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Consumption and Sustainability - Does It Add Up?


On August 2 of this year, we reached Overshoot Day. This is the day when the year’s supply of renewable resources runs out, a day that comes earlier and earlier every year. Globally we are consuming like we have 1,7 planets at our disposal. This is not sustainable and for this to change we must consume less. But the economic system demands growth, and consuming less will have serious negative effects on the economy. How does this add up? Does it? What can the research on consumption tell us? At CCR many researchers grapple with these issues.

Christian Fuentes, Ulrika Holmberg and Niklas Sörum cover a research field that encompasses environmental concerns in retail, the digitalization of consumption, everyday transports, the market of second-hand goods, and sustainable urban development. They say that they, as researchers on consumption, can add nuances to the debate on sustainability, primarily through the study of the complex everyday life of ordinary consumers. One paradox they study is that despite a large and growing awareness of environmental issues, consumers still act in non-sustainable ways. This is due to the many factors involved in how and why we consume. Thus it is important to examine the drivers of consumption.

“In the consumer society, consumption is the norm.”

– It's a matter of price, supply, infrastructure and technology, and not least sociocultural aspects such as fashion, norms, identity, and status. Commercials and social media are important influencers, says Christian Fuentes.

– Ponder all the famous stars in add-campaigns, the tendency to replace your phone or car every other year, or the frequent holiday trips abroad, and so on. In the consumer society consumption is the norm, says Niklas Sörum.

– There are so many factors in play that simple solutions, for example information campaigns, will not be enough, says Ulrika Holmberg.

How do consumption patterns change?

In their research projects, they have examined different aspects of the complexity of consumption. One example is plastic, an issue that has come to the fore of public debate recently partly through initiatives that urge consumers to bring their own bag to the store. Consequently, a lot of focus is directed to plastic bags.

– On the one hand, this can be seen as a good example of how it is possible to change consumer behavior. On the other hand, the environmental impact of plastic bags is minuscule compared to much else such as plastic packaging, flying, and eating meat, says Christian Fuentes.

The example of the plastic bag-initiative also puts focus on the issue of the division of responsibility between the individual, the society and the companies.

– A moralizing paradigm has arisen where it is the individual, through her choice and actions, who is responsible and should solve the environmental challenges through consumption of sustainable products, says Niklas Sörum.

It is often hard, says Ulrika Holmberg, to put the responsibility on the individual. Society must instead do its part and make it easy to act sustainable, not least when it comes to infrastructure. Here sustainable travel must be made attractive not only by being a good climate-wise choice but also by being comfortable, safe and affordable.

– We must take the consumer perspective seriously and facilitate sustainable consumer practices that fit with our everyday lives. We must use different means – such as information, materiality and changing norms – simultaneously in order to change practices and make them more sustainable, says Christian Fuentes.

He mentions practical solutions such as so-called green apps or an increasing number of vegetarian restaurants as examples of how to make it easier for consumers to act more sustainable.

– It’s best to build on practices that are already sustainable or those that are easily changeable and support those, says Ulrika Holmberg.

She also points out that it is not people that live under poor circumstances that is the problem, but rather people who consume heavily.

How can the research on consumption specifically contribute to sustainability?

– Research can create knowledge around existing initiatives such as alternative food markets or sharing economies, and how they successfully can be established, but research should also scrutinize them, says Niklas Sörum.

One example is the market for second-hand items. This is a way to prolong the lifespan of clothes and other items. But consumption of second-hand items does not automatically mean less consumption.

– Maybe you buy a jacket second hand, but then buy a new sweater that goes with it. When a second-hand store urges us to clean out our closets, a feeling to restock our empty shelves may follow, says Christian Fuentes.

– Also, the market for second-hand goods maintains the first-hand market, for example by providing a place to sell newly bought items. I might buy something new on sale, thinking that I can always sell it on the second-hand market if I turn out not wanting it. Research has shown that big sales in home electronics cause spikes in the second-hand market, says Ulrika Holmberg.

Since we have a growth-based economy it means that sustainable solutions are often adopted by actors that not only wishes to realize them, but also to maintain consumption and the current economic system. In his research, Christian Fuentes has studied how the market has used the vegetarian trend.

