Consumerism Is Going to the Dogs

 Posted by on September 8, 2009
Sep 082009
Charlie In Overalls

Why? (Image Courtesy of iampoohie via Flickr)

Beyond fulfilling basic needs, we consume for pleasure, to establish our identity, to fit in, and because many consumption habits—as shaped by cultural norms—become expected or even “natural” over time. But today, more and more, even the things we own are becoming consumers. Pets fulfill many different roles—from friend or surrogate child to extension of one’s personality or fashion accessory. But increasingly they are becoming serious consumers themselves. There are the obvious examples of course: doggy clothes and shoes, fancy pet foods, treats and toys, doggy spas and day care, and now there is even a dedicated “Pet Airways.”

Worse is that this obsession with pets is spreading around the world. A New York Times article from August, “Matchmaking in India: Canine Division,” describes the spread of dog-owning to India. “As more Indians enter the middle class,” the author Lydia Polgreen writes, “having a Pomeranian, Shih Tzu or Neapolitan mastiff at the end of the leash has become a symbol of new wealth and status.” And with the shifting family patterns, increasing work hours, exposure to consumer culture media, and other side effects of consumerization of India, people want dogs. As dog show judge Partha Chatterjee notes in the article: “Families are smaller now, just a husband and wife, and they have nobody to talk to. And then they have access to all these television programs where they see how dogs are being treated abroad. They want that kind of affluence.” And dog-owning is even adapting to the Indian culture. Marriage plays an important role in happiness in India, so dog owners there are even trying to find their dogs mates—to the point where, according to the article, they’re using matchmaking services to find partners for their dogs.

Mens Room at the Wag Hotel--Courtesy of TedRheingold via Flickr

Mens Room at the Wag Hotel--Courtesy of TedRheingold via Flickr

Pets are beloved in the U.S. culture and even questioning their role is a cultural taboo (and as the comments section will surely demonstrate). Yes, they can often serve as important companions, especially as levels of social isolation in America continue to grow. But let’s try to get some perspective: owning pets is not a values-neutral issue. Pets consume significant resources, especially when pampered like people, which makes this both an ethical and ecological issue.

According to a recent book Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living a large dog like a German shepherd consumes up to 0.36 global hectares of resources annually (using the global ecological footprint methodology). A medium dog, like a border collie, consumes 0.28 hectares. So a family with two border collies would need more additional resources than the average resident of Haiti or Malawi consumes in a year. Two German Shepherds would require more resources than the average Bangladeshi or Tajik uses.

As planetary resources are finite, the resources used by the family dog means fewer available for the poorest people. And considering there are 1.02 billion people underfed, that’s a questionable appropriation of resources from a simple global justice standpoint. Pet food alone is a $42 billion industry worldwide—on par with the $54 billion needed to halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, number one on the list of Millennium Development Goals.

But this poor allocation of resources is made worse when we recognize that the Earth’s ecological systems are seriously overtaxed. We currently use the equivalent of 1.31 planets each year. Of course, we only have one planet, so that means we’re undermining the ecological systems we depend on. We’re going to have to consume less overall if we want to prevent significant ecological and social disruptions in the future (climate change is just one of the looming ecological threats). And yet even as we’re consuming beyond the limits of the planet’s ability to sustain us, there are many who will need to consume more—like those 1.02 billion hungry people. So something has to give to make this equation balance out. Considering the population is growing and projected to hit 9.1 billion by 2050, the variable that’ll need to give is the consumer lifestyle, and pets can be a part of that.

Preventing the spread of pet ownership where it has yet to root itself into the culture will be one important strategy (it’s hard to prevent people from wanting pets once it’s seen as a “natural” part of life). And for those already in a pet owning culture, actively choosing not to own one and encouraging others to choose this as well will also help.

But of course, for those who already have a family pet and have bonded with it, most will say they can no more easily get rid of it than they could get rid of the family child. The pet industry calls this phenomenon “humanization” of pets—a trend that they spend hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising every year to promote. As David Lummis, pet market analyst, explains: “Pet industry players fully understand just how potent tapping into the human/animal bond can be in driving animal lovers to spend at levels previously unheard of.” So for pet owners, these are my suggestions in order to keep impacts of their pets as low as possible:

