Students Staff

23 February 2015

The £180 billion bill for living in a material world


Connecting with natural environments has benefits for our wellbeing

Our modern material lifestyles are failing to make us happier, damaging our health, are no longer sustainable and cost the overall economy tens of billions of pounds every year.

Researchers at University of Essex, University of Exeter Medical School and the NHS Sustainable Development Unit have published research in the International Journal of Environmental and Health Research showing how our lifestyles in the UK are costing the whole economy £180 billion each year.

They argue encouraging sustainable lifestyles and behaviour will benefit the wellbeing of individuals and the economy.

Lead author Professor Jules Pretty, from the University of Essex, said: “Redefining what we think of as prosperity, encouraging consumption of green goods and services, and prioritising non-material consumption could actually save the country money.

“We now need to prioritise the accumulation of the positive effects on well-being across the whole life course for all people by building stronger communities, encouraging active travel, increasing the use of green spaces and healthy eating, and promoting nature-based interventions for health.

“A greener and prosocial economy is a better economy. It might also help save the planet too.”

The research team has undertaken an analysis of the negative side-effects of our existing consumer patterns on six critical factors which can help improve our health and well-being.

These factors are:

  • Eating healthy food;
  • Being physically active;
  • Having a healthy mind;
  • Linking in with community and family;
  • Contact with nature and green/blue space;
  • Attachment to meaningful possessions.

In affluent countries such as the UK, well-being is not on average increasing even though GDP has grown substantially. Part of the problem is that any positive increase in well-being due to economic prosperity is being quickly eroded by the substantial knock-on costs of mental ill-health, dementias, obesity, physical inactivity, diabetes, loneliness and cardiovascular disease (including strokes) which affect many people.

The research team has now calculated the wider health costs arising from modern lifestyles in the UK. The direct cost of mental ill-health, dementias, obesity, physical inactivity, diabetes, loneliness and cardiovascular disease (including strokes) is £60 billion each year; the full cost to the whole economy is approximately £180 billion annually (18.6% of GDP). For comparison the annual revenue expenditure of the 248 Trusts within the NHS is about £100 billion.

Co-author, Professor Michael Depledge of the University of Exeter, said: “We think there’s a real opportunity here to improve both health and the economy. A move towards environmentally sustainable economic growth that not only takes into account, but prioritises the wellbeing benefits for individuals – will help us all to live longer, healthier lives, as well as allowing us to protect and conserve the natural environment.”


For further information or to speak to the research team contact the University of Essex Communications Office on 01206 874377 or email:

1. The paper citation is: Pretty J, Barton J, Bharucha Z P, Bragg R, Pencheon D, Wood C and Depledge M H. 2015. Improving health and well-being independently of GDP: dividends of greener and prosocial economies. International Journal of Environmental Health Research DOI: 10.1080/09603123.2015.1007841

2. The full paper is free to access at

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