New Internationalist

Consumption - The Facts

Issue 395
DYLAN GARCIA / Still Pictures /
DYLAN GARCIA / Still Pictures /

In the past 100 years, world consumption has grown at a rate unprecedented in human history

The world’s consumers

  • In 1900, a total of $1.5 trillion was spent by public and private consumers. By 1975 it was estimated at $12 trillion. By 1998 it doubled to $24 trillion. It continues to grow rapidly.1,2
  • 20% of the world’s people living in rich countries account for 86% of total global consumer spending.1
  • The US and Canada, with 5.2% of the world’s population, are responsible for 31.5% of consumption. South Asia, with 22.4% of the population, is responsible for 2% of consumption.2
  • The average African household today consumes 25% less than 25 years ago.1
  • In 2005, China used 26% of the world’s steel, 32% of rice, and 47% of cement. Though their per-capita resource consumption is low, with their large populations China and India look set soon to join the US and Europe as superpowers of consumption.3

Luxury vs necessity^2^

The Western world spends more on luxury products than it would cost to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The graph contrasts annual expenditure on consumer goods with the additional annual investment needed to achieve social goals.

Planet earth: dying of consumption

The number of planets needed to sustain the world at different countries’ levels of consumption:4

According to the New Economics Foundation, total consumption levels had already exceeded the planet’s ecological capacity by the late 1970s.4

The folly of food miles

Food transportation across the globe is making a significant contribution to climate change.

  • Food in the UK travels 65% further than it did two decades ago.5
  • Heinz ketchup eaten in California is made with California-grown tomatoes shipped to Canada for processing and returned in bottles.6
  • In one year, the port of New York City exported $431,000 of California almonds to Italy, and imported $397,000 of Italian almonds to the US.6
  • In 2004, the UK imported 17,200 tonnes of chocolate-covered wafers and exported 17,600; imported 43,993 tonnes of potatoes whilst exporting 85,652; and imported 25,720 tonnes of milk and cream, only to export 27,125 at the same time.4

‘Ethical’ food still a niche market

Organic, fair trade and local food sales, whilst growing fast, are still tiny in comparison to the grocery market as a whole.7

  • The UK grocery market was worth $206 billion in 2006, an increase of 3.4% on 2005.
  • The US market has grown by 7.2% since 2003 to reach a value of $634.7 billion in 2004.
  • The Canadian grocery market was valued at $53.6 billion in 2005.

Ethical consumerism is growing in the North

Ethical consumers

Polls and surveys show that increasing numbers of Northern consumers want their food, clothing, cosmetics, energy, travel and finance to have less of a negative impact on people and the planet, and want companies to behave more responsibly. 8,9

  • A survey of 15,500 consumers in 17 countries revealed that more than a third were boycotting at least one brand.8
  • In 2004, sales of ethical products and services in the UK increased by over 15% to $42.9 billion.9

Fair trade business is booming^10^

  • Internationally, all fair trade product lines expanded their markets in 2005, especially fair trade coffee in the US (+ 71%), bananas in Austria (+46%) and sugar in France (+125%).10
  • 113 million stems of fair trade flowers and over a billion litres of fair trade wine were sold globally in 2005.10
  • 40% of UK households bought fair trade products in 2005, and fair trade brands now account for 20% of the UK roast and ground coffee market.10
  • Fair trade goods can be bought in 55,000 supermarkets across Europe.10
  • More than 5 million people – farmers, workers and their families – across 58 Southern countries benefit from the international fair trade system.10

Cleaner cash: ethical finance

  • The UK’s first ‘ethical’ unit trust launched in June 1984. It was dubbed the ‘Brazil’ model, because city analysts thought the idea was ‘nuts’. Back then the market was predicted to peak at $3 million.19
  • There is currently $55 trillion invested in ‘managed’ funds globally, by pension funds, banks, building societies and insurance companies. By 2005 billions of these dollars were invested according to some form of ‘Socially Responsible Investment’ (SRI) criteria.18
Country Total funds under management Total invested according to some form of SRI criteria SRI funds
as a % of total


