Sustainable consumption shopping to save the planet

The term 'sustainable consumption' entered the international policy arena in Agenda 21, the action plan for sustainable development adopted by 179 heads of state at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. This was the first time in international environmental discourse that over-consumption in the developed world was implicated as a direct cause of unsustainability. The proposed solutions included promoting eco-efficiency and using market instruments for shifting consumption patterns, but it was also recommended that governments should develop 'new concepts of wealth and prosperity which allow higher standards of living through changed lifestyles and are less dependent on the Earth's finite resources and more in harmony with the Earth's carrying capacity' (UNCED, 1992: section 4.11). These two proposals - the former suggesting reform and the latter a radical realignment of social and economic institutions - represent competing perspectives of the nature of the problem and its solution, and illustrate some of the tensions inherent in a pluralistic concept like sustainable consumption. For present purposes, this article will refer to them as 'mainstream' and 'alternative' perspectives on sustainable consumption - see also Jackson and Michaelis (2003), Jackson (2004b) and Seyfang (2004a) for other reviews of sustainable consumption discourses.

Each approach holds promise as a tool for ecological citizenship, for enabling individuals to make political decisions with their consumption behaviour to reduce their ecological footprints and unsustainable impacts of their behaviour. This section of the study will discuss the mainstream policy approach to sustainable consumption as embodied in UK strategy, and critically assess its potential as a tool for ecological citizenship.

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