– It started as a critique of meat eating. Then companies came along and used these arguments to create markets for their products. Market forces have reinforced the vegetarian trend. There are more vegetarian options and it's increasingly easy to be a vegetarian. But this does not mean that consumption has decreased, says Christian Fuentes.

A similar case is the recycling business that has emerged to take care of items that have been thrown away. The business is not interested in having less waste.

– By and large, it is a big problem that no one wants to talk about decreased consumption and I also think it would be hard to get funding for a research project that aimed at that, says Christian Fuentes.

Contemporary Tendencies

But there are examples of trends that work towards an overall decreased consumption.

One solution that is mentioned is to increase the share of services consumed in relation to the consumption of goods. What can you say about that?

– There is a lot to that, but you can't say that consumption of services, in general, is better than the consumption of goods. It all depends. Consumption of a cultural experience in the city where you live is sustainable, but not the ones you have on your vacation in Thailand. To borrow a car is better than to own one, but not better than to own a bike, says Christian Fuentes.

“It’s not just about finding sustainable travel options to Costa Rica, It’s about not going further than Europe.”

– The most important thing is to look at the big picture. Does the consumption save energy, transports, waste and maybe even money – not unimportant for a consumer, says Niklas Sörum.

In an ongoing project on the digitalization of ethical consumption, Niklas Sörum has seen a critique of consumption society where reduced levels of consumption are central aspects. Christian Fuentes has also come across such ideas in a study of "slow travelling".

– It’s not just about finding sustainable travel options to Costa Rica, it’s about not going further than Europe. To limit one’s own consumption is part of the strategy. But these practices are still rare, almost experimental, says Fuentes.

The researchers list a few interesting tendencies on the topic of sustainable consumption:

  • Sharing economy, collective ownership instead of individual ownership
  • An increasing interest in different forms of self-subsistence
  • Digital solutions that facilitate second-hand purchases and sharing
  • Increased awareness of issues of sustainability in today’s youth
  • Meat consumption is no longer increasing and vegetarian diets are now mainstream
  • The research in sustainability is growing and is gaining influence in society
  • Policies tend to be more well-grounded

Further reading

Egels-Zandén, Niklas & Hansson, Niklas (2015). Supply chain transparency as a consumer or corporate tool: The case of Nudie Jeans Co. Journal of Consumer Policy

Fuentes, C (2014) ”Managing Green Complexities: Consumers’ strategies and techniques for greener shopping”, International Journal of Consumer Studies, (38)5, 485-492

Fuentes, C. (2016) Play a Game, Save the Planet: Gamification as a way to promote green consumption. In Dymek, M & Zackariasson, P (Eds.) The Business of Gamification: A Critical Analysis. Routledge: New York and London (p 144-160)

Fuentes, C & Fuentes, M (2017) ”Making a Market for Alternatives: Marketing Devices and the Qualification of a Vegan Milk Substitute”, Journal of Marketing Management, (33), 7-8, 529-555

Hagberg, Johan & Ulrika Holmberg (2017), Travel modes in grocery shopping, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol 45:9, 991 - 1010

Holmberg, Ulrika, Maria José Zapata Campos & Helena Åberg (2016), Hide and seek – What enables and hinders households’ battery recycling? [CFK-rapport 2016:4] Göteborg, Centrum för konsumtionsvetenskap.

Holmberg, Ulrika & Niklas Hansson (2011), ”Skilled, Sensitive, and Sustainable – The Swedish Case”. In Pierre, Fabienne (eds.) Global Survey on Sustainable Lifestyles, United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).

Sörum, N; Fuentes, C (2017) "Write something". Shaping of ethical consumption on Facebook. i Cochoy, F., Hagberg, J., McIntyre-Petersson, M., & Sörum, N. (2017) Digitalizing Consumption: How devices shape consumer culture. Routledge

Sörum N & Fuentes, C (2016) ”Materialiserad moral: Smartphone, applikationer och etisk konsumtion” Kulturella perspektiv, (25)2, 6-15