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Natural resources Overconsumption and the environment

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What is natural resource consumption?

Almost everything we do involves materials that have been extracted, processed, transformed, bought and sold, taxed and subsidised, and often shifted across vast distances.

Our economy is built around these raw materials – natural resources – like trees, gas, oil, metal ores, water and fertile land. Look at your smartphone. It likely contains cobalt from Africa, copper from Chile and aluminium from Australia.

Over the years, our appetite for raw materials has grown – from 1970 to 2010 our natural resource consumption more than tripled.

What is overconsumption?

Consuming more than we need creates a demand that the planet can't cope with. Natural resources are being gobbled up faster than the Earth can replenish them. It's also struggling to cope with the resulting waste and emissions. We take too much stuff from nature, make it into stuff we use – from chemicals to plastics to fertiliser to smart phones to meat – and then dispose of it carelessly into the atmosphere, the oceans and the land.

Big gap between rich and poor

The world's richest countries consume on average 10 times as many materials as the poorest. It's grossly unequal. Many of the world's population hardly see a peep of these resources.

North America and Europe have by far the biggest material footprints on the planet. The UK is hugely dependent on other countries’ minerals, raw materials, water and land.

If everyone lived like the average US citizen, we'd need around 4 Earths to sustain ourselves – according to data produced by the Global Footprint Network.

What are the effects of overconsumption?

The overconsumption of energy, water and raw materials worsens climate change and increases air pollution. It exhausts the planet's life support systems like the ones that provide us with fresh water, and leaves us short of materials critical to our health and quality of life – says a UN report.

Fresh water reserves, fish stocks and forests are shrinking, many species are under threat of extinction and fertile land is being destroyed.

And all for what? Are we any happier? Apparently not. Unmanaged consumerism appears to contribute to a range of physical and psychological problems [PDF], like obesity and depression.

"We urgently need to address this problem before we have irreversibly depleted the resources that power our economies and lift people out of poverty." Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, International Resource Panel.

Solutions to overconsumption

It's obvious we need to stop ravaging the planet.

Unfortunately, our 'I am what I buy' culture is an obstacle. It leads to farcical advertising slogans like "Be yourself" – as if wearing mass-produced fragrance can give you a true sense of who you really are.

There are more meaningful ways of defining identity [PDF], like belonging to something you love – a sports club, community choir, animal rescue sanctuary etc. We need public authorities to create more of these social opportunities to give people a sense of purpose beyond being a consumer.

Marketing can help. It's a powerful tool for changing behaviour. Once used to encourage smoking, it's now doing completely the opposite. If it can change our relationship with tobacco, it can change how we consume too. This means promoting activities and stuff that are good for people and planet.

And we need stronger laws. Companies should be made to report on every single aspect of their supply chains – from excavation right through to the shop window – including water and land use, and climate-changing emissions.

We need circular economies that prioritise re-using, recycling and repairing. Societies designing stuff to last longer – using our precious and limited natural resources far more cleverly.

Never miss a thing

Resource consumption facts

10 times
more consumption by the richest countries than the poorest 
80 million rugby pitches
The amount of foreign land the UK depends on to support its annual consumption of agricultural and forestry products
One third
of all food produced across the globe is lost or wasted
20 tonnes
3 tonnes
(not even that) The average annual material consumption of an African

What is Friends of the Earth doing about overconsumption?

Throughout our history we've been campaigning for better use of the planet's resources. Here's a snapshot of what we've achieved together with our supporters:

  • In 1971 we surprised Schweppes by returning thousands of empty bottles to its HQ to promote re-use.
  • Doorstep recycling for every UK home was one of our big campaign wins in 2003.
  • We exposed the damage of extracting mahogany from rainforests. 2 years later, in 1995, Brazil's exports of the hardwood to the UK fell by 40%.
  • Our Fix the Food Chain campaign in 2010 lifted the lid on the environmental destruction caused by the factory farming of animals. Crops grown to feed livestock are a big driver of deforestation.
  • In 2013 our Make It Better campaign linked the tin in products like smartphones and tablets (see image) with the trashing of coral reefs and tropical forests in Indonesia.
  • Growing more crops for fuel – biofuel – means less land and water for food. We helped persuade the EU to cut Europe's demand for biofuels back in 2015.
  • At the start of 2017, the EU agreed to halve food waste across Europe. That was thanks to 60,000 of you who joined us and other organisations to demand action.
  • Our ongoing climate campaigning is supporting local people to keep fossil fuels, like coal, oil and gas, in the ground.

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