The New Economics of sustainable consumption

The New Economics has emerged as an eclectic body of thought, incorporating insights from ecological, humanistic, institutional and behavioural economics to explain why modern developed economies are unsustainable, and to develop new ideas about how they may adopt more sustainable trajectories. Its four central themes - redefining wealth and progress, a broader conception of work, new uses of money and reintegrating ethics into economic life - comprise a new paradigm of socio-economic thought which foregrounds environmental sustainability and social equity (Boyle, 1993). Applying New Economics theories to the subject of sustainable consumption reveals much about the motivational forces driving current consumption patterns, and the scope for behaviour change as well as the imperative of wider transformations in social infrastructure. Max-Neef's theory of needs illustrates how consumption is directed towards the satisfaction of material and non-material needs, and importantly, how it is often mid-directed, failing to satisfy or triggering further social-psychological needs. Jackson (2004b) terms this process 'pathological consumerism', referring to a seemingly limitless desire to consume ever more goods and services. To the extent that mainstream sustainable consumption efforts are directed towards winning the consumer vote for greener purchases, they simply feed into this process; the New Economics offers instead a more radical analysis and proposes that sustainable consumption requires the development of five interlinked processes. These are: localisation, reducing ecological footprints, communitybuilding, collective action, and building new social infrastructure or systems of provision. Tying these together is a new environmental ethic, Ecological Citizenship, which calls on citizens to take personal responsibility for the social and environmental impacts of their actions, but simultaneously to engage politically to transform wider societal conditions and institutions (Dobson, 2003). In many ways it overcomes the weaknesses of individualistic, mainstream approaches to sustainable consumption: Hassanein (2003) discusses the tension between individual quotidian political acts with regards to food consumption within the current systems of provision (reforms), and the large-scale collaborative action required to transform or recreate those systems (radical transformation). She concludes that a pragmatic democracy is needed to unite diverse actors and build coalitions among alternative food movements. Here, we can see that ecological citizenship bridges the divide between individual and collective action. It motivates private consumption choices, but at the same time speaks to a need for collective action to build new social infrastructure.

This theory of behaviour change founded on values is at the heart of the New Economics approach to sustainable consumption. It rejects mainstream market-based models of behaviour change, for focusing on materialistic incentives as goals, and for producing outcomes which are easily reversible when conditions change. Instead, it takes an approach modeled on political strategy rather than marketing, and frames behaviour in terms of collective activities and collaboration, rather than individualistic actions. This taps into people's enhanced sense of agency and environmental responsibility when motivated by intrinsic goals (fulfillment, community or intimacy) rather than extrinsic objectives (saving money, status display, self-image) (Crompton, 2008). Ecological citizenship fulfils this need, but requires spaces of practical expression for it to be realised, nurtured, spread, strengthened, and most importantly institutionalised and embedded within daily life. Though small in scale at present, initiatives which allow people to practise ecological citizenship values are important carriers of vision. The grassroots innovations presented in this book all offer that potential, allowing people the opportunity to co-create new social institutions based on their values, and framed in opposition to the unsustainable mainstream. For many participants, this largely symbolic outcome is the most significant and meaningful. With reference to comparable grassroots movements in the USA, Princen (2002: 41) remarks:

From a production angle, the simple living, home power and local currencies movements are trivial instances of protest; they are of little political or economic consequence. From a consumption angle, however, they are concrete expressions of concern and resistance...[and] widespread discontent with consumerist society.

The presence of common values is important for grassroots innovations, not only in terms of uniting groups of people around particular objectives and practices, but also as a motivational factor behind the establishment of the niche activity in the first place (Lovell, 2004). Indeed, many green niches do not develop with diffusion in mind, but rather as spaces in and of themselves. These 'simple' niches are nevertheless vitally important as generators of ecological citizenship values and practices. Small-scale experimental activities are valuable demonstrations of alternative ways of working and living, and can inspire others to take action: 'their significance extends beyond their local contexts as they can provide glimpses of possible futures' (Georg, 1999: 465) and we can conceive of these activities as generators of ecological citizenship, as well as spaces for its expression.

The New Economics approach to sustainable consumption works with social institutions and contexts, recognising socio-psychological needs as consumption drivers, as well as questions of socio-technical infrastructure and systems of provision which effectively lock-in consumers to particular consumption practices, rendering them routine and habitual, and outside the scope of conscious consumer choice. This inconspicuous consumption - for example mains water provision, the electricity grid, private modes of transport - has implications for sustainability which are immune to exhortations for piecemeal, incremental change: they require system-wide transformation. The innovation and 'transitions' literature offers a useful perspective on this process, by modelling how processes of change (and agency) occur within this constrained landscape. It describes processes of transformation in societal regimes (institutions and infrastructure), and explores how transitions can be effected from current unsustainable practices, to more sustainable systems. One source of these transitions is innovative niches where change is seeded, incubating new techniques and social arrangements in order that they diffuse into wider society, and ultimately trigger wider societal regime change. Whereas this literature normally deals with technological innovation in the market economy, here the theories were applied to grassroots initiatives for sustainable consumption operating in the social economy. The case was made that community-based activities are a neglected source of innovation for sustainable development, and a conceptual bridge was made between two previously separate strands of theory and policy: technological innovation and community action (Seyfang and Smith, 2007). This theoretical approach was empirically tested through the critical examination of a range of case studies of grassroots innovations for sustainable consumption. The community-based initiatives in food, housing and complementary currencies were found to be generally effective at delivering sustainable consumption according to the New Economics criteria. Furthermore they appeared to satisfy multiple needs simultaneously (for example material food provisioning, belonging to a community, expressing beliefs and parti cipation), offering lower-consumption routes to wellbeing. However, they all face barriers in diffusing their innovative potential to transform wider regimes. Green niche practices of this type are apparently successful at creating alternative infrastructures and systems of provision on a small scale, but struggle to translate these innovations into changes in mainstream systems.

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