Consumption Analysis


Sustainable Consumption – Towards an Action Plan

Laurie Michaelis

Research Commission on Sustainable Consumption, 

Oxford Centre for the Environment, Ethics & Society

According to Chapter 4 of Agenda 21, we need to develop new concepts of prosperity and reinforce the values that would foster more sustainable production and consumption. But unsustainable consumerism rests on values and assumptions that are deep-seated in western society and precious to most poeple.  They include the commitment to liberty, equality, progress, and the pursuit of happiness.

One of the most important features of modern western culture is the separation of means and ends.  We have developed government and commercial bureaucracies that are expert in designing and implementing means, or processes. Their mantra is “efficiency”.  Ends or goals are another matter, to be left to individual choice or inclination.  In particular, individuals are supposed to choose their own path to happiness, or the “good life”. 

Or that is the theory.  In practice, our goals are influenced by our social and cultural context, especially the images, narratives, symbols and role models to which we are exposed through the media.  We are increasingly locked in to a materialist vision of the good life that helps TV networks to attract viewers and corporations to sell their products.

Libertarian ideology has created particular difficulties for governments and intergovernmental organisations trying to make sense of “sustainable consumption”. Some have argued that sustainable consumption is about consuming “differently, not less”, that it is about consuming “more efficiently”, or choosing “sustainable products”.

Improved efficiency is essential, but we are unlikely to achieve the ten-fold increases in resource productivity that many analysts and governments say are necessary in the coming 30-50 years.  We may also need to learn to consume less, to recognise when we have had enough, and develop “new concepts of prosperity.”  But what might we expect to find in such concepts?  What are the values that would foster sustainable consumption and production? 

Many studies have found that people’s happiness depends mostly on their health and on family and other relationships.  New concepts of prosperity would need to reflect these priorities.  Having a “meaning” in life is also of fundamental importance.  Most importantly, the new concepts of prosperity would help us to find a balance among material, social, cultural and spiritual goals.  They might also help us to see a healthy relationship with nature as part of our own well-being.

Changes in values and shifts in lifestyle may need action by governments, businesses, the media, NGOs and others.  But the changes are only likely to catch on if they are rooted in local communities.  The steps to achieving such changes and shifts will probably include:

1.     dialogue: community discussions often reveal a desire to strengthen community and protect the environment, and a recognition that material wealth does not bring happiness.

2.     changing rhetoric: a new discourse is needed from politicians, businesses, NGOs, media commentators and celebrities, supporting the values that underpin sustainable consumption.  Changes in rhetoric must be accompanied by changes in behaviour.

3.     new indicators: charting progress towards a better quality of life, placing less emphasis on material wealth and more on health, relationships, communities and civic life.

4.     information: about the lifestyle and consumption options available to us, and their environmental, social and economic implications.

5.     education: ensuring that people can understand the society they live in and its relationship with the environment.

6.     initiative and innovation: the key to successful change is experimentation, learning from successes and failures.

7.     framework policies: changes in the fiscal, legal and planning frameworks are more likely to succeed after steps 1 to 6 above have been taken, building support for sustainable development goals and demonstrating the attractions of alternative ways of living.

But who should be responsible for making sure that these steps are taken?

Governments have focused on the seventh step, seeking to find the most efficient framework policies for maximising economic growth.  But they have a key role to play in the preceding six steps. Governments are needed especially to facilitate dialogue; provide leadership to business, the media and others; support initiative and innovation by communities and businesses; and design and implement framework policies.

The media have played a central role through editorial control over the political rhetoric that reaches the public; by choosing which indicators to publicise; by providing information; and through education.

Businesses mostly interpret sustainable consumption as the consumption of sustainable products.  Harder approaches to engagement would involve fundamental shifts in the business model. At the heart of the necessary change is for businesses to see themselves both as corporate citizens with a wide range of duties to society and the environment, and as communities of employees and stakeholders with their own values and ethics.

The major environmental NGOs have played an increasingly important role in the design of government and business policies for sustainable development.  There has been some blurring of the cultural divide between pressure groups and those in power.  While the international NGOs might like to advocate a change in lifestyles, they have been reluctant to appear too extreme in recent years, especially since such advocacy is usually ineffective.  More has been achieved by small, local groups addressing the specific concerns, values and priorities of their members.

Alliances among powerful groups can play a dominant role in determining societal norms.  Governments, transnational companies, financial institutions, the press and media represent the main power alliance in the late 20th century.  They have offered a one dimensional view of prosperity which the public has begun to accept.  But alliances may also be the route to change.  A new alliance working for sustainable consumption might start within the existing power centres, or it could emerge from outside, from universities, religious institutions, community groups and local governments.


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