What we’ve learned so far

Efficiency gains only get us so far—To be effective, we can do more than just “green” consumer products, we can also work toward real changes in consumer attitudes and behavior. Reducing the energy and material inputs in goods and services is important, but these efficiency gains can be outpaced by the sheer volume of what we consume (see Concept). We also need to address the context and conditions that guide our choices: habits, convenience, cost, well-being, social values, income, identity, etc.

Looking beyond energy use—Sustainability initiatives that address transportation and building energy use make an important contribution. After all, these have the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts per dollar of household spending. This Toolkit is designed to get you thinking about other equally important aspects of consumption: food, housing, and consumer goods.

Not just more information—Programs focused on education and outreach are limited in their effectiveness. Research shows us that access to more information doesn’t necessarily lead to changes in behavior. Behavior change initiatives are most effective when they combine education with other strategies (e.g. incentives, infrastructure and technology, social norms, etc.). To learn more, see the work on Community Based Social Marketing by Doug McKenzie Mohr.

The climate connection—We know that consumption is a big driver of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change. To get the “biggest bang for the buck” in reducing emissions from food, housing and consumer goods, consider these findings:

  • Highest overall emissions intensity (GHGs per dollar): most foods, including rice, meat, dairy products, fruit and vegetables; footwear; paper products; and pet food

  • Highest overall emissions: food (especially meat and dairy), housing (for construction materials, replacement materials, and energy use during occupancy), and clothing (not as much of a driver of GHG emissions as food, but still significant and also important for other environmental reasons).

Waste prevention vs. sustainable consumption—Waste prevention may be a good starting point - some local governments have strong “reduce, reuse, recycle” mandates and find prevention to be an easy doorway through which to enter the broader sustainable consumption space - but don’t let it become a dead end. Preventing or eliminating waste and discards is not the same thing as changing how, what or even why we consume. The “waste” framing is too often conflated with recycling and may limit your ability to focus efforts upstream in the consumption and production process. This white paper from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality provides a fuller discussion.