Mainstream policy frameworks for sustainable consumption

From its auspicious beginnings at Rio, the term 'sustainable consumption' evolved through a range of international policy arenas, and its definition narrowed as it became more widely accepted as a policy goal. The more challenging ideas became marginalised as governments instead focused on politically and socially acceptable, and economically rational, tools for changing consumption patterns such as cleaning up production processes and marketing green products. [...] The agenda has narrowed from initial possibilities of redefining prosperity and wealth and radically transforming lifestyles, to a focus on improving resource productivity and marketing 'green' or 'ethical' products such as fairly traded coffee, low-energy light bulbs, more fuel-efficient vehicles, biodegradable washing powder, and so forth. Hence sustainable consumption is implicitly defined as the consumption of more efficiently produced goods, and the 'green' and 'ethical' consumer is the driving force of market transformation, incorporating both social and environmental concerns when making purchasing decisions. This policy relies upon 'sustainable consumers' to demand sustainably produced goods and exercise consumer choice to send market signals, for example using consumer fora such as Green Choices (www.greenchoices.org), which promises 'a guide to greener living', Green Home (www.greenhome.com), an online store for environmentally friendly goods, and Ethical Consumer, the UK's alternative consumer organisation, which publishes investigations into firms' social and environmental records (www.ethicalconsumer.org). Ethical consumerism is a growing trend. The 2003 Ethical Purchasing Index reported that total sales of ethical products rose by 44% between 1999 and 2002 to £6.9bn, while the market share this represented grew by 30%. Boycotting and ethical non-consumerism was a major force among consumers too: 52% of consumers reported boycotting a product during the previous year, and two-thirds said they would refuse to buy a firm's products if it was ^ associated with unethical practices (Demetriou, 2003) [...]

Market failures Given that mainstream sustainable consumption is a a market-based tool for change, the effectiveness of this mechanism is the g first thing to examine, and there are failures of pricing, measurement ■¡H and information to consider. The present economic system externalises -g the environmental and social costs of economic activity, and so sends S producers and consumers the wrong signals. For example, fuel prices £ do not account for the costs of climate change, and aviation fuel is "5 subsidised further as it is not taxed. This unwitting subsidy that the 'iñ environment makes to the economy ensures that particular activities, 15 such as transporting food around the world by air freight, or maintaining m a transport infrastructure geared for private motor cars, appear economically rational (Pretty, 2001). The UK strategy for sustainable consumption and production recognises this problem and indicates some areas where full-cost pricing is being introduced, for example through the landfill tax or climate change levy on energy (DEFRA, 2003). [...] Second, it is a truism that what gets measured, counts, and the key indicator of wealth (and proxy of well-being) is gross domestic product (GDP) which makes no distinction between those activities which enhance quality of life, and those which do not (expenditure on pollution clean-up technology, for instance). [...] Third, ecological citizens seeking to make their preferences known in the marketplace face several information barriers, for example a lack of information about environmental and social implications of consumption decisions, or issues of credibility and consistency of marketing information relating to sustainable products. Some of these are the targets of government action to improve market efficiency, such as public awareness campaigns and independent labelling schemes which seek to overcome these obstacles (Holdsworth, 2003).

Failing to make an impact A second set of problems which reduce the effectiveness of the mainstream sustainable consumption policy model as a tool for ecological citizenship is that even assuming an efficient market mechanism, the desired transformations can be elusive. The vulnerability of voluntary changes is a key problem. In the case of both green and ethical consumption, most corporations only responded to public pressure when their reputations or sales were at stake, thanks to activist groups such as Corporate Watch and Ethical Consumer. While consumer demand may be the carrot, it is high-profile and potentially damaging media reports into the less palatable aspects of firms' activities which provide the very necessary stick to prompt changes in corporate behaviour (Pearson and Seyfang, 2001). Even these voluntary changes are vulnerable to erosion and shifting trends. In the UK, Littlewoods clothing stores were a major participant in the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), but a change of management led to their withdrawal from the ETI and their ethical trading team being closed down, as corporate responsibility was not seen as an important issue to consumers (ETI, 2003). Green consumerism was a trend during the early 1990s, but as a result of changes in consumer preference during the 1990s, sales of 'green' ranges of products fell and many supermarket own-brand ranges of 'green' cleaning products, for example, were discontinued (Childs and Whiting, 1998). These examples suggest that the social or environmental improvements made as a response to consumer pressure have been rescinded as attention shifted, rather than taken up as new minimum standards, and that 'left to their own devices, [transnational corporations] are likely to fulfil their responsibilities in a minimalist and fragmentary fashion . they still need strong and effective regulation and a coherent response from civil society' (UNRISD, 2000: 90).

A major criticism of the mainstream model of sustainable consumption through market transformation, from an ecological citizenship perspective, is that it is a citizenship of the market, and purchases are the only votes that count. Individuals may not be able to act on their ecological citizenship preferences for a variety of reasons, and therefore are unable to influence the market. These barriers include the afford-ability, availability and convenience of sustainable products, as well as feelings of powerlessness generated by the thought that individual action will not make any difference, disenchantment with corporate green marketing and preference for products that are not available, such as an efficient, clean and safe public transport system (Holdsworth, 2003; Bibbings, 2004). [...] Patterns of material consumption exercised through the marketplace embody multi-layered meanings above simple provisioning, for example aspirational consumption, retail therapy, self-expression, a need for belongingness, self-esteem, self-validation, a political statement, an ethical choice, status display, loyalty to social groups, identity, and so forth (Burgess et al., 2003; Jackson, 2004b). Accordingly, these motivations may be incompatible with ecological citizenship desires for sustainable consumption.

Ecological citizenship entails reducing one's unsustainable impacts upon the environment and other people, and may therefore require an absolute reduction in consumption to reduce the size of ecological footprints, and quite different social institutions to facilitate those choices. How does the mainstream sustainable consumption model meet this ^ need? One barrier to effectiveness is that 'institutional consumption' = decisions are made on a societal level, rather than by individuals, and y* only products and brands with which consumers are familiar are subject a to transformative consumer pressure. Institutional consumption, which g includes producer goods, public procurement (purchasing by the state for building and maintaining roads, hospitals, schools, the military, and so -g forth, accounts for half of all consumption throughout western Europe) S and most investment products, is extraneous to the hands of individual £ domestic consumers, according to Lodziak (2002). Levett et al. (2003) "5 argue that while the market defines an ever-expanding range of goods and 'm services to choose from, it cannot, by definition, offer choices external 15 to itself. For example, a person might choose one brand of washing-m machine over another because of its greater energy-efficiency, but what they cannot easily choose is to purchase collectively and share common laundry facilities among a local group of residents. Consumers are effectively locked in to particular consumption patterns by the overarching social structures of market, business, working patterns, urban planning and development (Sanne, 2002; Bibbings, 2004). Hence while ecological citizens struggle to use their limited influence to transform the market through mainstream channels, the constraining institutional factors which delimit the choices available are being reproduced societally, and the major consumption decisions are being made out of the public eye, away from market pressures.

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