Responsible consumption is imperative

2018-06-10 00:00
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Coincidentally, the environment, youth and the half-way mark to making new New Year’s resolutions form a sort of triumvirate that meets every year in June.

It is a period observed as Environment Month in some quarters, while in others, particularly South Africa, it is called Youth Month.

Since these fall in the middle of a year, they offer us an opportunity to reflect on where we come from, where we are and what path we should be following.

The past years’ World Environment day and month themes can best be summarised with the phrase “responsible consumption habits”. That means not taking too much from what life or the environment offers. The 1987 report from the World Commission on Environment and Development emphasised this by stating that what was required was “promotion of values that encourage consumption standards that are within the bounds of the ecologically possible and to which all can reasonably aspire”.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the theme of World Environment Day on Tuesday was Beat Plastic Pollution. Each year’s theme, since the inception of World Environment Day in 1974, revolves around promoting a healthy relationship between humanity and our habitat, where the former is encouraged to consume the latter responsibly. Humans are called upon to stop overexploiting natural resources. At the point of conceptualisation and eventual production, the intention and attempt should be to reduce, recycle and reuse.

These principles should be the foundation of content to support and empower young people to become full and driven people who run the South Africa of tomorrow sustainably. This message should seek to influence young people’s outlook on life. It must impact all disciplines, including industry, education, media, politics, healthcare or any other profession young people want to be a part of.

Tharina Guse, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Pretoria, conducted a study into the relationship between materialism and psychological wellbeing among South African students. She found that “black students were more likely to use possessions to judge success” and “view happiness as flowing from the acquisition of possessions”.

Much continues to be said about the bling culture and materialism that is increasingly dominating young people’s orientation. This content gets prime-time repetition on youth-focused and popular TV and radio channels, which punt the idea of sex and bling as critical foundations in the making of a complete and successful person. Because our society’s education and upbringing is not founded on a value system of responsible consumption habits, questions don’t get raised about whether South Africa is enriched or impoverished through these platforms.

Are we not at a point where we should ask if our approach to youth development could be an unintended disservice to our societal needs? Should we be surprised at increasing reports about young people who do not respect themselves, their teachers, elders and communities?

The need to prescribe responsible consumption as the foundation of youth development has become a matter of must, rather than just maybe. The South African leaders of the future must be those who have been taught that responsible consumption is a way of life.

Most importantly, this way of thinking should not be implied or assumed, but must be made explicit and repeated at every opportunity. The beneficiaries of this approach will be more than just our physical environment. In a South Africa driven by relentless consumerism, responsible consumption habits would ensure improved awareness about spending habits and the need to save. According to data from the National Credit Regulator, the amount of credit and store card debt in deep arrears of more than 120 days is rapidly growing, which means that millions of South Africans are heavily indebted and will most likely never be able to save.

Another benefactor would be the health sector. Major concerns caused by excess consumption include obesity due to unhealthy and unbalanced diets; physical inactivity; and alcohol abuse, which contributes to violence, road accidents, drownings and injuries.

Rodney Tsholetsane and Themba Hlatshwayo, former Robben Island prisoners who were incarcerated for their role in the 1976 Soweto uprising, emphasised the value system that existed in the community and that guided their efforts. It was based on “a spirit of communalism, respect, humility, compassion and a desire to improve oneself so as to play a role in the development of one’s community”.

This description can be synonymously woven into World Environment Day themes and sustainable development discourse.

With the slogan “economic freedom in our lifetime” prominent among the youth of today, it has become critical to probe the type of person that the design and execution of such campaigns is likely to produce. We must understand the interrelated nature of responsible relations with our environment and the exemplary characteristics we want to see in our youth.

Louw is a communications specialist, coach and facilitator

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