How to move to sustainable consumption?

How to move to sustainable consumption?


Agenda 21, the programme of action adopted at the 1992 "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro, noted that "Achieving the goals of environmental quality and sustainable development will require efficiency in production and changes in consumption patterns in order to emphasize optimization of resource use and minimization of waste. In many instances, this will require reorientation of existing production and consumption patterns that have developed in industrial societies and are in turn emulated in much of the world" (para. 4.15).

However, much remains to be done to understand the respective roles of public authorities, market actors, and consumers, in driving this change. Markets are increasingly demand-driven: producers shape their products in accordance with the changing expectations of consumers, for whom environmental and social considerations play an ever greater role. Price remains, nonetheless, a determining factor in the everyday choices of consumers, suggesting a need to better align economic incentives with sustainability.

More fundamentally, much of what we consume remains fueled by status competition and the quest for social recognition and acceptance: this suggests that in order to make progress in curbing excessive consumption and its impacts on sustainability, we may need to reconceive consumption not merely as a matter of individual choice but as one of social norms that is tied in with broader efforts to achieve social justice.

The "desires" of consumers, as distinguished from the "needs" that must be satisfied as a condition for a decent life, are largely shaped by the structure of markets, by technological change, by advertising, and by the physical environment, all of which are beyond the ability of the individual consumer to change. This calls into question the idea that sustainability can be advanced simply by changing the "values" consumers adhere to, or by improving awareness about the impacts of individual choices.

  • If social norms are such a big driver of consumption, how can these norms be made to evolve?
  • How can technological change be reoriented around sustainability, instead of the never-ending quest for economic efficiency, increased labor productivity, and profit maximization for technology owners?
  • How can markets be reshaped in order to favor the shift to more sustainable consumption patterns, sometimes referred to as "voluntary simplicity"?
  • How can governments, businesses and households contribute to the shift to greater resource efficiency and a "circular economy", and how can a better alignment of these efforts be achieved?

Read more:

BACKGROUND PAPER by conference rapporteur: Consumption, Markets, and Sustainability by Guliz Ger
Presentation to EU5P conference: Consumption, Markets, and Sustainability by Guliz Ger
Collaborative or participatory consumption, a sustainability model for the 21st century", EESC opinion: Mr. Bernardo Hernández Bataller, EESC member, rapporteur
"Towards more sustainable consumption: industrial product lifetimes and restoring trust through consumer information", EESC opinion: Mr. Thierry Libaert, EESC member, rapporteur ; Mr. Jean-Pierre Haber, EESC delegate, co-rapporteur
Barriers to downward carbon emission: Exploring sustainable consumption in the face of the glass floor, Cherrier et al
Consumption in Affluent societies, Russell w. Belk and Güliz Ger
The Fire of Desire: A Multisited Inquiry into Consumer Passion, Russell w. Belk, Güliz Ger and Soren Askegaard
Constructing Sustainable Consumption: From Ethical Values to the Cultural Transformation of Unsustainable Markets, Douglas Holt, for the American Academy of Political and Social Science
Agenda 21, United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, outcome document of ‘Earth Summit’ held in Rio de Janeiro between 3 and 14 June 1992
European Commission, DG Environment, Sustainable development
A resource-efficient Europe, European Commission, – Flagship initiative of the Europe 2020 Strategy.
Roadmap to a resource efficient Europe, European Commission, Communication of the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, , COM(2011) 571 final of 20.9.2011.
Circular Economy / Greening the Economy, European Resource Efficiency Platform, Working Group I: C - First Report to Sherpas (November 2012)