The Sustainable Consumption Concept

Beyond Recycling

Sustainable consumption is all about the choices made in the marketplace around production and consumption of goods long before they present a waste management problem. More »

Why efficiency is not enough

Advancing sustainable consumption will require a mix of approaches that address the “upstream” impacts of production as well as the choices made by consumers. “Greening” products by achieving more efficient use of energy and material inputs is important but evidence suggests that greater efficiency alone will not be sufficient to significantly lessen the resource impacts of our collective consumption. More »

Sustainable consumption calls for:

  1. Absolute reductions in the material goods and energy we consume;
  2. A shift in values away from material wealth and consumerism toward new measures of progress and well-being;  
  3. Technological innovation and efficiency gains that help us to refine the production process, creating less impact on the planet;
  4. Recognition that consumption will need to increase for those individuals and communities whose needs are not being met, and
  5. A transformation of our economy from one defined by continuous growth to one that functions within the very real limits of a finite planet.

Fundamentally, this is about consuming differently and that suggests changing the ways goods and services are provided to meet our individual and collective needs. Instead of the current proliferation of products that quickly become obsolete, new business models can provide equivalent services or access to goods. Where new products add value, they can be designed for greater durability, longevity and repairability and produced with less waste and toxic materials.

It’s also about challenging the consumption imperative that drives our social and economic systems. We can support new ways for families to meet their needs and reduce some of the income pressures they may face. Providing access to shared goods and services, supporting new forms of ownership and exchange, and investing in public assets can be good for the environment and good for the family budget. It also helps to build social capital and generates some new and innovative business opportunities. It’s where we can begin to reframe and reclaim local economies.

Focus for this toolkit

Consumption can be categorized into several sectors, although some consumption habits will inevitably cut across several:

  • Housing/buildings (including building energy use)
  • Mobility (including transportation fuels)
  • Food and drink
  • Consumer goods
  • Services

Leverage points

Leverage points are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in the behavior of the system.

See: Donella Meadows - Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

This toolkit’s primary focus is on sustainable consumption of “materials” as it relates to housing, food, and consumer goods. We focus on these three strategic areas because they have not received a lot of attention from practitioners, yet they potentially have high leverage points.

We choose not to focus on the energy consumption in housing/buildings or mobility because many credible resources already exist for urban sustainability directors to reduce energy use and emissions intensities across these sectors. In fact, reducing consumption of household/building energy and transportation fuels has been a primary focus of urban sustainability programs for many years. Services are not a focus of this toolkit because the services sector has a relatively low intensity of materials and energy consumption per dollar spent.

Sustainable Consumption Concept Map

How do waste prevention and resource management relate to Sustainable Consumption? Explore the connections of these and other in this map of key Sustainable Consumption concepts.

Some of the practices and solutions in this concept map may be familiar, such as zero waste, cradle-to-cradle, circular economy, biomimicry, and voluntary simplicity. This map clarifies how these and other ideas fit with our definition of "Sustainable Consumption" as a system of four interconnected approaches: consuming more efficiently, consuming differently, sufficient consuming, moving beyond consuming or thriving. 

Shifting consumption practices

The field of sustainable consumption of materials is still evolving but the following practices are generally emphasized:

  • Reduction of the amount of materials and energy consumed: Smaller homes, more efficiently made products, absolute reductions in the amount of goods purchased, streamlining or eliminating product packaging, food waste prevention efforts
  • Reuse of products and materials: Reused building material stores, remanufacturing businesses, Craigslist, repurposing things you have to meet a new need
  • Repair and maintenance of products, to extend their useful life: Repair businesses, repair cafes/fixit clinics, DIY repair movement
  • Sharing of products, (and services), land, including borrowing and rental: Tool and other lending libraries, clothing swaps, food gleaning programs, community gardens
  • Use of durable, long-lasting, and upgradable products and materials: More durably made goods, goods that are repairable but do not require excessive washing, leasing vs. purchasing, extended product warranties
  • Use of lower-impact, equitably sourced products made using materials and resources that are rapidly renewable, able to be replenished, and less toxic: Institutional sustainable purchasing policies, consumer education programs