Consumerism has taken the planet we rely on to breaking point. Senior Partner Chris Large takes a look at how conversation can help bring about change.

What matters isn’t material. Social scientists have proven that it's the simple things in life that make us happier and healthier once basic needs are in hand: having friends and family we can rely on, being fit and healthy, finding a purpose in life, being linked in to our local community, getting outdoors, having a hobby we enjoy, doing things that make us smile. When people prioritise these activities over earning more money and buying more stuff, they tend to report being happier.

Trying to gather more stuff can affect our wellbeing by loading debt on to credit cards, loading the stress on our shoulders, and leading to disappointing realisations, such as the new aftershave not giving us the animal magnetism of a Hollywood star that the advert promised.

So what do we do? Buy a different aftershave, on a new credit card, or try harder with our animal magnetism?

Changing the conversation

Surely there has to be another way? There is, and the conversation about a better way to be happy is building across the world. People are coming to that conversation from all walks of life.

Young people increasingly look for purpose in their careers to give their working hours meaning. Parents increasingly scrutinise the effect that social media has on their children. People that really mean it when they say they ‘haven’t got time to think’ are signing up to mindfulness courses.

It is becoming clear that the twentieth century model of accumulating more stuff to try to be happy doesn’t work for the majority of people. And here’s the kicker - consumerism has taken the very planet we rely on to breaking point. Plastics pollute the seas and climate-change fuels extreme weather; harming agriculture and costing lives. Just the richest 10% of people on Earth cause half of global CO₂ emissions [1]. Like a tree surgeon sawing off the branch he stands on, if the nature we depend on gives way underneath us, the damage that caused the failure will be man-made.

A model of consumerism fit for the Twenty-First Century

We need a twenty-first century model, in which we set our goals based on what really makes us happy, not what an advert tells us will make us happy. Where we insist on being humans, not consumers. It's about reclaiming success – being fulfilled and content, not fully filling our homes with contents.

What we at Global Action Plan think we need to do is to start with a conversation. Talking about consumerism is a bit dull, so let’s talk about what really makes us happy, deep down. You can do that. And you can ask a loved one what really makes them happy. Our bet is that the answer is a whole load of enriching things to do that are entirely compatible with saving the fragile planet.

This mission needs you, and we can help. Start by checking out our inspiration hub, signing up to the Global Action Plan newsletter, and sharing your thoughts with all of us who are keen to have this conversation on our social channels

Conversation starters 

If you want to chat to someone about what really makes us happy (and want to sneak in some stuff about consumerism), here are a few ideas of how you could begin:

1.The planet can’t cope with the demands we’re placing on it

Globally, we consume 70% more resources than the planet can replenish each year - causing over-fishing and ocean damage, rainforest destruction, climate change, soil erosion, and the drying up of entire lakes as water is diverted for cotton fields [2]. Put another way, we use 1.7 planets worth of resources each year, but we only have one. If everyone in the world lived like the average Brit, the global population would consume 3 planets per year because we consume far more resources than the global average [3].

2. The impact of our throwaway society on young people

Are these facts related?

• A majority of 11-21 year old females say people make them feel like the most important thing about them is the way they look [4].
• Young people’s levels of unhappiness, anxiety and depression have increased in line with the prevalence of advertising and electronic media usage [5].
• A survey of almost 2,000 people found that the majority of fashion purchases see the light of day just seven times before being thrown away [6].

Reimagining our relationship with stuff

We seemingly don’t love our purchases as we throw most clothes away after only one week’s worth of wear. That’s hardly a long-term relationship. Somehow we have concocted a way to train our young people that image is everything. We’re overshooting the planet’s budget, and it’s not even making us happier.

Social scientists have known for years that young people (and adults) whose strategy for success is to accumulate ever more 'stuff' (trainers, houses, jewellery, cars, bags, mobile phones) are less happy than those who prioritise spending time with friends and family, have hobbies that expand their mind, find a purpose in life, do more exercise, spend more time outdoors and are active in their community [7].

In fact, materialistic tendencies are linked to decreased life satisfaction, happiness, vitality and social cooperation, and an increase in depression, anxiety, racism and antisocial behaviour [8]. Studies have shown that the type of happiness associated with a purchase, like a new T-shirt, is a euphoric type of happiness, similar to an adrenaline sport. The effect is short-lived and so another purchase is required to gain the same rush [9].

Chris Large is Senior Partner at Global Action Plan. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisLarge1


[1] Oxfam. (2014). Extreme Carbon Inequality: Why the Paris climate deal must put the poorest, lowest emitting and most vulnerable people first. [Online] Accessed at: (on the 01.03.2018)

[2] Overshoot Day. (2017). “Past Earth Overshoot Days”. [Online] Acccessed at: (on the 01/10/17)

[3] WWF. (2014)  Living Planet Report 2014: Species and spaces, people and places. [Online] Accessed at:  (on the 08/11/2017) 

[4] Girl Guides. (2016). Girls' Attitudes Survey. [online] Accessed at (on the 01/10/17)

[5]Royal Society of Public Health. (2017). Social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. [online] Available at (on the 21.02.2018)

Patalay P & Fitzsimons E. (2017). Mental ill-health among children of the new century: trends across childhood with a focus on age 14. Centre for Longitudinal Studies: London; Royal Society of Public Health, 2017

Twenge, J.M. et al. (2018). Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1): 3–17

[6]Barnardos. (2015). Press Release: Once worn, thrice shy – British women’s wardrobe habits exposed! [Online] Accessed at: (on the 20.01.2017)

[7] Dittmar, H., Bond, R., and Hurst, M. (2014). The relationship between materialism and personal well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(5), pp.879–924.

[8]Twenge J.M. and Kasser T. (2013) Generational changes in materialism and work centrality, 1976-2007: Associations with temporal changes in societal insecurity and materialistic role modeling. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2013; 39(7):883-897

[9]Zhang, J.W. et al., (2014). Damned if they do, damned if they don’t: Material buyers are not happier from material or experiential consumption. Journal of Research in Personality, 50(1).

Tsang, J.A. et al., (2014). Why are materialists less happy? The role of gratitude and need satisfaction in the relationship between materialism and life satisfaction. Personality and Individual Differences, 64: 62–66. Available at: