Eating the World: Hyperconsumerism by the Numbers

Note: While many of the below statistics relate to hyperconsumerism in the United States, overconsumption can be found to varying degrees across the developed world—and now is making incursions into emerging markets, as well, thanks to burgeoning middle classes and the shift to consumerist societies. Of the 10 largest shopping malls in the world, 9 are currently located in Asia and the Middle East.

Mahatma Gandhi warned of the threat of hyperconsumerism moving east decades ago, saying: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West . . . If [our nation] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” If they continue at their current rates of growth, McKinsey & Co. forecasts China will become the world’s third-largest consumer market (after the U.S. and Japan) by 2020, while India will assume fifth position by 2025. China is currently the world’s second largest consumer market for luxury goods, after Japan.

“The good life has become inseparable from the maximum possible consumption of things…The dogma of the new religion is the dogma of increasing wants.” —D. R. Davies, The Sin of Our Age (1947)

Consumer Vertigo

500,000—# of different consumer goods for sale in U.S. in 1950
24 million—# of different consumer goods currently available on [The Art of Choosing (2010)]

1,500—# of different drawer pulls sold at The Great Indoors

300—# of produce varieties at Ralphs supermarket in California (which houses 30,000 items in all)

154—# of flavors of jam sold at U.K.’s Tesco

48,000—# of food blogs available in 2007


$30.5 trillion—amount spent on goods and services worldwide in 2006, up from $4.9 trillion in 1960 (in 2008 dollars)

53—how many times more goods and services the average American consumes versus a person in China [Sierra Club]

60—% of private consumption spending accounted for by the 12% of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe [Worldwatch Institute]

222—lbs of meat and poultry the average American consumed in 2007, up from 144 lbs in 1950 [Factory Farming Campaign]

1.6 billion—# of people around the world who are overweight or obese

66—% of U.S. homes with 3 or more TV sets; average U.S. home now has more television sets (2.73 ) than people (2.55) [A.C. Nielsen]

1.2 billion—# of mobile phones purchased around world in 2008

21—# of handbags owned by average 30-something woman in U.K. (with 1 added every 3 months) [The Independent]

2.2 billion—# of square feet of self-storage space available in U.S., home to 46,000 of the 58,000 self-storage facilities worldwide (equivalent to 7 square feet for every man, woman, and child in the nation) [Self Storage Association]

“The surplus of society overrides all our traditions and shapes all our philosophies.” —Walter Weyl, The New Democracy (1912)

Debt & Damage: The High Price of Excess

$117, 951—average U.S. household’s debt []

1,497—# of credit cards held by California resident Walter Cavanagh in 2005, with a combined line of credit totaling $1.7 million

“The only reason a great many American families don’t own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments.” —Mad Magazine

£1,460 billion—total personal debt in the U.K. (as of 5/10)

1/3—% of planet’s resources consumed over past three decades

400 million—# of toxic electronic products discarded each year in U.S.

100 million—# of tonnes of plastic materials consumed around the world annually, up from 5 million tonnes in the 1950s []

500 billion–1 trillion—estimated # of plastic bags used around world each year

46,000—estimated # of pieces of plastic floating in every square mile of ocean on Earth, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—thought to be twice the size of Texas (and growing) [U.N. Environment Program]

100,000—# of marine creatures plastic pollution kills each year

Final thought…

1957—year in which happiness peaked in the U.S. (when Americans consumed about 1/2 as much as they do today)

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