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Sonja Graham, Global Action Plan UK: 'Driven to consume – time to challenge the model not make it slightly more sustainable'

Our blogs highlight a range of consumer issues from different perspectives. Unless otherwise stated they do not represent the position of Consumers International.

AUTHORS: Sonja Graham

As part of our blog series for World Consumer Rights Day, we asked thought leaders across the world to provide insight into the campaign theme 'The Sustainable Consumer'. 

Sonja Graham is the Managing Partner of environmental charity Global Action Plan UK.

Why are we buying drills? I remember feeling like I had finally become a "real" adult when I bought a drill aged 26. Laptop propped up on my Reader’s Digest DIY handbook I spent a lot of time on consumer review sites researching the durability of different brands; I analysed functions – hammer drill… definitely need that; weighed up practicalities, cord vs cordless; environmental impact, brand ethical policies and so on. Ten years on I still use this drill most months - so compared to other things I own - the lion mane wig a friend gave me for my dog for example - the drill is pretty useful. It hadn’t really occurred to me that owning a drill was anything other than sensible until a few years ago when I listened to Richard Gillies speaking for B&Q (where I had bought said drill). ‘Why are we buying drills’ he said, ‘we should be paying for holes in walls instead’. To me this was crazy talk, especially coming from a leading DIY retailer. But, the man had a point, for 60 minutes of use a year at best, why are we buying drills?

Well with global advertising spend easily surpassing $500bn a year it’s actually not that surprising. A recent project we ran with young people saw them exposed to one ad for every four genuine posts as they casually flicked through their insta feeds. A constant drip feed of judgement – you’d be cooler if you bought this TV, more likely to get the hot girl if you had this car, more “successful” if you wore this dress, better at creating a nice home if you had this drill…..playing into our every insecurity, changing our wants to needs and priming us to consume, however consciously we think we are doing it.

With our ecosystems on the brink of collapse and enough food wasted to feed the world’s starving four times over, we need to fundamentally change the conversation around what sustainable consumption is. For the one billion people in the world in abject poverty, or the communities who have lost their homes to the sea, flooding or fires - whether the drills being bought by western households are made from recycled sea plastic or not is beside the point. Now - I am being intentionally flippant - before you scream ‘self-righteous hypocrite’, I am not advocating that we give up all “stuff”, nor am I devaluing the critical pressure that consumer rights movements put on brands to improve products and standards. I am however, challenging all of us involved in campaigning for sustainable consumption to raise our game. To elevate our demands beyond products that are slightly less damaging to our environment, made in marginally safer factories and that are held together with screws rather than glue. Instead we must demand brands pursue truly positive impact for people and planet, not just a slightly less bad one. Equally we must all - as conscious and conscientious consumers - play our part. Asking ourselves the question every time we prepare to pay for something, whether we truly need to own or consume it in the first place - and to call out the forces telling us that we will be happier/sexier/more competent if we do.