Analysis: sustainable consumption is not just about consuming less, but consuming differently

The consumption of goods and services bring enormous social and economic benefits, but growing demand also places extreme pressure on natural resources and the environment. Half of all fossil fuels ever used by humans were used in the last 40 years, and primary material extraction has increased fivefold since 1970, displacing thousands of wildlife species and leading to a sixth mass extinction. Shifting patterns of consumption toward more sustainable choices is an important but often underappreciated dimension in addressing key societal problems such as climate change, deforestation, marine pollution and biodiversity loss.

What is sustainable consumption and how do we best encourage a shift toward it? While we undoubtably need to curb our addiction to fossil fuels, fast food and fast fashion, for example, sustainable consumption is not just about consuming less. In fact, many people do not consume enough and need to increase their use of resources just to satisfy their basic needs. For instance, one in eight people globally do not have access to mains electricity, and thousands of people in Ireland cannot afford to adequately feed themselves or heat their homes. Sustainable consumption is also about consuming differently; supporting local producers, buying more durable products, choosing low-carbon heating and transport options and foregoing superfluous wants are just some examples.

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Traditional approaches to influence consumption patterns are based on cognitive models such as rational choice, or information deficit models. These approaches consider humans as rational beings, who make choices based on a careful weighting of the costs and benefits involved, which is supported by the information and knowledge they possess. The aim is to provide more and better information, so that people will become more aware of the implications of their consumption patterns, which in turn encourages them to make the 'right' choices, leading to behaviour change. For example, we could reduce binge-drinking through alcohol awareness campaigns or reduce levels of obesity with detailed food labelling.

However, there is increasing recognition that empowerment through information has little long-term impact on consumption choices. In fact, we now have at least 40 years of evidence that consumer behaviour is far from rational, and information-provision on its own is an ineffective behaviour change tool.

Consumption patterns are influenced by myriad individual, social and material influences including people’s preferences, emotions, habits, relationships, social norms, institutions and infrastructures. Evidence from psychology shows that people’s routine choices are more likely to be based on ‘quick’ thinking, rather than higher-order processing of information. This implies that by tailoring the decision-making environment people can be directed to act in accordance with desired behaviours.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Philip Boucher-Hayes reports on the work of behavioural economist and 2017 Noble Prize winner Richard Thaler

This viewpoint has steadily gained traction in recent years, and behavioural economics now dominates many behaviour change programs. For example, we use posters or arrows to direct people to use the stairs instead of the elevator, smiley faces or traffic light labels indicate ‘better’ choices, healthy foods are placed in more prominent positions in the canteen, hotel guests are informed that reusing towels is the norm etc. A key commonality in all of these examples is that they don’t restrict choices or alter the cost of different options, but rather nudge individuals to make the ‘right’ choice.

Critics argue that such individualistic approaches largely neglect the institutional and organisational context as well as the social and cultural factors that shape and underpin behaviour, thereby limiting their transformative capacity. In other words, our behaviours, and the environments in which they take place, are more complex than we appreciate. Moreover, these approaches target individuals with a responsibility to make sustainable choices, target isolated behaviours, and operate within existing systems of production and consumption. They do not question fundamental needs or challenge social norms, for example towards bigger cars, bigger homes or more appliances.

Acknowledging the limitations of behavioural economics, social practice theory has recently emerged as an alternative approach for sustainable consumption. Social practice theory shifts the focus from individual isolated behaviours to target the social organisation of society by investigating the competencies, meanings and materials involved in everyday activities such as cooking, cleaning, heating etc.

We should remember that humans are a complex species, climate change is a complex problem and complex problems require complex solutions

From this perspective, consumption arises as a result of engaging in everyday practices such as lighting, mobility and eating, and these activities, rather than the individuals that perform them, become the focus of analysis. This systemic approach questions existing lifestyles and ways of living and tries to understand how and why practices are played out in different contexts. It examines the social and cultural conventions that underpin different practices and the material configurations needed to support them. In this way, people are encouraged to reflect on their consumption habits, material expectations and resource use.

For example, driving might be associated with freedom, or convenience, or a car might reflect a certain status. Alternatively, cars might be viewed as dangerous, polluting and increasingly oversized. People also require certain skills and competencies to be able to drive, such as knowing the rules of the road and knowing when and how to put fuel in a car. Driving also requires considerable material use, from cars to fuel and roads to parking spaces.

Simultaneously targeting these different elements can result in more sustainable driving practices. For example, we can promote a shift toward electric vehicles by associating positive meanings with electric cars, thereby overcoming barriers such as range anxiety. People can be trained with the skills needed to drive an electric vehicle, and we can address material constraints by introducing subsidies and providing enough charging points.

Similarly, we could encourage a shift from driving to cycling by promoting cycling as a safe, healthy and desirable way to travel (meanings), equipping people with the skills needed to cycle safely (competencies), and providing the associated material conditions such as dedicated cycle lanes, secure bike parking, weatherproof clothing, etc. (materials). By understanding the dynamics of consumption, we can also identify opportunities for initiating societal-level change. While all of this might sound complicated, we should remember that humans are a complex species, climate change is a complex problem and complex problems require complex solutions.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