1) Listen to Bob Barker and spay or neuter your pets. That’s a no-brainer. Don’t accidentally multiply the problem by generating unwanted pets.
2) Be mindful of marketing and cultural pressures that push you to turn your pets into consumers. When next tempted to buy overalls or fancy meals for your dog, remember that many children in the world can’t afford enough food or clothing for a minimally decent life. Consider instead donating that money to a relief or sustainable development organization.
3) Feed them diets that minimize their impact. Time to Eat the Dog notes that to feed the dogs of the 10 largest dog-owning nations requires a land mass the size of New Zealand. Yes, New Zealand! But feeding your dog food scraps and dry food rather than canned meats can lower total impact to an extent.
4) Keep your pets lean. Fat pets, like fat humans, are less healthy, and will most likely require more medical care, so feed them less. In 2009, Americans spent $19 billion on veterinarian care. Compare that to the $5 billion needed to reduce under 5 mortality by two-thirds by 2015.
5) Choose “productive” pets. A rabbit raised for meat and companionship–if you feed it greens from the garden–can actually produce more biocapacity than it costs (this assumes it displaces other meat in the diet, its waste is composted, and the feed crops are replacing grass not vegetables that you’d otherwise eat). But of course few have the stomach to eat their pets today. So try a free-range egg-laying chicken. Even if you don’t eat it, it only takes the ecological capacity of 0.003 hectares, less actually than a canary. Eating the chicken at the end of its productive lifecycle brings its impact down to just a sixth of a hamster.

Cute AND Tasty (click the pic for a recipe!)

Cute AND Tasty (click the pic for a recipe!)

Yes, yes, how can I suggest eating your pet? But then again, most of us eat animals that are locked away in awful factory farm conditions. These animals have the same capacity to feel as a family pet, yet we cut off their beaks, inhibit their movement, give them food that makes them ill, then give them antibiotics to combat those effects. (And by we I mean any of us who have eaten a factory farmed animal, so I include myself in that list.) Is eating your pet really worse? Or is it just that the farm industry spends millions to dehumanize certain animals, as opposed to the pet industry working to humanize other animals? Unlike the nameless, countless broiler chickens in the world’s factory farms, at least your chicken, Clucky, could have a nice life before giving up her last cluck for your Christmas dinner.

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  17 Responses to “Consumerism Is Going to the Dogs”

  1. Dear Mr. Assadourian,

    An emotional issue for sure. I was an obedient dog. I think you even liked me. If someone trained me to be sustainable, I would have surely complied. I overheard some people talking once about taking my poop to the pump to create biofuels. I could have been a leading producer. I was so loyal – I would have eaten grass if that’s how I’d been trained. I met a vegan golden retriever once. They do exist. But you know the adage – old dog, new tricks. I was very old by then.

    Can I make a suggestion: Puppy sustainability training.

    Wheatley from the Grave

  2. A note to readers: Wheatley was the dog of a friend and former colleague. He passed away this year. Dogs are important companions and I do not mean to ignore that, but that role of theirs is not a given, but a cultural norm reinforced by many social forces. My goal is 1) to encourage contemplation of what drives that norm (one major contributor: the pet industry) and 2) to encourage you if you are so enmeshed in the pet culture that you can’t live without a pet, to minimize your pet’s impact as much as possible. Share a dog with several friends, get an edible pet, don’t buy it stuff, etc.

  3. As a pet owner, I am offended by this article…I give to the hungry and poor with my personal gifts and my tax income through my country. How dare you attack my pets!

  4. Erik, telling people the truth comes at a hard price. Interesting reading.

  5. I’m a dog lover and am on my second dog. Although I do agree that it’s important to keep sustainability in mind with your pets, and you did raise many good points that have me thinking, my guess is you’ve never had a pet that was actually a part of the family. You forgot the ways that pets are good for people and/or the planet. 1. I travel a whole lot less because my dog keeps me home. 2. I have to exercise her daily, which exercises me daily. I often choose to walk to my favorite coffee shop and then I drink my tea on their outside patio (rather than taking it to go). 3. Pets actually increase the quality of life of people, and there is scientific evidence that pet owners live longer and are less lonely.

    I am a devout “green” person, and you’ve given me some definite food for thought, but I don’t have children and we adopted (and spayed) our dog. We also bought a compostable toilet for her waste. There are other ways to be a more sustainable pet owner rather than your vision of eating your pets. That’s a bit far fetched for a developed nation.

