Sustainable consumption a new green agenda

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 solu tion, and illustrate some of the tensions inherent in a pluralistic concept like sustainable consumption. Here we will refer to them as 'mainstream' and 'New Economics' perspectives on sustainable consumption (see also Jackson and Michaelis (2003), Jackson (2004b) and Seyfang (2004a) for other reviews of sustainable consumption discourses).

From its auspicious beginnings at Rio, the sustainable consumption agenda has evolved through a range of international policy arenas (see for example OECD, 2002a), and become more widely accepted as a policy goal. The more challenging aspects of its original conception 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. So the policy 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. As Maniates notes, "'Living lightly on the planet" and "reducing your environmental impact" becomes, paradoxically, a consumer-product growth industry' (2002: 47).

There is widespread agreement that the affluent lifestyles of the developed countries must shift towards more sustainable forms of consumption - although there is not necessarily any consensus about what that might be. Despite a growing consensus at policy level, there is still fierce debate about what precisely sustainable consumption means, among civil society actors and grassroots organisations. A range of different scenarios exist, from exhortations to generate 'cleaner' economic growth, through to the actions of anti-capitalist low-consumption lifestyle activists. In any given sector, wildly different prescriptions for sustainable consumption abound. In housing, for example, sustainable housing might be equally conceived of as high-technology eco-efficient modernity, or alternatively low-impact self-build straw-bale houses that recall a simpler, more self-reliant age (Guy, 1997). Each represents a different idea of what sustainable consumption entails and should achieve, along with equally different prescriptions about what a sustainable society would look like.

In order to comprehend and unravel these contradictions, we need to find a way through the policy debates and conflicting models of sustainable consumption, to find a way of producing simple, coherent and above all, relevant strategies for sustainable consumption. There are a number of important questions to be asked: What drives current consumption patterns? Is it individual tastes and preferences, social institutions and norms, or processes of cultural identification? What links environmental concern with action? How do price and principle compete for consumers' attention when they make shopping decisions? And how can a more radical vision 'New Economics' of sustainable consumption be practised within a mainstream policy landscape?

This book aims to answer these questions by presenting a new synthesis of theory and fresh empirical work which examines sustainable consumption in action. To begin, this introductory chapter briefly sets out the problem and scale of unsustainable consumption, and then reviews current thinking on consumption drivers and the motivating forces which influence consumption decisions. Then two competing models of sustainable consumption are described: a mainstream approach and an alternative, New Economics model, in order to establish the primary theoretical framework for the remainder of the book.

Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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