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Contributor Perspectives

Sustainable Consumption: The Push for Using Less

May 31, 2007 | 20:00 GMT
Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a two-part report on the emergence of sustainable consumption as a major policy debate and how it will affect consumers, businesses and policymakers. By Bart Mongoven With the world's major energy consumers seriously searching for ways to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and guarantee constant energy supplies, we are seeing the beginning of a revolution in energy production. The focus on finding new energy systems is mainly an outgrowth of economic and geopolitical concerns, in that none of the big three consumers — the United States, Europe and China — wants to continue to pay spiraling energy costs or be held hostage to foreign producers. A secondary aspect of this new interest is a search for "cleaner" alternatives. Both the United States and China, for example, have substantial coal resources, but neither sees complete reliance on coal as a panacea because of coal's impact on air pollution (especially in China) and climate change. Europe, meanwhile, is leading the charge on the climate change issue to the point that it appears willing to trade some energy security for new systems that seem less likely to exacerbate climate change. After decades of struggling to bring their concerns over the air-polluting and climate-changing side-effects of fossil fuel use to the forefront, environmental activists finally are getting results. Governments and industries that are developing new energy systems will factor in climate change and air quality. In essence, however, as these secondary energy-related issues move from the drawing board to the boardroom, control over them has shifted from the activists who created and promoted the issue to the business crowd that is charged with instituting solutions. This has left the idealists searching for new ways to hold power over the direction of energy policy. In response, the idealists appear to be taking on a new long-term challenge — one focused on changing how consumers, especially in the United States and Europe, view consumption. The sustainable consumption movement is focused not merely on energy conservation — though that certainly would be an important result — but rather on the development of a personal ethic that has subscribers using as little energy and as few products as possible to achieve their desired standard of living. At its core will be an emphasis on changing people's attitudes toward what has "value" and what does not, while convincing them to view technological developments in terms of whether they are safe in the long run. (Some argue, for example, that while the use of DDT 50 years ago solved the food-shortage problem, it replaced it with a litany of human health and ecological problems that continue to plague society). New Expressions of Value Adherents to the sustainable consumption ethic — those seeking to encourage cleaner or less environmentally intrusive sources of energy and other resources — are targeting a broad range of industries and processes, and an equally broad range of downstream users of energy, natural resources and consumer products (especially the end-user, the individual consumer). Insofar as sustainable consumption is an effort to mold the purchasing decisions of consumers, it is an attempt to change everyday values. It seeks to promote consciousness of the wider-ranging consequences — and particularly environmental consequences — of everyday decisions. Consumers who adopt this ethic, then, would think hard before deciding which appliances they buy, how they heat their homes and how they get to work. The ethic of sustainable consumption reduces the value of a good to a particular individual, and increases the value one places on that good's wider social implications. In addition to bringing new values to the fore in daily decision-making, sustainable consumption also entails altering the way one weighs those values. Sustainable consumption's most ardent adherents are not content to accept trade-offs: An object's value to one person can never trump its long-term effects on society or the environment. To an extent, then, sustainable consumption asks people to place the community ahead of the individual. New Views of Technology At the center of this movement is the argument that an increasing number of problems industrialized societies face are caused by the unintended consequences of solutions to the timeless problems of food, heat and shelter. Sustainable consumption activists argue that, for example, the energy systems people have built to solve the problems of heating homes, transporting goods and creating products are creating new problems, such as nuclear waste, climate change, air pollution and the risk of nuclear reactor meltdowns, which have a negative impact on quality of life. Similarly, advocates argue that many of the materials in the consumer products that improve our quality of life actually have a negative impact on health — and therefore on quality of life. The problem is encapsulated in the trade-offs in compact florescent light bulbs. These bulbs decrease energy use dramatically, but they contain mercury and mercury vapors not found in incandescent bulbs. For realists, it becomes a question of risk assessment and priorities: Compact florescent bulbs are on the rise because scientists have found that the amount of mercury in the bulb poses no health threat and they consider the environment less harmed by the mercury than the environmental costs of the power that heats the bulb. The sustainable consumption movement sees this as a false choice and argues that industry needs to develop ways of illuminating rooms that use as little energy as possible without resorting to "solutions" that trade one problem for another. This is the logic that holds that nuclear power, which helps on climate change, is