  6. Hi Kat,

    Thanks for your comment. As a child I actually had a couple of collies, and they were definitely good friends and yes, even members of the family. I readily recognize that there are many benefits to pets, just as there are many benefits to air travel, but ecological limits have made both less viable.
    In the end, if the myth of the rational consumer held true for more than just a small segment of the population, we could give people a carbon allowance (as some are discussing now: and let them choose how to best allocate their budget.
    Some might choose a high meat diet, others a dog or cat, others an annual flight to visit family. But of course, once people have the means, they typically choose all of the above. It’s hard for people to decline those luxuries that others have around them (especially as these luxuries become perceived as necessities over time). Hence, why I suggested trying to prevent the spread of the cultural norm of pet ownership in the first place. Yes, I admit my edible pets suggestion was a bit provocative (though in context of the cultural norm of factory farms not that provocative).
    And I do appreciate the suggestions you include in your comment for those not quite ready to eat their pets.=) I hadn’t heard of a composting toilet for pets. That’s a great idea. Someone also mentioned to me a dog house with a green roof. Another interesting idea.

  7. May be it is the time to change culture. When I was young, I had a couple of dogs. They were friends of mine and followed what I wanted.
    After grown up, I never had dogs. I find pleasure in watching birds and small wild animals in woods and mountains. They do not act in the way I want, so it is difficult to find and watch them. However when I watch their “real life”, I take genuine pleasure.

  8. Here’s an extra tidbit, courtesy of a friend. The world’s most expensive dog sold to a millionaire in China yesterday. The cost? $582,000. Wow.

  9. 「エコびより」にコメントくださり、ありがとうございました。







    [For English-readers only: here is a translation from our Japanese intern who has been so helpful in sharing these posts on Japanese blogs:

    Thank you for your comment on my blog.
    Oh, it’s an English blog!
    I tried to read the post.
    But if my comment go off the main point, sorry about that.
    I’ve already known CO2 emission from cattle and their feed causes a food problem.
    But I’ve never thought about the environmental problem due to our pets.
    Pets are more important for us than ever.
    Now there is even “pet therapy.”
    Our greed for the status and spoiling pets too much are a problem.
    But pets or cattle themselves aren’t a problem.
    I think essential causes of the environmental problem might be in our minds.

  10. Just a quick update: a New Scientist article “How Green Is Your Pet?” does a bit more of these calculations, and comes to the same conclusions. Share a pet or get an edible pet (but only if you need a pet). The best is no pet at all….

  11. An interesting article and as a dog owner (I have a small chihuahua) I find myself being torn by both your good points and your ridiculous suggestions as well.

    Small dogs can’t control their body temperature so those who own them have to get them a small sweater, etc for the cold months or move to Mexico. I thought it was ridiculous to dress my dog with a coat until he got sick and the vet informed me that he needed a coat. Now some do go over the top and once I started with a prudent dog sweater I began receiving gifts from friends that were more extravagantly extreme.

    Studies also show that people with pets live healthier lives in general and live longer and happier. Something your article fails miserably in not pointing out. (the best pet is no pet at all–hogwash!).

    Extremes are always bad but I think those of us who care deeply about being green and are also pet owners do more than what is often required to not be over-consumptive. Perhaps a more detailed survey of just how green most pet owners are is necessary before assuming the worst about our four legged friends and their owners.

  12. Check out the new Guardian article on pets and sustainability:

    I couldn’t help but leave a comment!

    “Ultimately, having pets–other than what the Vales show to be minimally disruptive pets like edible ones, hamsters, or pets shared between many families–will have to go if we are serious about thriving as a species long into the future. As will many other bad consumer cultural norms.

    And while people will protest (in large part because pets have become so humanized through a long-standing strategy of the pet industry), over time as cultural norms shift, we’ll look back at how we used to have dogs in our homes and sleeping on our beds as strangely as other lost customs of eras past. We may even be reflecting on this while eating a nice burger made from feral dog.

    And let’s not forget the fact that dogs eat a lot of food is just a tip of the iceberg. We now treat our pets as little consumers, buying them toys, clothes, and expensive medical treatments. The treadmill is a new one even to me!
    More thoughts on pets as consumers and how to shift this cultural norm at:

    Erik Assadourian
    Worldwatch Institute

  13. […] and grain-based as another 2 billion people populate the planet, more people become consumers, own pets (which eat lots of grain and meat themselves), and more entrepreneurs, corporations, and governments start displacing food crops with lucrative […]

  14. […] Vow not to get another dog or cat. Ever. You’ve heard me say it before, but pets have got to go—with the exception of food producers, like egg-laying chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, etc. Yes, […]

  15. […] all pets since this advertising campaign has started, and web-based donations have increased 20%. But of course, the last thing we can afford as a species is to provide a “furry soulmate&#8221… Not if we want to somehow curb our consumption and our ecological impact and prevent the mass […]

  16. […] the project in new directions. (Though we’ll see what happens when PETA starts protesting the Project’s suggestions to curb global pet populations!) Thanks especially to Bob Engelman on this front—your encouragement over the years has been […]

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