Sustainable Consumption? A Provocation.

Provocation for sustainable consumption, everyday life and social change – online start-up workshop 2-3 April 2020

In this short piece we outline various paradigms in sustainable consumption debates, and pose three consumption continuums: incremental vs radical; acquisition vs appropriation vs appreciation; and collective vs individual. These continuums are set to underlie sustainable consumption research in the coming years, and we hope that by discussing them in the context of the Nordic region we can be best prepared for a just and effective transition.

What is sustainable consumption?

As the international community is working toward seventeen goals for “sustainable development”, the scientific community is faced with a paradox: directing attention toward the realization of these goals while simultaneously scrutinizing them. This problem is at the core of this provocation paper, with a focus on sustainable consumption. Sustainable consumption is often used to conceptualize desirable ways of acquisition and appropriation of products and services. However, despite the popularity of the concept, what sustainable consumption actually means and entails is still ambiguous (Evans, 2011). Thus we ask what is sustainable consumption, how should the term be used and what it should be used for? 

The products and services people buy, use and dispose of have a direct, or indirect, negative impact on the environment (Jackson, 2014) – most consumption is currently unsustainable. Humanity is exceeding our “planetary boundaries” (Rockström et al., 2009), necessitating fundamental changes to lifestyles. When politicians declare a climate emergency and the “climate clocks” show that we have only seven years left to prevent catastrophic levels of climate change, realigning patterns of consumption in more sustainable directions is increasingly high on the agenda in politics, research and civil society. Moreover, the COVID-19 virus has shown the dependency of societies and environment on global circulation of goods, services and people, and simultaneously the potential for more radical shifts in lifestyles. 

Hosting a series of workshops on sustainable consumption for early career researchers in the Nordic region, we aim to account for different understandings of sustainable consumption. This account should also function as an introduction to debates over how sustainable consumption research should be used, what it could be used for, and how we can best contribute to the debates. To establish a common ground for discussions we firstly ask: 

– How should sustainable consumption be defined

– What are the benefits and challenges with a clear definition? 

As a departure point we suggest: Sustainable consumption = consumption that positively contributes to the natural environment and social wellbeing.

Continuums of sustainable consumption

Based on our definition of sustainable consumption, we see the main sustainable transition debates mainly relating to three continuums: (1) incremental vs radical; (2) acquisition vs appreciational, and; (3) collective vs individual.

(1) Incremental or radical sustainable consumption: the normative concept of sufficiency, also referred to as enoughness or strong sustainable consumption, has gained increasing attention, as it has been recognised that “the levels rather than the patterns of consumption are decisive for environmental degradation” (Spangenberg and Lorek, 2019). Consumption corridors is a term used to illustrate the “safe operating space”, with minimum standards for a good life in the inner ring, and maximum use of resources on the outer ring (Di Giulio and Fuchs, 2014; Spangenberg and Lorek, 2019: 1070). Researchers like Shove, Welch and Southerton call for a radical societal change to address the scale of the global challenge of climate change (e.g. Shove, 2014; Welch and Southerton, 2019). However, how to exactly define these minimum and maximum levels of consumption remains unclear. 

– What does a radical shift entail? What does this mean for sustainable consumption research?

– What does incremental shift entail? Will an incremental or radical sustainable consumption more likely lead to increasing environmental sustainability and social wellbeing?

– What are the ethical implications of allowing developing countries to reach minimum levels while possibly causing irreversible climate change? Is there an international debt that industrialised nations have to industrialising nations?

– Will changes for developed countries entail only superficial tweaking or more profound transformations in order to contain consumption to upper limits? 

– How can we as early career researchers in the Nordic region contribute?

(2) Focus on acquisition versus appropriation versus appreciation: conspicuous or inconspicuous consumption. Acquisition – purchasing goods and services, or the economic ‘demand-side’ – considers the resources needed to produce and deliver a product to the point of sale. Appreciation – using material resources in everyday life – considers rather the habitual practices leading to use of resources. These spheres entail very different material and social resources. Production and consumption do not always have strong and direct interactions, for example vegetables from different countries, while satisfying similar needs often have varying production processes and thus ecological footprints. Interactions “should be studied as an empirical matter and analysed in terms of the architecture of the configuration in different systems (electricity, agro-food, mobility)” (McMeekin et al., 2019: 2). Although the goal of decoupling economic growth and natural resource use has been on the policy agenda for decades, the development has been rather modest (Kjaer et. al., 2019).

– Is it more important to focus on acquisition or appropriation? 

– Will studying product impacts or behavioural patterns tell us more about environmental and social wellbeing?

– What impacts can be observed and are missed out by focussing solely on acquisition contra solely on appropriation? 

– How could this continuum be used to overcome problems in multidisciplinary research? 

– How can we as early career researchers in the Nordic region contribute?

(3) Focus on individual behavior (e.g. choices, preferences and attitudes) or collective practices (e.g. social conventions and expectations) and underlying power structures (Fuchs et al., 2016). This distinction stems particularly from the field of social practice theories, criticizing efforts to nudge behaviour, modify preferences and encourage individuals to make sustainable choices (Shove, 2014: 415; Keller et al., 2016; Boström and Klintman, 2017). Focusing on individual contra structures steers the attention from rational choices to collective practices. It is indeed difficult for individuals to step outside conventional systems of consumption, or even to perceive the ‘conventional’ nature of self-evident and ‘normal’ customs (Heiskanen et al., 2010). This continuum in the Nordic context also considers collective purchasing, a hitherto under explored research field (Bauer et al., 2018). If we want to question existing conventions, a deliberative and inclusive process of problematising current lifestyles, as well as technologies, infrastructures and social norms and social inequalities maintaining them, is needed. 

– How do we best reach a sustainable transition; changing individual decision-making or changing collective practices?

– Where does sustainable consumption fit into on-going discussions on socio-technical transitions, circular economy, degrowth and eco-social welfare?

– What role does collective purchasing play in sustainable consumption?

– Which are the critical concepts related to sustainable consumption?  Wellbeing?  (Intergenerational) equality? The right for growth – does a rising tide lift all boats or does economic change lead to increasing social stratification? (4) Should we include social and economic sustainability in sustainable consumption discussions? What are the consequences? Given that the rich have higher resource consumption (Oswald et al., 2020) – should social inequality/aspects play a more significant role in research on sustainable consumption

– How can we as early career researchers in the Nordic region contribute?

Anders Rhiger Hansen, Tullia Jack, Senja Laakso and Nicklas Neuman (alphabetical)


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