the first all-new shortening in 40 years.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) The cleanest clean under the sun is Tide clean.

KELLY: Fast-forward way forward from the days after World War II to the 21st century and to another national crisis - the September 11 attacks. Then-President George W. Bush told the country and the world...


GEORGE W BUSH: We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don't conduct business, where people don't shop. That's their intention.

LIZABETH COHEN: I think at many moments of crisis, we return to that message that the way to get out of any kind of crisis or decline is to encourage people to consume.

KELLY: That's Lizabeth Cohen, American history professor at Harvard and the author of "A Consumers' Republic: The Politics Of Mass Consumption In Postwar America."

COHEN: Coming out of 9/11, President Bush's message to Americans was, show them that we have not been affected by this. We will continue to buy. GM's message was keep America rolling again.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) One country, one way, keep America growing.

KELLY: It's not unlike that post-World War II ad for new cars that we heard earlier. Now, Cohen says the government and major corporations are in large part responsible for creating the culture of consumption that now underpins American society.

COHEN: Consuming has been a way of demonstrating that the economy and the society are continuing to be vital and viable. This is a real dilemma, I would say, today where 70% of GDP is dependent on consumption.

KELLY: An even bigger dilemma is that the very survival of our planet is dependent on less consumption.

COHEN: You know, on the one hand, we can say that we're living in a world with too much waste, of overconsumption. On the other hand, what is the solution going to be to keeping the economy going? And that, you know, we have not really solved.

KELLY: Consider this - people are more aware now than ever that buying stuff creates waste, waste that contributes to a warming planet. But buying stuff also keeps the economy going.


KELLY: From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Thursday, December 2.

You're listening to CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Buying stuff is a part of this country's DNA, so much so that even with skyrocketing inflation, supply chain hiccups and the ongoing pandemic, there are no signs of holiday spending slowing down this year.

MAHIR RASHEED: Our forecast is that holiday sales are going to rise about 10% this year, which is, you know, the strongest pace that we would see in about 20 years.

KELLY: That's economist Mahir Rasheed of Oxford Economics. He says consumers aren't necessarily feeling confident about the economy, especially low-income workers and older Americans.

RASHEED: Who are also being hit pretty hard by current inflation pressures, especially given the fact that older consumers typically have fixed incomes.

KELLY: Yet a lot of Americans across the income spectrum are still ready to spend.

RASHEED: You know, a lot of this comes down to the really strong fiscal packages that we saw earlier in the pandemic.

KELLY: Like stimulus checks from the American Rescue Plan, expanded unemployment benefits, emergency rental assistance.

RASHEED: A lot of these benefits have given lower income households a cushion of savings that they're now dipping into to finance the spending that we're seeing.

KELLY: And as for higher income consumers...

RASHEED: Those are people that are simply saving more because they spent less on services like travel during the pandemic.

KELLY: Rasheed says it is not clear how long this pattern of increased spending could last, that it will probably have something to do with how the pandemic plays out. Now what about this point, that all this spending might be good for the economy but not so good for our already warming planet? Remember, consumption makes up nearly 70% of our GDP, and it's a leading driver of almost every environmental problem we face today.

J B MACKINNON: You name it, it drives it.

KELLY: That's journalist J.B. MacKinnon, also author of "The Day The World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves The Environment And Ourselves." I spoke to him about how consumerism has impacted the climate over time, including these last couple years.

MACKINNON: Deforestation, toxic pollution, climate change, mining, even fisheries, even the extinction of species is tied in tightly to our consumption.

KELLY: Can you give, like, one concrete example that would drive one of those home?

MACKINNON: Sure. Well, one of the issues that I looked at that I thought was most surprising was the way that consumer culture is now affecting whales. We thought that we had saved the whales by ceasing to hunt them. But now things like the search for minerals and fossil fuels on the seafloor is creating noise pollution that's having a profound effect on whales' ability to communicate with each other. And one of the most common ways that North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species in the United States, actually end up dying is being struck by the cargo ships that bring us our things. One whale conservationist said to me, you know, every time you hit that buy now button on Amazon, you're helping power up the ships that are running down endangered whales off the East Coast of the United States.

