A worker poses with bottle caps collected in exchange for city bus tickets in Surabaya on 3 March 2022, before being resold to plastic recycling factories. (Photo: Juni Kriswanto / AFP)

Resetting the Throw-Away Lifestyle

Published

No politician in both developing and developed nations would be ready to condemn more consumption, more growth and more throw-away. But the alternative need not be anti-consumption. Innovations and nascent movements in sustainable consumption show us more options.

Marie Kondo, the tidying guru, advises people to ask themselves if their belongings ‘spark joy’. If not, they are to be thrown away. But she seemed to miss the root problem – how have we come to cluttering our homes with unnecessary stuff, or even buying them in the first place?

We live in wasteful societies. 40 per cent of Thai consumers have admitted to throwing away clothes that were worn once. A Southeast Asia-wide survey found that 64 per cent of discarded food is still edible. A huge portion was considered ugly and therefore of lower value by consumers, farmers and supermarkets.

Buying and using stuff contributes to an estimated 60 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, half of the Singaporean population choose shopping as their favourite pastime. As Southeast Asian economies boom, the middle class – young and social media savvy – may find shopping and spending a necessary reward for their hard work. The region will contribute 140 million new consumers, or 16 per cent of the global total, in the next decade.

All consumption merrily fuels economic growth. The standard measure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) adds up all money spent or invested; it includes undesirable activities like the production of environmental waste and atmospheric damage. The famous energy analyst Vaclav Smil once pronounced, “Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that”. 

No politician in both developing and developed nations would be ready to condemn more consumption, more growth and more throw-away. But the alternative need not be anti-consumption. Innovations and nascent movements in sustainable consumption show us more options.

Many Faces of Consumption

Sustainable consumption can be viewed from various angles, and already finds diverse applications in Southeast Asia. The first interpretation adopts the United Nations’ definition of ‘doing more and better with less’. This ethos upholds growth but prioritises consumption that uses fewer resources or causes less harm to the environment. Production efficiency is the lynchpin. Indonesia runs initiatives that produce tofu and tempeh more efficiently with proper waste disposal, store raw fish for longer, make environmentally cleaner batik, and support small enterprises that grow local and organic produceGarment factories in Cambodia have abandoned fuelwood for more efficient energy sources. 

40 per cent of Thai consumers have admitted to throwing away clothes that were worn once. A Southeast Asia-wide survey found that 64 per cent of discarded food is still edible.

A second contrasting interpretation of sustainable consumption is ‘doing less with less’. A ‘degrowth’ society values general wellbeing over endless growth or simply ‘doing more’. Should Southeast Asian economies continue to grow at 6-10 per cent annually in pursuit of lifestyles as consumptive as those of the West? The Western mentality of ‘grow first and clean up later’ – such as the 30-40 per cent of food thrown away in the US – will be calamitous if replicated throughout Southeast Asia. Developing economies are rightfully aspiring for a better life, but need to chart new pathways.

A more nuanced approach adds a qualifier to the first interpretation: ‘doing more with less’ for whom? Sustainable consumption may be associated with urban middle-class lifestyles, but it is in fact inextricably linked to poverty eradication. Better food storage practices not only preserve freshness as enjoyed by the upwardly mobile, but also bolster children’s nutrition in poorer households. Rattan handicraft in Cambodia, processed Pangasius in Vietnam, and organic rice and tea in Lao PDR with sustainability certification can be sold at higher prices in the international market, giving workers more decent wages. 

Finally, another variant focuses on ‘doing more with less’ by whom. Consumers seem to be calling the shots. Reportedly, half of the consumers from both developed and developing countries are ready to drop companies found to be engaged in unsustainable practices. We witness the rise of small enlightened enterprises such as CupKita that offers reusable coffee cups and terrae that uses nylon made from ocean waste. There is a danger of over-reliance on individual consumers to make the ‘right’ choices. But businesses and governments are also accountable, given their collective ability to reform the whole cycle of consumption. ASEAN’s upcoming Framework of Circular Economy promises cross-pillar cooperation, supporting national actions for reusing materials and reducing waste. 

The Consumption Trajectory

Southeast Asians can start resetting the consumption trajectory by doing more with less. We can buy new clothes made of biodegradable materials. We can eat less meat and savour the plant-based Beyond Burger Patties. The Indonesian government is spearheading reform of waste management involving commercial producers through the Circular Economy Action Plan. ASEAN can lead the harmonisation of national standards for sustainability integration and reporting within the business community. 

As the middle class grows much larger and income inequality shrinks, consumption patterns could shift to doing less with less. Slower economic growth is already a reality in upper-middle income and high-income countries, but whether sustainable consumption becomes the norm depends on whether consumers become cognisant of their resource footprint and choose to go for quality and durability instead of the high quantity, throw-away and repurchase loop. 

The alternatives are already here in economically vibrant cities. Even senior and less well-off consumers can upcycle materials to make Do-It-Yourself fashionable clothing by watching online videosFashion Pulpit and its likes will spread beyond Singapore, mainstreaming clothes-swapping. Most product companies offer monthly subscription for renting well-designed and reusable items. New apps like Grub Cycle allow consumers to locate discounted surplus food, or to direct expired food to farmers rather than landfills. We can draw more satisfaction from experiential consumption, such as a tour of Mars on the metaverse and leisure gatherings at local parks. 

Not yet, but hopefully soon Southeast Asian societies can waste less and prioritise wellbeing over mindless material consumption. 

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