David Allaway talks about the myths that keep governments from acting on sustainable consumption, How Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) came to sustainable consumption, and what they've learned along the way. 

Misconception: Sustainable consumption is simply about ‘greening’ products.

Concern/myth: "Sustainable consumption is greening products."

Sustainable consumption is much broader than simply purchasing green products. Studies have shown how our consumption patterns are shaped by a range of factors including by our habits, external context and infrastructure, and lifestyle choices.

It is also not enough to simply make products more ‘green’ and efficient. Improvements in resource productivity have been historically offset by increases in demand or by a growth in the total number of products. People can react to cost savings by using a product more, in what has been termed a ‘rebound effect’ (see, for example, this study of sustainable lifestyles). 

An approach entirely focused on purchasing can also miss many opportunities. It is too late to ask a person who is shopping for a green product if they can instead fix the item they are trying to replace, re-purpose something that could act in the place of a new product, and purchase second-hand / reused goods, or borrow / rent / share the item.

Misconception: Changing individual behavior solves the challenge.

Concern/myth: "Consumers are driving demand."

Consumers carry out the actual purchasing, use and disposal of products; however, influential decisions on the product itself are made at earlier stages. Sustainable consumption expands local government actions to accelerate solutions across the production and consumption system, including investment decisions, design of the product, choice of material used, the size/quantity of each unit, design of production process, product packaging, etc. It also extends the reach from individuals to include institutional consumers.

For example, the mortgage industry, housing developers and realtors build, market and sell large houses on large lots because they are more profitable; they favor this kind of housing inventory. This inventory guides choice and leads many homeowners to purchase energy-demanding houses in distant suburbs, with long commutes and few services. This is an example of supply driving the demand.

Both consumer demand and the supply side of consumption need to be addressed. Consumer activism, buycotts and boycotts still have a place; however, local governments can play a leadership role in shaping the conditions within which consumers can choose. For example, there isn’t necessarily a demand for new public transportation but consumers show up when it’s provided. Focusing only on demand would miss this.

Concern/myth: "Consumers are going to make the right choice with the right information."

Studies show consistently that providing people with information has little effect on their behaviors, actions and practices in everyday life. A “knowledge-action gap” is widely observed in societies where a majority of the citizens are aware of the consequences of their decisions, but still act to the contrary. Behavior is shaped by a range of factors including ideologies, social norms, lock-in to past decisions, mistrust, and their perception of whether actions make a difference. Significantly, marketing and advertising play a key role in driving consumer demand and emotionally manipulating people towards unsustainable consumerism (See this report).

Concern/myth: "We can depend on consumers taking small actions that lead to big changes."

Big changes in consumption patterns do not come from individual consumers alone – they come from actions by a range of actors including governments, communities, and the private sector. Sustainable consumption requires that global economies and inequities that drive unsustainable consumption must be addressed. Policy, infrastructure and program design are all necessary to meet the scale of the problems we face. Furthermore, an economy that prioritizes the growth in production sometimes also results in laws (or the lack of them) that prohibit or de-incentivize the environmental actions we are promoting.

It’s also important to note that the same individuals prompted to make small changes in their lives in one area (e.g. buying green products) don’t necessarily act sustainably in all areas (e.g. recycling, energy efficiency). There is evidence that past environmental behaviors by individuals do not always lead to more significant changes in individual behavior unless individuals are specially asked to undertake larger actions. Otherwise, individuals can feel like they’ve ‘done their bit’ and avoid more costly and difficult behavior change. See this WWF study for more. The solutions lie in shaping the context within which individuals make their choices.

There is still a role for individual behavior change. Once the built environment is in place, sustainable actions by individuals are an essential part of its maintenance. Research shows that energy efficient buildings are only maximally efficient when the occupants learn to turn off lights, purchase efficient appliances and understand how to maintain the building. Cities have built compost facilities, created collection systems and then only get about 10-20% of the food recovered because people did not make the requisite behavior change.

Misconception: Sustainable consumption is anti-development

Concern/myth: "Sustainable consumption does not support economic development."

Sustainable consumption supports a broader view of economic development, focusing on how it delivers not just jobs and income but also quality of life and wellbeing. See the USDN Sustainable Economic Development toolkit for more detail.

Consumers, including local government purchasing departments, have an important role in sustainable economic development.  By consuming in ways that are sustainable, purchasers send clear demand messages influencing producers, suppliers and policy-makers. Sustainable consumption studies by the World Economic Forum and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development note how sustainable consumption stimulates businesses to become innovative and competitive.

Sustainable consumption highlights the ‘quality’ of economic development rather than the ‘quantity’ of resource and energy use – ‘better’ rather than ‘more’. In other words, a sustainable consumption lens emphasizes the ‘value delivered’ rather than ‘the amount of stuff’ or the material components of the goods we consume. New business models are emerging such as ‘product-service systems’ that enable consumers access to goods rather than owning them. Examples abound in the sharing economy such as car sharing, office space sharing, and tool sharing. By supporting this new direction for business and community enterprises, local governments reduce resource volumes while maintaining value for citizens.

Concern/myth: “Sustainable consumption is anti-growth and ‘Gross Domestic Product per capita’ is an effective measure of welfare and development.”

Economic growth is not consistently delivering wellbeing and happiness, and, in recent years, has served to primarily benefit top earners (see evidence in US and Canada), yet that is what we measure. The Genuine Progress Indicator and other social and ecological indicators are being proposed as superior to per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in measuring general well-being. This fits with a sustainable consumption approach - instead of focusing exclusively on the monetary value of goods produced and consumed, other environmental and social costs and benefits are included (e.g, resource depletion, pollution, health, life satisfaction).

