The US EPA is hosting a series of Webinars on Sustainable Consumption. More information on these seminars can be found here. In the first Webinar, David Allaway spoke about some of the opportunities and barriers regarding sustainable consumption he has observed in his work with the State of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. In his talk, he reviewed a couple of papers that he authored that provided more details about the issue. What follows are some excerpts from these papers that might be relevant to folks interested in sustainability.
“To achieve sustainable development and higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption . . .”
The Commission on Sustainable Development defines sustainable consumption as “the use of services and related products which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life while minimizing the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations.”
Current global consumption patterns are unsustainable... efficiency gains and technological advances alone will not be sufficient to bring global consumption to a sustainable level; changes will also be required to consumer lifestyles, including the ways in which consumers choose and use products and services.
Business, governments and society (including consumers) must work together to define sustainable products and lifestyles.
[…] “we are living beyond our ecological means” and “an economic model that overshoots natural resource constraints while failing to meet peoples’ basic needs is, quite literally, unsustainable. What’s needed, therefore, is a new model of economic development in which all people can meet their basic needs without disrupting healthy ecosystems, which serve as the foundation for sound economies, sustaining and enhancing human life.”
Waste prevention represents an effort to be “less bad,” as opposed to a vision that is healthy and/or restorative. Another way of thinking about this is that waste prevention, as commonly interpreted, is only about “consuming less.” In contrast, sustainable consumption involves both “consuming less” and “consuming differently.”
Creating stronger momentum toward sustainable consumption patterns will be challenging and may require approaches outside of DEQ’s[Oregon Department of Environmental Quality] historic (and traditional) roles, but doing so is consistent with the broad goals of conserving energy and natural resources and protecting the environment and human health.
[…] governments traditionally advocate for providing more and better information to consumers (via labeling schemes, outreach, etc.), under the belief that if consumers just had access to better information, or were extorted to change, they would make more sustainable decisions. […] consumer decisions are in fact driven by emotional and even biochemical forces, underlying values, force of habit and a variety of external factors including availability, affordability, convenience and social norms. […] information by itself often has limited effectiveness in changing consumer behavior.
[…] gains in reducing unsustainable consumption leads to unanticipated increases in consumption in other areas.
[…] fiscal incentives and information campaigns are helpful if part of a larger strategy, but on their own are insufficient to spark pro-environmental behavior change of the kind and scale required to meet existing challenges.
[…] material goods and services are deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of our lives. Through them we not only satisfy our needs and desires, we also communicate with each other and negotiate important social relationships. […] motivating sustainable consumption has to be as much about building supportive communities, promoting inclusive societies, providing meaningful work and encouraging purposeful lives as it is about awareness raising, fiscal policy and persuasion.
Individual behaviors are guided as much by what others around us say and do, and by the “rules of the game,” as they are by personal choice. We often find ourselves “locked in” to unsustainable behaviors in spite of our own best intentions. Policymakers sometimes express ambivalence about intervening in these behaviors. […] policymakers are not innocent bystanders in the negotiation of consumer choice. Policy intervenes continually in consumer behavior both directly (e.g., through regulation and taxes) and more importantly through its extensive influence over the social and institutional context within which people act.
[…] social survey evidence shows that although people strive for financial security and to live in material comfort, their deepest aspirations are nonmaterial. Material consumption is needed but by itself does not contribute significantly to personal happiness or subjective well-being beyond a relatively modest threshold. […] needs are few and finite, the most prominent being subsistence, protection, affection, identity, creation and freedom. These needs can be met in different ways with varying ecological footprints.
Motivational strategies to create supportive social environments, to foster a sense of community, and to impart shared values offer better prospects than moralizing or appealing to individual altruism. But motivational techniques must go hand in hand with creation of alternative behavioral opportunities for fulfilling needs that are comparable to preexisting alternatives.
[…] the core challenge to sustainable consumption is that the current economic system is inherently flawed: “...for businesses as well as governments, incentives point us in the direction of consuming resources that will become ever more scarce and expensive. In effect, our current system is inherently flawed, with the very human quest for better lives in conflict with the maintenance of a healthy planet.”
Making consumption more sustainable, […], will require changes to the systems in which businesses and government operate: a change to much longer time horizons than most businesses and governments currently consider; changing accounting systems to account for externalized costs; and changing accounting systems to capture measures of human well being and the degree to which society’s goals are met through economic activity, as opposed to merely measuring the volume of economic activity.
[…] “green consumption” is unhelpful. Individual consumption choices are important, but control over these choices is constrained, shaped and framed by institutions and political forces that can be remade only through collective citizen action. […], emphasis on individual consumer action – a mentality of “plant a tree, ride a bike, do your part,” – is not merely ineffectual, but detrimental, because it crowds out activity that would have real impact.
[…] green consumption may simply relieve individuals of their duty to do something really substantial and more difficult. Further, green consumption might also just become a less noxious form of conspicuous consumption.
If organizations or individuals are attempting to change the behaviors of others, be they firms, institutions or individuals, they must themselves live up to the values they are espousing.
[…] meeting needs through social relationships and community ties rather than commodities decreases material consumption and increases well-being.
[…] humanity has reached a fundamental turning point in its economic history. The expansionary trajectory of industrial civilization is colliding with non-negotiable natural limits; consumption will decline regardless of whether individuals and institutions want it to or not. […], government (and civil society) should play a role in managing this transition: “economic contraction need not entail catastrophe and sorrow if the process is managed well.”