Can we ever get to ‘sustainable consumption’?

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Recently I was asked my opinion on what role companies can play in moving towards a future of more ‘sustainable consumption’.

The term ‘sustainable consumption’ is, of course, open to interpretation. But let’s not go there and, for the moment, take it at face value.

There are two aspects to making consumption more sustainable. The first is to make products and services themselves more sustainable – or, maybe more accurately, less unsustainable. The second is to decrease the overall amount of consumption – the aim of the degrowth movement.

As regards the first approach, we are seeing fairly rapid progress across all sectors. Company sustainability efforts are widespread. From the use of resources sourced from more sustainable sources to recycling and moving towards a more circular economy, to, in some cases (though still limited given the challenges) exploring regenerative approaches where resources used are replaced or even enhanced, we are seeing companies innovating and finding ways forward.

Just as widespread if not more so is the ongoing energy transition. In most developed countries carbon footprints are falling relative to output. There is an increased focus on energy efficiency as well as shifting to low carbon energy sources.

The impact of innovation can be substantial. To take one single example, LED bulbs last 15 to 20 times longer than an incandescent bulb and do not lose 80 percent of their energy as heat. If powered by renewable energy as opposed to an incandescent bulb powered by coal, they consume 95 percent less energy for the same amount of light. These types of innovations are widespread, and they are making a difference.

One thing that is clear, without continued technical innovation – largely driven by firms – there is little hope of moving towards a more sustainable future.

That’s all very well one might say. But is it enough to move towards a truly sustainable future? The reality is that the benefits of making products and services more resource efficient could be more than offset by ever increasing levels of consumption as people become more prosperous. Hence the degrowth movement’s focus on decreasing overall levels of consumption.

At the system level, the issue is further complicated by the well-known rebound effect described in the Jevons paradox. If, for instance, households were to save money by switching to more energy efficient heating and cooling systems, they would free up more disposable income…

Income that would then be spent on alternative consumption. It is not clear what the overall effect on consumption would be.

Neither can individual firms work to decrease overall consumption. If they provided less of their product or encouraged buyers to consume less (as some suggest), the market space left open would simply be filled by other firms sensing their opportunity. Add to this the fact that firms need to grow financially to thrive and to invest in innovation for sustainability, and it is clear that individual firms do not have sufficient agency to affect overall consumption levels.

Which leaves us with potential public policy interventions at the system level. Here again the challenges are substantial. There have been suggestions as to how public policy can move from being consumption oriented to a focus on ‘sufficiency.’

Some of it is about setting targets. Yet, as we have found out, there is precious little value in setting targets if one has no idea of viable practical and political pathways to achieving them.

For the reasons outlined above, neither is tackling individual elements piecemeal likely to be effective for system level issues. It’s all like squeezing a balloon – press hard at one end and it just bulges at the other.

Then there are the very real human level issues to contend with. Consumption is and has always been a marker of status – probably the most important drivers of human behaviour. Consumption also provides a dopamine surge akin to addictive substances. It’s a hard habit to kill.

It may be that the only way to reduce overall consumption is to give individuals and households less disposable income or to make products and services ever more expensive so that people can afford to purchase less – both amounting to the same thing. In other words, to make people relatively poorer.

Clearly that is not an attractive political proposition.

Overall, it is clear that sustainability is becoming a widely embedded consideration in corporate activity. It is mainly focused on reducing resource inputs into industrial processes, creating products and services that consume less resources when in use, and reducing waste through recycling and circular, closed loop production processes.

All of that is to be encouraged and it is likely that we will see further acceleration in the innovations needed to continue on this trajectory.

Reducing overall demand and therefore total consumption is, on the other hand, a much harder nut to crack. There we still have to find ways to re-imagine a system in which consumption remains central both economically and in human terms.

It’s going to be a tall order.

This post first appeared on Joe’s Random Thoughts newsletter on LinkedIn.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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