COP26 saw world leaders announce their worries over the current state of sustainable development. While the environmental summit in Glasgow, Scotland saw some big developments such as methane limits, financial capital dedicated toward sustainable development, promises to stop deforestation, and surprising international cooperation; it was also clear that even stronger action is needed. Controversy surrounded COP26 — ranging from criticism over the carbon footprint of the menu to fossil fuels having more representation than the eight countries hit the hardest by climate change. Crucially though, COP26 missed out on bringing global attention to a key area of action that will be necessary in the shift to carbon neutrality and stopping climate change; an area that is actionable on the individual level in addition to the business and governmental levels: responsible consumption.
Rampant consumerism is a great problem for building a sustainable culture, and unsurprisingly this problem manifests strongly in Earth’s wealthiest nations. Notably, America is the world’s worst offender, as it constitutes five percent of the world’s population but contributes to 24% of the world’s energy consumption. Unsurprisingly, the richest are the worst offenders, with the top 1% accounting for 15% of the world’s emissions. Consumerism manifests as a problem not only in emissions and energy usage, but in water usage, high-meat diets, unsustainable clothing purchases, and countless other ways. Environmental problems arise not only in how these products are produced and brought to the consumer, but in how they are disposed of as well. In many wealthy nations, and especially in America, the value system not only allows for hyper consumption, but actively promotes it. Despite all the other action taken to work towards a sustainable future, we are missing the complete picture; this norm of excess consumption must be changed as our planet simply cannot keep up with such great resource demands. With humanity projected to use three planets worth of resources by 2050 under the “business as usual” scenario, a sustainable future must involve lowering individual environmental impact, especially in wealthy nations and among the rich.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) defines responsible consumption and production as “the use of services and related products, which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life while minimizing the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle of the service or product so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations.” This view stresses the need to separate economic growth and environmentally harmful production. Responsible consumption and production is Goal 12 of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. At its core, sustainable and responsible consumption comes down to reducing the environmental and social impact of personal consumption, buying less, buying better and not consuming for consumption’s sake.
Despite the evident need for more responsible consumption practices, getting consumers on board and reworking society’s value system is one of the greatest challenges we face in building a sustainable future. American consumer culture has long been engrained in the psyche of the country, starting in the years following WWII, when the American government began promoting consumption as a patriotic duty. The attitudes of this time period can be summed up in a quote from economist Victor Lebow, in the 1955 Journal of Retailing: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption.” This attitude has certainly prevailed and possibly intensified over the past 70-80 years, as is evident in the people that our society idolizes. Take the Kardashians, for example. They are one of the most famous families in America, and even the world. Not only do they peddle dozens, if not hundreds of products, but they also show off their thousands of shoes and garments in television shows and YouTube videos. When some of the most famous people in a society show off such unchecked consumption, and are idolized by young people for it, it does a great disservice to the message of responsible consumption.
“We need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing pace.” – Victor Lebow, 1955 Journal of Retailing
While Americans consume more than any other country, a study from National Geographic found that “Americans are the least likely to suffer from green guilt about their environmental impact.” This constitutes a big problem for the least sustainable country per capita on Earth. How do we rework the country’s value system to one where all of us take responsibility for our footprints? We need to create a norm that goes against the message we have heard for nearly 100 years and encourage consumers to buy less and better, not more and cheap.
In the paragraphs below, I call out three key stakeholders who can help implement a more responsible consumer landscape: governments, businesses, and consumers.
By dint of their immense regulatory power, governments can and should play a role in its consumer landscapes. In the USA, the Environmental Protection Agency has outlined responsible consumption and production as an area of concern. To enact such change, the USA has joined the One Planet network, an organization that aims to promote cooperation between parties to further sustainable consumption. The organization has six key focus areas, spanning procurement, consumer information, food systems, lifestyles and education, buildings and construction, and tourism. While these are not the only areas in which governments can influence responsible consumption and production, they offer a good starting point. Some other examples of government influence are gas-vehicle bans and channeling action on food waste.
While the responsible consumption issue has appeared on America’s political radar, the country and its leaders would do well to look at other countries such as Sweden and Germany. A program from the Swedish government proposed tax cuts on shoe, clothing, and bicycle repairs to encourage consumers to use products longer and get them fixed rather than buying a new product. Both Germany and Sweden outline education (for both children and adults) and accurate product labelling as key points of their sustainable consumption strategies. Germany’s plan also promotes research on sustainable consumption and environment-friendly product design. We should take ideas from countries who have more developed strategies guiding sustainable consumption.