nonetheless unacceptable because it simply replaces one problem with another. What the Issue Offers The basic foundation of the move toward advocacy of sustainable consumption is already in place, and the current direction of the larger energy debate is spurring activists to explore what sustainable consumption offers them as an issue. The movement currently is strongest in Europe, where the conservation ethic among consumers is far stronger than in North America. Solid waste already has become an emotional issue for many Europeans — and many consider the American reliance on disposable consumer products to be distasteful. One must look only at the packaging of consumer products in Europe to see the degree to which regulators have heard this message from the public. The movement in Europe is handicapped, however, by its close relationship to the wider environmental movement. While this has allowed it to be promoted much more quickly in Europe, where environmentalism is a far more mainstream concern, it also has pigeonholed it as an environmental issue, rather than a larger, more encompassing social issue. In the United States, on the other hand, the issue is somewhat detached from environmentalism, which will work to its benefit in the long run because environmentalism has such a narrow following in the United States. Furthermore, because it has environmental overtones, those trying to unite the larger liberal "progressive" political constituency in the United States have come to view sustainable consumption as a core tenet of their strategy. The developing progressive coalition has coalesced around the recognition that voters in the United States have overwhelmingly rejected progressive liberal issues — even though it seems to them that most Americans generally share their values. The result has been a feeling among liberal Democrats that they have a communication problem, rather than unpopular ideas. In essence what they have come to realize is, while their platform might be a good one — for example, who wants more smog or a larger hole in the ozone? — they have failed to sell it to the general public. To make that sale, progressive activists are building on the work of linguistics professor George Lakoff, who forwarded the notion of expressing the message in terms of what the activists are fighting for, rather than what they oppose. Moreover, they are especially targeting a large group of Americans — as much as one-third of the population — whom one demographer has identified as "cultural creatives." The term refers to people who do not fit neatly into traditional categories such as activist, liberal or conservative, but who nonetheless are creating new mechanisms of social change to address issues they care about, such as the environment, peace and social justice. These cultural creatives do not identify themselves as members of a cohesive group, and many are not even aware that so many others like them exist. A subset of this group, the progressive activists, however, aims to create a cohesive movement around these people, and harness this group's potential to shape a new American agenda. Putting it into Practice To express their priorities in terms of what they support, progressive groups have begun to rally around a new set of ideas that can be proposed in a positive way. Among these are notions of fairness, justice and the relationship between health and the environment (which encompasses sustainable consumption). Each of these allows progressives to maintain their traditional views, but to talk in positive terms, rather than negative. And this strategy has gained the attention of big business and certain unions and politicians. In practice, this emerging movement will bring a new set of arguments that emphasize what regulators, businesses and consumers know about new technologies and what they cannot know. Progressives increasingly are saying that moving forward with new technologies without knowing the impact of a product, phenomenon or process on human health or society is no longer acceptable. Thus, as the United States and Europe look for new energy systems to replace those that have brought the current slew of unintended consequences, what will emerge is not simply a push toward an ideal form of energy or toward reduced consumption, but the promotion of an ethic that will look to balance supply and demand while placing the onus on the developers of new technologies to find innovative solutions that do not result in long-term problems. It is the natural follow-on to the idealists' loss of control on climate change and nuclear power. From a business perspective, bounties await the best innovators. Entering the world of sustainable consumption is fraught with danger for companies, however, because they bear the burden of proving that the product has no negative implications now or in the future. If the sustainable consumption movement begins to attract public attention — and thus begins to change how people view their relationship to products — future debates on energy and other major industrial issues will focus increasingly on whether new technologies should move beyond "acceptable risk" as a standard of safety (as in the mercury light bulb example) to a no-risk standard. In that case, then, new technologies that foster conservation have a far better chance of succeeding than those that focus on making products more efficient. The reality is that it is difficult to conceive of new energy-generating technologies that are free of environmental drawbacks. Solar panels use an array of toxic chemicals, while windmills alter landscapes and kill birds. On the other hand, the simple concept of using and disposing of less easily passes any filter sustainable consumption advocates put in place. Despite the all-encompassing nature of its ideas, then, the impact of the sustainable consumption movement is likely to be one-sided — a continual press for conservation.

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