$26,500 billion

$2,290.00 billion



$4,000 billion

$103.60 billion



$1,360 billion

$47.79 billion



$458 billion

$5.23 billion


Think global, eat local

  • The UK has over 500 local organic vegetable box delivery schemes with a total turnover of $130-$158 million.14
  • The number of local farmers’ markets in the US has grown to over 3,700 – an increase of 111% from 1994.15
  • The farmers’ market phenomenon in the UK started in 1997. There are now 550 regular farmers’ markets around the country, earning a total of $276 million a year – 2.5 times that of two years ago. 60% are expanding. There are 15 million visits to farmers’ markets each year and 80% of neighbouring businesses have seen trade grow following their establishment.16
  • The growth of farmers’ markets in Australia has also been prolific, swelling from around 30 in 2002 to over 80 trading regularly in all states.17

The 7 most boycotted companies in 2005 were:^8^

Planet organic

  • The global market for organic food and drink was worth $28 billion in 2005 – $2 billion more than 2004.11
  • In 2005, 31 million hectares of land were farmed organically by 623,147 farmers in 120 countries. If certified forest and wild harvest land are included, the global organic land area increases to 51.2 million hectares.11
  • North America has the largest market for organics – $14.6 billion in 2005, up 17% on the year before. Organic food now represents 2.5% of total US food sales.12
  • Organic sales in the UK were worth $2.7 billion in 2005, 30% more than 2004.11
  • Three years ago around half of UK consumers bought some organic food. That figure has now risen to nearly two in three UK shoppers.11
  • In 2005, 39% of the world’s organic farmland was in Australia and New Zealand, though the market for organics in those countries is disproportionately small, just $241 million in 2005. However, the industry is growing at 25% a year, and just under half of Australian consumers currently buy at least one type of ‘ethical’ food product, with organic fruit and vegetables and organic free range eggs most frequently purchased.13
  1. UNDP Human Development Report 1998,
  2. Worldwatch Institute, ‘State of the World 2004: The Consumer Society’,
  3. Worldwatch Institute, ‘State of the World 2006: The Challenge of Global Sustainability’.
  4. New Economics Foundation and The Open University, The UK Interdependence Report, 2006,
  5. JN Pretty, ‘Farm costs and food miles: An assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly basket’, Food Policy 30, Science Direct, 2005,
  6. Katy Mamen, Steve Gorelick, Helena Norberg-Hodge, and Diana Deumling, ‘Ripe for Change: Rethinking California’s Food Economy’ International Society for Ecology and Culture, 2004,
  7. Figures from: IGD, ‘UK grocery factsheet’, 2006,; Euromonitor International, ‘Grocery stores, food retailers and supermarkets in the USA’, 2005,; Statistics Canada, ‘Retail Trade 2005’,
  8. 2005 study of 15,500 consumers in 17 countries: US, UK, India, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, China, Poland, Denmark, Spain, Malaysia, Russia, by GMI poll,
  9. Co-operative Bank, ‘2005 Ethical Consumerism Report’,
  10. Figures from: Fair Trade Advocacy Office, Brussels, ‘Fair Trade in Europe 2005’,; Fairtrade Foundation,; Fairtrade Labelling Organization, ‘FLO News Bulletin July 2006’,
  11. Soil Association (UK), ‘Organic Market Report 2006’,
  12. Organic Trade Association (US), ‘2006 Manufacturer Survey’,
  13. Good Environmental Choice - Australia, ‘2004 - the State of Green Procurement in Australia’,
  14. Soil Association, Press Release on ‘Supermarket organic “box schemes”’, 2005,
  15. USDA, Agricultural Marketing Service, ‘Farmers Market Facts’ ,
  16. National Farmers’ Retail & Markets Association, ‘Farmers’ markets in the UK – Nine years and counting’, June 2006,
  17. Australian Farmers’ Markets Association,
  18. Sources for figures:;;;;;
  19. Ed Mayo in his introduction to The Ethical Consumer, 2005, by Rob Harrison, Terry Newholm, and Deirdre Shaw, Sage Publications Ltd

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  1. #2 maria 04 May 12

    Great resource! Thanks for taking the time.

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This article was originally published in issue 395

New Internationalist Magazine issue 395
Issue 395

More articles from this issue

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    November 1, 2006

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  • How to be an ethical consumer

    November 1, 2006

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  • Walls

    November 1, 2006

    The Berlin Wall was considered an outrage. But where, asks Eduardo Galeano, is the outrage at the other walls being erected around the world, in Israel, Western Sahara and the US?

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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