Marketing is a ripe area for business action on advancing responsible consumption. Who would have thought that marketers need to convince consumers to buy less rather than more, but such are the times we live in! Marketers must leverage the social environment in trying to change consumption habits, as consumers are much more likely to behave sustainably when revered others are involved in the process. Illustrating the long-term benefits of sustainable behaviors (e.g., distinguishing between price and total cost of ownership) is another important strategy in responsible consumption marketing. On the flip side however, responsible consumption on the part of the consumer must be met with responsible production on the part of the business. Ethical and sustainable sourcing is an area in which businesses must invest to achieve responsible production practices and make this part of the value chain visible to consumers. Making supply chains transparent, for example, as Starbucks has done, is one way businesses can encourage sustainable consumer decisions.
Businesses should also start making products that last and end the abhorrent practices of planned and perceived obsolescence. Society has grown to value buying new things so much that products are not built to last in the way they used to be, and the cost of repair is almost as high as the cost of buying a new model. Planned obsolescence, where new models of brands featuring minimal improvements are introduced every so often and existing models are discarded as soon as the tiniest thing goes wrong, can be observed across industries, with particularly harmful practices in the technology and clothing industries. If we want consumers to buy less and better, what they do buy must be built to last and it is a business’s responsibility to make quality products.
While planned obsolescence is a massive problem for sustainable consumption; perceived obsolescence is another. Perceived obsolescence is what gives consumers the sense that their products are outdated, even if they still function perfectly fine. Businesses promote this idea by carefully controlling ever-shifting fashion trends and making newer products that make last year’s products look outdated (e.g., clothes, shoes). Perceived obsolescence harms the environment in a similar way as planned obsolescence as it makes consumers discard products even when they don’t really need to, but this is exactly what businesses want. Patagonia’s famous ad on Black Friday saying “Don’t Buy This Jacket” is a refreshing exception, that many more businesses ought to emulate.
A third change that businesses can make to promote responsible consumption is to rework business models to provide services rather than products. Often, this entails renting out products rather than selling them. Retailer Marks and Spencer has implemented such a service by offering consumers the option to rent out clothes. This practice is more environmentally friendly as many people get use from a single garment, rather than it being worn a few times and thrown out; such a model can be successful for a range of goods, especially ones that consumers do not use very often and have no need to own. Ridesharing apps are a prime example as they enable people to live without owning cars, as they know they can get a ride when the need arises. This kind of sharing economy has great potential to influence sustainable consumption.
Even with business and governmental action on the topic of responsible consumption, it will still come down to consumers to be the driving force behind responsible consumption. To minimize their ecological footprint, consumers must gain sustainability knowledge. The more educated a consumer is, the more they can account for and reduce their footprint. Environmental footprint calculators are a useful tool in evaluating the impact of one’s lifestyle and identifying areas to improve. An educated consumer base is a vital resource in building sustainable societies; without consumer education there is little hope for changing consumption practices.
A key action for consumers is simply buying less goods. Reframing purchases between needs and wants must be a part of the shopping process, with less purchasing of unnecessary items being a massive area for improvement especially in highly consumer-driven cultures. Buying less does not need to looked upon negatively, as it may actually make us happier. The satisfaction achieved by consuming is a fleeting feeling that is only maintained by purchasing more; this is not a consistent path towards happiness and life satisfaction. While consumption is a fact of life, keeping consumption to a minimum is what consumers must strive for. Many will be surprised to see hidden benefits of reduced consumption such as reduced debt/more disposable income, less stress, and in trimming away the excess of modern life, it will become easier for what really matters to rise to the top.
When people do have to consume, it falls upon them to do their research so that they can buy better. This means identifying companies that source their products responsibly and make their products to last; ratings agencies that grade brands on sustainability can be helpful here. For consumers, this is where it is both practical and environmentally friendly to spend a little bit more to get a high-quality product that will last for years, rather than a cheaply made one that will end up in a landfill after a season or two. In addition to paying attention to responsible sourcing, consumers also must account for the disposal of products they consume. Many different consumer goods have guidelines on how they are to be disposed of as they may contain toxic components or rare materials that should be recycled back into production. The responsibility of proper disposal must fall upon the consumer, but they also must have ample resources telling them how to properly dispose of products.
Consumption practices for consumers can be improved across a wide range of other areas as well, such as choosing better transportation methods, more environmentally friendly diets, and improving household efficiency. While consumers say they want to behave more sustainably, acting upon these wishes and reducing individual footprints is imperative in creating a future environment we can continue to enjoy for generations to come.
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Volume 1, Number 11. © CB Bhattacharya. All rights reserved. Research assistance for this blog provided by Nathan Dobb.