Have you ever stopped to wonder about the environmental impact of your favorite everyday items? Perhaps they have a positive effect on the environment. Maybe that’s even why you chose to buy them.

But let’s imagine for a moment that’s not the case and your favorite things aren’t great for the environment. What if their production or use actually threatens the ecosystem? Or worse, what if your consumption might threaten the existence of your favorite products?

You might be thinking, “It can’t be. None of my favorite things threaten the sustainability of our ecosystem.” But it turns out there are many goods that are being produced unsustainably, endangering resources, or negatively impacting the environment.

What Is the Tragedy of the Commons?

The tragedy of the commons refers to a situation in which individuals with access to a shared resource (also called a common) act in their own interest and, in doing so, ultimately deplete the resource.

This economic theory was first conceptualized in 1833 by British writer William Forster Lloyd. In 1968, the term “tragedy of the commons” was used for the first time by Garret Hardin in Science Magazine.

This theory explains individuals’ tendency to make the best decisions for their personal situation, regardless of the negative impact they may have on others. An individual’s belief that others won’t act in the best interest of the group can lead them to justify their selfish behavior. When facing the use or potential overuse of a common or public good, individuals may act with their short-term best interest in mind, for instance, using an unsustainable product, and disregard the harm it could cause to the environment or general public.

It’s helpful for both firms and individuals to understand the tragedy of the commons so they can make more sustainable and environmentally-friendly choices. Here are five real-world examples of the tragedy of the commons, and an exploration of the solution to this problem.

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5 Tragedy Of the commons examples

1. Coffee Consumption

While a simple cup of coffee might seem harmless, coffee consumption is a prime example of the tragedy of the commons. Coffee plants are a naturally occurring shared resource, but over-consumption has led to habitat loss that has endangered 60 percent of the plants' species—including the most commonly brewed Arabica coffee.

2. Overfishing

As the global population continues to rise, the food supply needs to increase just as quickly. However, overhunting and overfishing have the potential to push many species into extinction. Overfishing of the Pacific bluefin tuna has caused an all-time population low of approximately three percent of their original population. This not only endangers the Pacific bluefin tuna, but also risks further marine ecosystem endangerment as a result.

3. Fast Fashion

Overproduction by fashion brands has created extreme product surplus to the point that luxury brand Burberry burnt $37.8 million worth of its 2018 season’s leftovers to avoid offering a discount on unsold wares. Furthermore, as new trends emerge rapidly due to the Internet and social media, consumers are constantly purchasing new clothing items and disposing of old, out-of-trend items that ultimately end up in landfills and contribute to pollution.

4. Traffic Congestion

Traffic congestion is one of the best-known modern examples of the tragedy of the commons. According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, air pollution from traffic congestion in urban areas contributes to more than 2,200 premature deaths annually in the United States alone. As more people decide that roads and highways are the fastest way to travel to work, more cars end up on the roads, ultimately slowing down traffic and polluting the air.

5. Groundwater Use

In the United States, groundwater is the source of drinking water for about half the population, and roughly 50 billion gallons are used each day for agriculture. Because of this, groundwater supply is decreasing faster than it can be replenished. In drought-prone areas, the risk for water shortage is high and restrictions are often put in place to mitigate it. Some individuals, however, ignore water restrictions and the supply ultimately becomes smaller for everyone.

What’s the Solution to the Tragedy of the Commons?

How would you react to discovering that your consumption habits are depleting natural resources? You have two primary options:

  1. Boycott the products or brands causing the alleged harm and find an alternative, sustainable way of getting your fix.
  2. Carry on with what Sustainable Business Strategy Professor Rebecca Henderson calls, “business as usual,” ignoring the impact of your consumption habits. After all, it’s easy to justify that your boycotting the product won’t make a large enough impact to make a difference.

The tragedy of the commons shows us how, without some sort of regulation or public transparency of choices and actions associated with public goods, there's no incentive for individuals to hold themselves back from taking too much. In fact, individuals may even have a “use it or lose it” mentality; if they’re aware of the inevitability that the good itself will be depleted, they may think, “I better get my share while I still can.”

Related: What Does "Sustainability" Mean in Business?

Let’s put this idea to the test: In which of the following cases would you hold yourself back from overusing?

  1. During a drought, your town regulates the days and times you’re allowed to water your lawn. How likely are you to disregard these parameters?
  2. Your local grocery store, which has always encouraged the use of reusable bags, has started to charge for each paper or plastic bag. How likely are you to start bringing your own bags?

Let’s dig a little deeper into these options:

  1. If everyone in your community is abiding by the town’s lawn-watering regulations, you're most likely going to abide by them as well. You don’t want a bright green lawn while the rest of the town's lawns are brown, do you?
  2. Who wants to pay a premium for something that will likely be thrown away or used as a trash bag? Charging for grocery bags has upped the stakes, because you’ve now got some skin in the game. Chances are you’re much more likely to start keeping a reusable bag in your car, just in case you need to stop at the grocery store on the way home.

These examples show how, when faced with a public good, individuals can be motivated to cooperate through monetary or moral incentives or penalties. What’s truly fascinating is that this also holds true on a larger scale.

Remember one of our original examples of luxury fashion brands burning surplus? Well, Burberry—having heard its customers’ reactions to the burning of inventory, regardless of how sustainably its products were disposed—has since pledged to stop burning clothes and using real fur.

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Developing a Sustainable Mindset

It’s easy for both individuals and organizations to fall victim to the tragedy of the commons. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. By developing a more sustainable mindset, you can become better aware of the long-term impact that your short-term choices have on the environment both in your personal life and at work.

Are you interested in learning more? Explore our Sustainable Business Strategy course and other business in society courses to discover how you can make a difference and become a purpose-driven leader.

This post was updated on April 1, 2021. It was originally published on February 9, 2019.

Alexandra Spiliakos

About the Author

Alexandra is a former member of the Harvard Business School Online Course Delivery Team who worked on the Sustainable Business Strategy, Economics for Managers, Disruptive Strategy, and Negotiation Mastery courses.