We value sustainability because future generations should have at least the same possibilities as people today. Similarly, all inequitable processes are unjust: people’s chances at better lives should not be constrained by factors outside their control.
— 2011 United Nations Human Development Programme Summary Report

Social Equity and Sustainable Consumption: Linkages and gaps

Are sustainable consumption and social equity compatible?  Each are complex issues, so we need to work carefully to ensure we’re advancing both as we seek to alter the impact of consumption. Is it fair to expect everyone to consume less, or differently? What is the cultural significance of consumption for different income and racial groups and how can we respect that in advancing change? How can sustainable consumption help  efforts to improve living conditions and eliminate poverty? These are just some of the critical questions that make equity such an important lens through which to view our efforts.

Equity from the Start

Inequity, once embedded in our institutions, is very difficult to correct. To avoid perpetuating it as we create  policies, programs, and other initiatives to advance sustainable consumption we need to take proactive steps to ensure access and opportunity for everyone. It is critical that new modes of consumption create equitable avenues for wealth building, both financial and social.This is an opportunity to work in tandem with groups that are disproportionately affected by the consequences of over-consumption, including low-income communities and communities of color.

Equity Analysis Tools

A good place to start is to assess the current equity conditions in your community. One of the most powerful steps that local governments can take to integrate equity into their sustainability initiatives is to simply start approaching equity in a structured way. The main goal is to become aware of the communities, power dynamics, histories, and complex relationships at play in your region, which offers practitioners and community members to co-create sustainability initiatives. Begin by conducting an equity analysis when considering a new policy or service. The links below provide examples of tested equity analysis tools. Using an equity analysis is just the first step in understanding the social impacts of new policies and programs, and it will likely lead to further questions that require gathering more comprehensive data.

A summary of good practices and recommendations for strengthening equity in sustainability programs can be found in USDN’s Equity in Sustainability: An Equity Scan of Local Government Sustainability Programs (September 2014). The document holds up the following tools and guides as models for practitioners wanting to conduct an equity analysis:

Useful Lessons

Avoiding simplistic solutions, misguided assumptions, and unintended consequences. Although formal research does not yet provide concrete answers on the intersections between social equity and sustainable consumption, several unintended consequences can arise from overlooking equity in sustainable consumption projects or from misunderstanding the intersections that are recognized, especially assumptions relating to financial status. Using an equity analysis based on the tools listed above may help you to bypass problematic policy and program decisions. Here are three common equity pitfalls and examples of how they play out:

  • Simplistic solutions for this very complex problem can make practitioners sound uninformed or out of touch. For instance, shortened work weeks, which had been touted as a consumption strategy with strong possibilities for increasing equity, make sense for some people but are less relevant to community members who are struggling to make ends meet while working more than full time. Solutions must be developed in a way that suit a community’s specific needs, with nuances that demonstrate sensitivity to and understanding of a broad range of financial and social realities.
  • Common assumptions based on intuition or partial knowledge can lead to misguided policies and programs that target the wrong behaviors, population sectors, or provide incomplete or ineffective solutions. One common assumption is that high consumption levels are primarily associated with upper middle class and wealthy members of society, leading to a potentially narrow focus on those economic classes in sustainable consumption initiatives. While over-consuming is strongly correlated with the upper middle class and the wealthy due to spending excess capital on large homes, cars, and travel, it cannot be assumed that the poor under-consume. Poor individuals and families may not have enough money for high-quality food, housing, schooling, and medicine. However, they may over-consume because they cannot afford to replace inefficient vehicles and appliances or to buy efficient, durable goods from the start. Similarly, housing options limited to the outskirts of cities can cause the poor to drive more and poorly maintained housing stock can lead to more consumption of fuel for heating and cooling.
  • Tensions may arise when practices touted as sustainable consumption result in unintended consequences that cause greater inequities. For example, one emerging and troublesome trend occurs when for-profit sharing or platform economy ventures ignore community values and/or workers’ needs. Recent examples of ride-sharing (e.g., Uber, Lyft) and “gig” work (e.g., TaskRabbit) ventures have been in the international spotlight due to workers’ “race to the bottom” for wages as workers called independent contractors compete with each other for ever-lowering pay rates. Likewise, other government-regulated businesses suffer as companies that require licensing pay for licenses and other fees while platform economy businesses do not. Another emerging example is the rise of short-term rentals, which may contribute to housing crises as long-term rentals disappear and neighborhood fabrics break down due a loss of long-term residents.