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Introduction

Human pressure on the environment is influenced to a large degree by our lifestyles, including the goods and services we purchase and consume.

An increasing population, economic changes, and changes in people’s needs and activities are driving forces that cause changes in production and consumption, and therefore exert pressure on the environment.

In this chapter we look at consumption. At a basic level, consumption can be thought of as buying and/or using things. In a broader sense, consumption can encompass the range of processes, goods, and services that contribute to a final product or service, and even the waste that is generated when the product is used. When we purchase and use a product, it is just one point in its life cycle.

Implications of consumption

New Zealanders’ patterns of purchasing and consumption have several implications for the environment. Our purchasing choices directly and indirectly involve the consumption of natural resources and the generation of waste as goods and services are produced and delivered. Our purchasing of goods and services can also be indirectly linked to harmful environmental effects (for example, air pollution caused by manufacturing processes). Therefore, household1 purchases of goods and services (referred to as ‘household consumption expenditure’) can be used as an indirect measure of households’ consumption of natural resources and the impact of our lifestyles on the environment.

The way we consume goods and services today may affect the future availability of some natural and physical resources, depending on how they are managed. Therefore, patterns of household consumption also have implications for sustainable development (Statistics New Zealand, 2002).

Both the volume and the kinds of things we purchase can influence the effect our consumption has on the environment. For example, people may reduce their home energy use by purchasing more energy-efficient appliances, but this may be offset by an increase in the total number of appliances purchased and used in the home.

Nearly 300 tonnes of old computer equipment and mobile phones were collected free-of-charge during New Zealand's first national 'e-Day' in September 2007.

Source: Ministry for the Environment.

Household consumption

Household consumption includes the goods and services we buy and use on a daily basis in our homes, from appliances to the food and beverages we consume, and the transport we use to make our daily trips to and from home.

Households comprise just one sector of the economy and, arguably, consumption by individual households contributes minimally to environmental degradation. The pressure on the environment caused by a single household may be small compared with the environmental impacts from the industrial, agricultural, or public sectors, but the combined impact of many households is an important contributor to several environmental problems, including water and air pollution, waste generation, and climate change (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2002b) (see Table 3.1). As an example, householders are the largest energy user 'sector' in New Zealand when transport fuels are included (see chapter 4, 'Energy').

Household consumption and the environment

Household consumption is a driving force behind the production of goods and services and waste generation, and the resulting effects on the environment. For example, laying down a concrete slab in a backyard may have minimal environmental impact in the local environment, but the production of cement requires energy and releases carbon dioxide.

An assessment of OECD member countries published in 2002 found that impacts on the environment resulting from household activities had grown over the previous three decades, and were expected to intensify over the next two decades, particularly for energy, transport, and waste (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2002a).

For New Zealand, ‘the two main direct impacts of New Zealand’s household consumption on the environment are as a result of energy use (including transport) and waste production’ (Statistics New Zealand, 2002, p 73).

Table 3.1: Summary of trends in and environmental impacts of household waste generation and consumption of energy and water

Trends at household level Determinants of environmental impact Environmental impact

Growing demand for energy and water services tied to larger homes, and more energy and water appliances

Growing waste generation and recycling

Diversification of waste stream

Scale of energy and water use

Energy and water efficiency rates

Fuel source for heating and electricity generation

Availability and quality of water resources

Volume and composition of waste and method of waste disposal

Recycling rates and waste prevention

Greenhouse gas emissions and air and water pollution linked to the generation and use of energy

Water resource depletion and pollution

Greenhouse gas emissions and air, water, and soil pollution from inappropriate waste management

Source: Adapted from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2002b.


1 A ‘household’ consists of any number of people usually living together in a private dwelling. Households whose members are all temporarily away elsewhere in New Zealand and/or temporarily overseas are included in the definition, but visitors are excluded (Statistics New Zealand, 2007a). The national accounts data used in this chapter for household consumption expenditure, and the number of households in New Zealand, also includes non-private dwellings (for example, hospitals and boarding houses). See also note (3) to Table 3.3.