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Consumerism is at work all around us. We find ourselves aiding and abetting what has become a scourge of our times, from the moment we wake until we go back to sleep (and even then, we set things up so our consumption can continue unabated).

This is all fine and dandy, except that we are consuming more than the earth can sustain. Those of us with conscience try to do what we can to lessen the impact but generally it is far too little and far too late. Unfortunately, most of us are addicted without ever realising that our behaviour condemns future generations – even our own children – to a life of catastrophic climate change, depletion and global strife.

In the wider world we are vaguely aware that our exploitation of fossil fuels is pumping carbon into the environment and that our love affair with plastic is polluting the oceans. We may also be aware of the over-dependency on chemicals to produce our food and of the depletion of resources, as we make yet more stuff to ultimately be disposed of into landfill.  None of this is sustainable and yet every day an extra ¼ million humans add to the billions engaged in this world-wide consumerist binge.

How does it manifest at work? Well most of us work within the system that supports and depends upon this race to the bottom. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to run an ethical informed business that is not connected directly or indirectly to consumerism.

HR could possibly influence this – but may well find the risks too great. It may be easy enough to tinker at the edges; encouraging energy economies, improving re-cycling rates, increasing awareness etc. To go beyond this will possibly question the very raison d’etre of the organisation as a whole. And this is a challenge that should be embraced!

That would involve getting the board, senior management and key stakeholders to examine the foundations of the enterprise; its why, its what and its how. To look at the whole system, including customers, suppliers and the core of the business itself, its processes and added value. Such a fundamental re-think would enable them to shift the focus towards a alternative sustainable way of being. Then they can devise strategies for transformation over whatever period of time they deem appropriate.

Perhaps, then, when consumerism hits the buffers, theirs will be one of the businesses that survives the coming crisis and is able to help rebuild a sustainable world.

John Varney,  Centre for Management Creativity

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