Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Consumer Class

Our world is one of contrasts. While 1.7 billion people earn enough to be classified as members of the consumer class (users of items including televisions, telephones, and the Internet, along with the culture and ideals these products transmit), as many as 2.8 billion people including Pakistanis struggle to survive on less than $2 a day, and more than one billion lack reasonable access to safe drinking water. Yet providing adequate food, clean water, and basic education for the poorest could all be achieved for less than people spend annually on makeup, ice cream, and beverages.

Private consumption expenditures—the amount spent on goods and services at the household level—topped $20 trillion in 2000, up from $4.8 trillion in 1960. Some of this four-fold increase occurred because of population growth, but much of it was due to advancing prosperity in many parts of the globe. Production efficiencies of the 20th century have driven much of the consumption boom. Modern industrial workers now produce in a week what took their 18th century counterparts four years. In the semiconductor industry, production efficiencies helped drive the cost per megabit of computing power from roughly $20,000 in 1970 to about 2 cents in 2001. Global spending on advertising reached $446 billion in 2002, an almost nine-fold increase over 1950.

According to a survey on Consumer Spending and Population, by Region, in 2000 it is found that 5.2% of world population in United States and Canada has 31.5% share of world consumption expenditures. Out of 6.4% of world population in Western Europe has 28.7%, 32.9% in East Asia and Pacific has 21.4%, 8.5% in Latin America and the Caribbean has 8.5%, 7.9% in Eastern Europe and Central Asia has 3.3%, 22.4% in South Asia has 2.0%, 0.4% in Australia and New Zealand has1.5%, 4.1% in Middle East and North Africa has1.4%, and 10.9% Sub-Saharan Africa has1.2% share of world consumption expenditure.

The health status of women and children in Pakistan is awful—eight babies are born every minute, one mother dies every 20 minutes and about 15 of them suffer from morbidity every 20 minutes, about 50 percent women are suffering from malnutrition and anemia. Less than 20 percent of them are receiving help during delivery and about 25 percent of children are being born under weight. The vision of reproductive health in Pakistan is less costly than the amount spent on smoking.

Smoking contributes to around 5 million deaths worldwide each year. In 1999, tobacco-related medical expenditures and productivity losses cost the United States more than $150 billion—almost 1.5 times the revenue of the five largest multinational tobacco companies that year.

Time pressures are often linked to the need to work long hours to support consumption habits—and to upgrade, store, or otherwise maintain possessions.

In 2002, 1.12 billion households—about three quarters of the world's people—owned at least one television set—Pakistan had 4 million TV sets with only 2,823,800 registered. Some 41 million passengers vehicles rolled of the world's assembly lines in 2002, five times as many as in 1950. The global passenger car fleet now exceeds 531 million, growing by about 11 million vehicles annually. Consumers across the globe now spend an estimated $35 billion a year on bottled water and consumes 33 million liters (35 million quarts) a year in Pakistan.

In 1999, some 2.8 billion people—two in every five humans on the planet—lived on less than $2 a day (Pakistan falls within this category with Per Capita Income as $492). In 2000, one in five people (2 in 5 people in Pakistan) in the developing world—did not have reasonable access to safe drinking water. 2.4 billion people worldwide—two out of every five (and in Pakistan, 3.5 in every 5)—live without basic sanitation. Providing adequate food, clean water, and basic education for the world's poorest could all be achieved for less than people spend annually on makeup, ice cream, and pet beverages.

When the annual expenditure on luxury items in the world are compared with funding needed to meet selected basic needs we see that Annual Expenditure on products like makeup, perfumes, ice cream and beverages.

Consumer goods and services are often sold on the premise that they make life easier and more fulfilling. But too often, beneath the surface of these claims, lay hidden costs. Automobiles are often advertised as bringing freedom to their owners, yet in reality, the average adult urbanite now spends 50 minutes a day behind the wheel. As consumers upgrade, store, or maintain possessions, they are also likely to experience time pressures linked to the need to work long hours to support consumption habits.

If a person is very poor, there is no doubt that greater income can improve his or her life. But once the basics are secured, well being does not necessarily correlate with wealth. Most governments make ongoing growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) a leading priority, under the assumption that wealth secured is well-being delivered. Yet undue emphasis on generating wealth, particularly by encouraging heavy consumption, may be yielding disappointing returns. Overall quality of life is suffering in some of the world's richest countries as people experience greater stress and time pressures and less satisfying social relationships, and as the natural environment shows more and more signs of distress.

By redefining prosperity to emphasize a higher quality of life—rather than the mere accumulation of goods—individuals, communities, and governments can focus on delivering what people most desire. Indeed, a new understanding of the good life can be built not around wealth, but around well being: having basic needs met, along with freedom, health, security, and satisfying social roles. Asif J. Mir, Organizational Transformation