Hong Kong must kick its bad habit of overconsumption

C. W. Cheung and Allen To say in a world fast running out of resources, Hong Kong will find it more and more difficult to feed its habit of overconsumption. It's time to go on a diet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 September, 2013, 3:22am

We all know Hong Kong is a materialistic society. As a city, we collectively love acquiring "stuff": clothes, gadgets, accessories … the list is endless. Shopping is the No 1 hobby for many and it's a major pillar of our economy - one need look no further than Causeway Bay on a Friday night to see the evidence.

What is less easy to see is that our consumption habits are damaging the planet. Since the resources we are using - and the damage we are inflicting - are often elsewhere, we can't see the problem.

To begin the necessary process of change, a link needs to be created between our propensity to overconsume and the environmental damage this creates in other parts of the world. Getting people to really see this is a difficult task.

"Show and tell" is not enough, though Hong Kong consumers do need to be shown the consequences of our habits: the deforested areas of Borneo - stripped bare to provide hardwood for furniture and floors that damaged the habitat of the Sumatran tiger; the shrunken Aral Sea - trillions of gallons of its water diverted to produce cotton for the fashion industry which destroyed the fishing livelihood over there; a reduced sea-ice season as a result of climate change that has affected the survival of polar bears; thousands of tonnes of live reef fish harvested from Southeast Asia to supply Hong Kong and the booming mainland market that has depleted regional marine resources.

Let's put our consumption into a quantifiable perspective. The ecological footprint is a measure of how much biologically productive land and sea is required to produce all the resources a city or country consumes and to store its waste. According to our report, Hong Kong has the 26th largest per capita ecological footprint of the 150 places surveyed. If everyone lived the lifestyle we lead, we would need 2.6 earths to fulfil the demand for resources.

"So what?" you may ask, "Hong Kong can afford to import everything we need - we're rich!" And you would be correct - for now. The problem is, since the 1970s, the earth has been in a state of "global overshoot", whereby the planet is renewing its resources at a rate slower than it is losing them.

In Hong Kong, the picture is even worse. We are consuming so much that our "local overshoot" puts us just behind the worst offender in Asia, Singapore.

Global resources are becoming more scarce. It means that, in the near future, we will become vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices and supply disruptions that are beyond our control.

This becomes more evident when you consider that six billion out of the seven billion people in the world live in countries where populations demand more than their ecosystem can renew, and all Hong Kong's top 10 trade partners are in ecological deficit to different extents. Basically, in the uncertain world of the future, Hong Kong may not be able to "buy our way out of trouble"; there may not be enough to sell. Will national protectionism take over when resources become scarce?

How did Hong Kong's ecological footprint become so large? One part of the problem is a lack of awareness. We do not realise we are consuming too much - and why would we? We live in a "shoppers' paradise", bombarded by marketing messaging, with almost 24-hour access to shops and restaurants. Temptations and encouragement to spend are all around.

Another part of the problem is Hong Kong's obsession with economic growth: without a healthy quarterly uptick in gross domestic product and an ever-rising Hang Seng index, we feel we are not "succeeding". This trickles down into daily life - most of us buy everything we want, rather than what we need. How can a world satisfy people with greedy wants instead of basic needs?

Added to this landscape is the fact that the government encourages consumption and has been slow to acknowledge the problems created by it - for example, our burgeoning landfill crisis and the reckless ignorance of our marine resources.

We need to challenge the idea that economic growth is the only measure of a society's success. Perpetual growth is impossible: we live on a planet with finite resources. This fact needs to be recognised, accepted and openly discussed.

Awareness-raising, discussion and education are all important components of change, but with something so fundamental as transforming our mindset, from a mentality of overconsumption to one of moderation, people will need to be surrounded by an environment of change.

Ultimately, change needs to come from the top down. The Hong Kong government is drafting its first Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan to comply with the international treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity. This is a golden opportunity to prioritise sustainability and implement strategies to reduce our ecological footprint. From being one of the worst performers, the city can become Asia's role model. The decision to make sustainability a key performance indicator of economic health is a good start.

To support the government's initiative, business leaders should review the use of natural resources throughout the life cycle of their products and seek to reduce it.

As individuals, we can tackle overconsumption by adopting a more sustainable lifestyle ourselves. Our demand for sustainable products can drive their supply. Such consumption will not deplete the natural capital we are supposed to leave as a legacy. WWF is contributing towards such efforts. For example, it produces a seafood guide to help consumers select and consume sustainable seafood.

Shrinking Hong Kong's ecological footprint and lessening our impact on the earth begins with questioning our propensity to overconsume. This change in mindset will also help us tackle our waste management challenges.

Such a transformation should not be a difficult process for Hong Kong, a fast-moving, quick-thinking city that is able to constantly reinvent itself. The government, businesses and individual citizens should all do their part to ensure future stability for ourselves and our children.

C. W. Cheung is head of the Footprint Programme, and Allen To Wai-lun is senior conservation officer, Footprint, at WWF-Hong Kong