KELLY: You're talking about the environmental impact of all of the buying that we do. Did we have something of a trial for how we might do better, how we might do this differently towards the beginning of the pandemic?

MACKINNON: Yeah. In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, when much of the world was really, you know, quite literally locked out of consumer culture, we saw really dramatic effects on the environment. We really saw how just lifting that hand of human pressure off can have immediate impact in terms of environmental problems of a variety of kinds. So we - you know, many people will remember how there were these bluer-than-blue skies in cities around the world. And some of the most dramatic changes in the skies occurred in those Asian cities that produce a lot of the world's consumer goods and which were some of the most air-polluted cities on the planet.

KELLY: It was just factory smokestacks not operating for a few weeks. Yeah.

MACKINNON: That's absolutely right. And we saw the biggest and deepest drop in carbon emissions ever recorded through that global slowdown in that production and consumption system. We saw the resurgence of the natural world, especially in those places where mass tourism had retreated. And again, you know, mass tourism is very much a part of the consumer lifestyle today.

KELLY: I suppose the challenge is nobody wants to stay in the moment that was the early days of the pandemic. So what is sustainable if we were to try to wean ourselves off some of the just more, more, more, more, more buying?

MACKINNON: One of the things that was really driven home to me while working on this book was the fact that if we want to reduce consumption, we really have to do so in a managed way by making changes in the system itself. We live in a consumer society, and we have built an economy that depends on more and more consumption by all of us every year. So if we simply slow down, then we know what the effects of that are. It drives an economic crisis. It's a different kind of system that we need.

KELLY: You reminded me of something that our guests on this subject said - I'm going to let you listen and then respond.

COHEN: Seventy percent of GDP is dependent on consumption, which really does lead to a great dilemma around our growing awareness of environmental degradation that comes with this high level of private consumption. And, you know, on the one hand, we can say that we're living in a world with too much waste, of overconsumption. On the other hand, what is the solution going to be to keeping the economy going?

KELLY: That is Harvard professor Lizabeth Cohen speaking. And to her point, she's getting right at this push-pull that what's good for the environment can be not so good for the economy and vice versa. How do you struggle to reconcile that? What is the answer?

MACKINNON: I think when I look to is companies that are making this shift themselves - so companies like Patagonia and, I think maybe more importantly, just because of its global recognizability, the Levi's brand. And both of those companies are moving towards models where they will be making the sale of new products a smaller part of their model and the sale of recouping and reselling secondhand their own products a larger part of their model, as well as the repair and maintenance and alteration of their products as part of their income stream as well. So when we see companies like that moving in that direction and when you see a company like Levi's - which earlier this year acknowledged that the apparel industry is built on overconsumption - I think we see that business seems to be prepared to move in this direction.

KELLY: So you're saying the strategy boils down to don't buy so many pairs of jeans with the expectation that you'll get tired of them or they'll wear out; spend more, but less frequently, and get a really good pair that you're going to keep repairing and keep wearing for year after year after year?

MACKINNON: That's right. It's been referred to by some people as the model of fewer, better things or buy less, buy better. And it extends not only to goods, but also to things like services and even consumer experiences. So, for example, we can travel less but travel in a more engaged way and might potentially even find that considerably more satisfying.

KELLY: Fewer but better has not been the American shopping mantra in recent decades. Do you really think it can be done?

MACKINNON: Sure. I mean, I don't think that we have very much choice. I mean, when people say that we are caught in this dilemma, we're not really caught in a dilemma. It is true that the planet needs us to stop shopping. The economy needs us to keep shopping. But ultimately, it's the planet that has the priority here. We cannot continue to expand the amount of consumption that each individual person on the planet does in perpetuity. So the answers have to be found, I think, in what kind of changes can we make to the economic system.

KELLY: Journalist J.B. MacKinnon. He's author of "The Day The World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves The Environment And Ourselves."


KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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