The New Economics Foundation Happy Planet Index is another useful metric. It measures life expectation and satisfaction and highlights that progress toward wellbeing is not just about resource-intensive economic growth. Progress is also about delivering long, happy, sustainable lives and wellbeing within the Earth’s life support systems. This means satisfying basic needs—food, shelter, mobility, security, education, and health—while also ensuring true personal and community development. There are real biophysical limits to growth and we must advance human prosperity within these limits.

Concern/myth: "Sustainable consumption means less jobs."

Sustainable consumption practices can open up new areas of increased employment such as in the reuse and remanufacturing sectors as well as in the production of high-quality tailored goods. As the World Business Council on Sustainable Development report outlines, there are great payoffs and job creation potential in advancing sustainable consumption especially in redesigning our economy to be less wasteful and circular including in green buildings, food, and transportation and in education. The International Energy Association predicts clean energy investments will be 57% of total energy investments by 2030 leading to many clean tech jobs.

As in other historical economic transitions, certain jobs and businesses will decline while others grow. It’s important to note that responses to changes in consumption are only part of the story. Labour markets are shifting for a broader set of reasons including changes in information and robotics technology, reduced job security and increases in intermittent and flex-work, shifting motivations of employees and needed skills, and the globalization of the labour supply.

Misconception: Sustainable consumption is about lowering standards of living and quality of life

Concern/myth: "Sustainable consumption contradicts poverty strategies and the capacity of developing countries to meet primary needs."

Citizens and communities differ greatly in terms of their consumption levels by geography, income and demographics. In this toolkit, sustainable consumption includes ‘sufficient consuming’ as part of the definition to highlight the right for everyone to have access to resources to meet basic needs. A local government’s sustainable consumption initiatives can address both sides of this equity gap: those that need to increase their consumption and those that are engaging in wasteful consumption. Different solutions are needed for different demographics in order to encourage more sustainable patterns of consumption – including increasing consumption as necessary. There is also a need to look at each city and citizen’s “fair earth share” of resources, where total consumption locally must recognize global environmental limits and contribute to absolute reductions.

Concern/myth: "Sustainable consumption contradicts poverty elimination strategies."

Sustainable consumption is about reducing the extremes of both poverty and wealth and ensuring an equitable distribution of resources. This does not require continuous economic growth because there is evidence that over a certain level of consumption, there isn’t a correlation between per capita GDP and life satisfaction. Local governments can encourage inclusive economic development by focusing on social and ecological wellbeing, and moving away from incentives toward over-consumerism including providing schemes for consumer credit and indebtedness or providing subsidies for development, such as inappropriate expansion in shopping malls, that comes at the expense of communities. See this UNEP report for more.

Misconception: Sustainable consumption is not an area for government

Concern/myth: "Local governments should not be advocating for any behavior change or play a role in shaping the market."

Rather than encouraging ‘hands-off’ government, local governments can celebrate the active role municipalities can play in supporting consumers. Local governments support consumer protection, enable access to sustainable choices, develop systems of incentives and rules that favor sustainable behavior, and engage in ‘choice editing’ to remove harmful options. Local governments also exemplify and encourage sustainable consumption through their own internal purchasing choices.

Governments at all levels already involved in activities that shape consumer choices; in fact, part of the role of government is to support consumption options for the public interest including regulating food and health and safety. Since much of our consumption is related to land development policies, mobility options and built infrastructure, local governments have opportunities to affect those levers. Furthermore, efforts to affect people’s choices in everyday lives are best when supported at the local level where citizens have more connection to policy making and implementation. There are a growing number of local governments taking bold steps in launching sustainable consumption initiatives; some are profiled in this toolkit.

Misconception: Sustainable consumption is nothing new: it's the circular economy, it's waste prevention

Concern/myth: "Sustainable consumption is the same as the Circular Economy."

There are critical elements missing from the Circular Economy discussion that sustainable consumption raises. To date, the Circular Economy discussion focuses primarily on resource productivity, quality improvements, efficiency gains, capturing material value, reuse and recycling, rather than on reducing absolute levels of global production and on transforming consumer behavior. In Circular Economy discussions, there are some references to consumer behaviour and the growing trend to prefer ‘access’ over ‘ownership’ of goods; however, Circular Economy analyses and initiatives currently place their emphasis on changing industry and business to support the recovery of goods and their value. There is limited exploration of changing the continuous growth economic paradigm or unsustainable consumer culture.

Sustainable consumption and circular economy concepts do share an interest in moving from a ‘take-make-waste’ model of consumption to one that is circular by design. Both provide a lens on the wastefulness of the existing economic approach and the opportunities for reuse, regeneration and innovation in adopting a circular model. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a key actor in the Circular Economy dialogue and has explored the relationship between the Circular Economy and fast-moving consumer goods in this report.

Concern/myth: "Sustainable consumption is the same as Waste Prevention."

Waste prevention is an aligned concept to sustainable consumption because it asks us to consider which goods and waste can be prevented or avoided in the first place. However, the focus on waste creates several problems. First, it elevates solid waste reduction and even reduction in material throughput to become the ultimate goal. In some cases, using more material (e.g., double-wall framing of exterior walls) can be environmentally preferable when viewed from the big picture. Second, even the phrase “waste” seems to create or cement confusion.

When the challenge is defined as a problem of “waste” then recycling or even waste incineration can be viewed as equally effective or important and opportunities are missed. Sustainable consumption shifts the lens to ask which products and services should be created in the first place and how we can produce and develop these with less materials intensity, and considers multiple environmental impacts across the entire life cycle of those materials. This white paper from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality provides a fuller discussion.

These typical myths and concerns with possible responses were developed by One Earth for this project.