Actors in Sustainable Consumption and Their Possible Roles

Companies: Sustainable Products

As argued initially, the main sphere of influence for companies is the development and production of goods and the operation of services. It is essential that the environmental performance of these goods and services is improved, based on their functional unit. If these products change the available household resources, it is a consumer choice what to do with any additional resources.

Still, companies might want to better understand the secondary consequences of their products and how well the products meet the individual needs beyond the mere function. This should help companies to be prepared for the discussion on sustainable consumption. In fact, many companies do parts of this analysis already: fashion and lifestyle, time and space saving are key selling points in many product segments. The environmentally negative secondary consequences are however out of the scope of the analysis. This also means that conflicts are to be expected between offering an environmentally more efficient product with time-saving properties to the consumer, while at the same time trying to avoid that this leads to secondary consequences that party or fully compensate the environmental advantages of the product.

A design for sustainable consumption would then be an extension of conventional Ecodesign by considering consumption-related secondary consequences, and – as Hofstetter et al. (2006) argue – basic needs that require satisfaction. A first step would be to provide quantitative information on the effect on the consumer's household resources, particularly time and space saving, and expand on the information on the cost of ownership, that is currently legally to be provided for some consumer goods only. Regarding food calories, this information is already standard information on food products.

On lifestyle level, companies across sectors may start working together to develop and promote a portfolio of products for sustainable lifestyles and/or ecosystems.

Citizen: Sustainable Consumption Decisions and Lifestyles

All final consumption is decided on by the consumer, while marketing, the role models that media personalities play, and the media in general, but also family and friends are influencing consumption decisions. For implementing sustainable consumption to reach a sustainable life style, consumers require awareness of sustainability and need to receive sufficient and correct information to support their consumption decisions (Wolf 2014a).

Taking more sustainable consumption decisions means purchasing, using, and end-of-life managing products that – while fulfi the consumer's human needs in at least the same degree as alternative products do – have a lower environmental life cycle impact, including to quantitatively consider the secondary consequences, including the higher order consequences in the society and due to possibly freeing human working time. In Sects. 2.7 and 2.8 we have already sketched a respective quantitative measure on this last named aspect “Sustainable consumption” has been defi quite early already, such as in (Norwegian Ministry of the Environment 1994). [1]

The entirety of consumption of a citizen is facilitating the person's lifestyle. A lifestyle is – in its broadest sense – “Ways of life, encapsulating representations, values and beliefs, behaviors and habits, institutions, economic and social systems.” (UNEP 2011). In context of this chapter however, we refer mainly to the consumption of goods and services that enables the individual to create and live his or her lifestyle, similar to the definition promoted in context of the Marrakech process: “Sustainable lifestyles are patterns of action and consumption, used by people to affiliate and differentiate themselves from others, which: meet basic needs, provide a better quality of life, minimise the use of natural resources and emissions of waste and pollutants over the lifecycle, and do not jeopardise the needs of future generations.” (Thidell 2011, adopted from CSD 2004).

The individual will aim at maximising the utility of his or her household resources, i.e. optimize the needs fulfilment. In Sect. 3.2 it was explained why it will be more accurate to calculate the environmental impacts of the entire consumption profile of an individual's lifestyle, than of individual products. We therefore argue that it makes sense to define a range of lifestyles and calculate their overall environmental profile. Individuals can then learn which lifestyles have which environmental consequences and see if they want to shift their own lifestyle into the direction of one of the less impacting ones.

However, such “model lifestyles” needs variation, not only because of differences in the individual taste and belief, but already because the available household resources vary (e.g. different times and income bound for commuting distances, with/without children, different health, other long-term obligations, etc.).

Moreover, when defining one's lifestyle, people often refer to approaches, rather than individual products or to concepts that would capture the entirety of the lifestyle. “I am vegetarian”, “I separate waste”, and “I buy local” are a few examples of such approaches. These approaches help consumers to group specific decisions and to communicate them, as well as combining a lifestyle. The challenge is that not all decisions that are taken in line with such approaches are actually environmentally beneficial (already if not considering secondary consequences). Some approaches that are perceived as environmentally advantageous can even be more impacting, see e.g. examples for misconceptions about polymers in Wolf et al. (2010). It will be important to analyse which of these approaches are actually environmentally beneficial, again including considering the secondary consequences on available household resources.

If any such approaches are fully followed, they can also lead to infrastructural changes at the consumer. For example, “I prefer public transport” may lead to the decision to not have a private car anymore.

We would like to add that the above refers implicitly to middle and upper consumers, while families of low and lowest income classes will have less choices to shift to more sustainable lifestyles, in their struggle to meet at least their most basic needs. Moreover, given their low income, they typically have a lower per person environmental impact than better-off families.

  • [1] Unfortunately, in one of the most prominent and recent global efforts to “Develop recommendations for effective policies on Sustainable Lifestyles” (UNEP 2011), the reference to life cycle approaches is essentially limited to the glossary
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