Feb 212013
Eco-labeling provides consumers with socially and environmentally friendly choices, but it also encourages even more consumption. (photo courtesy of jetalone via flickr)

Eco-labeling provides consumers with socially and environmentally friendly choices, but it also encourages even more consumption. (photo courtesy of jetalone via flickr)

Across the globe the concept of sustainable consumption is being touted as the way of the future, a change in lifestyle and values that promises “green growth”– economic growth that doesn’t hurt the environment. Though not without obstacles and controversy, this concept has been embraced by policymakers, consumers, and industry. The idea is that, by providing consumers with a choice of products reflecting their new environmental values, the market will self-regulate its way towards a more sustainable future, one in which supermarket shelves are lined with ecologically friendly products, and workers in developing countries are receiving fair wages for their labor. Eco-labeling, taxes on water and energy consumption, recycling incentives, education and communication campaigns, and advertising are examples of methods to promote sustainable consumption, all of which are endorsed by the OECD.

Does recycling perpetuate the high consumption paradigm? (photo courtesy of timtak via flickr)

Does recycling perpetuate the high consumption paradigm? (photo courtesy of timtak via flickr)

However, sustainable consumption fails to address the root problem: that unfettered economic growth–no matter how ecologically-minded–is still unsustainable. In State of the World 2013, Annie Leonard points out that the focus on sustainable consumption “distracts us from identifying and demanding change from the real drivers of environmental decline…. Describing today’s environmental problems and solutions as individual issues also has a disempowering effect, leaving people to feel that their greatest power lies in perfecting their daily choices.” A Nordic research group is attempting to dispel the myths of sustainable consumption in order to help policymakers implement genuinely effective policies. Belief in these myths helps pave the dangerous road to timid government policies.

The most damaging myths, outlined in a recent webinar, are the following:

  • the belief that small individual actions will have a spill-over effect;
  • if everyone does a little we will collectively achieve a lot;
  • more information leads to sustainable behavior.

The reason that these myths are so dangerous is that they place the burden of responsibility on consumers instead of producers, and this in turn influences the types of policies implemented by the state. However, the focus is still on consumption itself, as opposed to a deep-seated behavioral shift towards downsizing and degrowth. These myths allow government to enact short-term, minimal policies like taxes on bottled water and plastic bags, or requiring energy labels on appliances. While individual effort is certainly important, and a good starting point, it is a terrible end-point. Leonard argues that radical change involves three stages – a big idea of how things could be better, a commitment to move beyond individual action, and finally, collective action. A focus on sustainable consumption keeps society firmly fixated on individuals and increases the barriers to taking collective action.

  11 Responses to “The Myths of Sustainable Consumption”

  1. Excellent post, excellent diagnosis. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

  2. Excellent. Simple and effective. Thanks for sharing.

  3. […] Robèrt sa tror jag ligger i linje med vad som framförs på flera ställen, t ex i artikeln The Myths of Sustainable Consumption, i blogs.worldwatch.org den 22 feb […]

  4. Very interesting analysis and certainly puts across some excellent thoughts about how to move toward a more sustainable planet. I feel it is a little simplistic however to move all the responsibioity “up the chain”. Everyone has a role to play in this – governments, civil society, NGOs but also individuals. This analysis seems to imply that the role of individuals is not very important which I believe is incorrect. I believe we all have to understand the impacts of our decisions about consumption – food, heating, transport ..etc and make our own decisions accordingly. This would be in addition to addressing the important aspects highlighted in this analysis.

  5. […] This article was originally published on the Worldwatch Blog […]

  6. while I appreciate identifying the pitfalls of relegating sustainable change to individual actions; (i.e. providing an ‘out’ for government and society as a whole to take real sweeping actions); it is likewise dangerous to stiffle the seemingly ineffective efforts of the individual. By rendering these efforts as not only meaningless but also counter-productive is very short-sighted and leads to a hopelessness that is the greatest danger. The drip in a bucket does ultimately fill, and change does start with the small spark of a mere idea from individuals. It is the braveness of individual actions in the face of uselessness that creates change, and forces society as a whole to change in the long run.

  7. i dont know, i still think that the important is the sustainable consumption. what we demand is what the producers make so, if we demand for products that does not affecta that much the enviroment we can contribute with the economic sustainability.

  8. […] This is a great article about how to be sustainable- through creating change, not just by fantasizing about it: http://blogs.worldwatch.org/sustainabilitypossible/sustainable-consumption-myths/ […]

  9. I like what I read. I think all too often we get settled in our ways and Government’s need to set an example and pave the way for change. WE do need to start with the individual and s/he can and does make a difference, but sometimes it does take Governments to help facilitate real and long term change. We live in such a disposable society and cost of replacement parts are at such a premium it becomes better to throw the item out and replace it. The point here is that we live in a culture that is difficult to turn from. It takes a larger approach to make things happen. I have worked in Health and Safety and dealth with the culture that surrounds it.We need to lobby the government for real change.The time is now.

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