Household consumption is now the most significant, identifiable driver of climate change, contributing to over 60% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and between 50% and 80% of total land, materials and water use. This is not surprising, since household consumption is a bit like the narrow bottom of a funnel through which the vast majority of resources flow. And yet consumers now know less about the origins and contents of the products and services they use, along with the impacts of these on the environment, than at any time in the past. While they might own more goods and services than ever before, and some of these might be technically ‘greener’ and more efficient than those used in the past, most use them for less time, and replace these sooner than before.
The dilemma we all now face is that growing consumption is technically ‘good’ for the economy, but bad for the environment. Facing this double-bind, corporations and governments have embraced a number of strategies that promise to alleviate the ‘environment problem’ without undermining the growth that provides them with certainty and stability. These generally emphasise the value of ‘green growth’, that is the ‘decarbonization’ of the economy through substituting eco-products and systems for heavily polluting ones, from solar energy generation to electric vehicles. However, the problem with relying entirely on green-growth is threefold:
Firstly, as William Stanley Jevons noted over a century ago, increasing efficiency tends to lower costs and thus to generate more consumption. This creates rebound effects where the benefits of a more ‘eco-efficient’ product are soon eclipsed by a growth in the volumes consumed. Reducing the ‘carbon intensity’ of a product thus cannot result in reducing its overall environmental impact, because there will be more and more of these or similar products made and consumed. For example, the introduction of LED lighting effectively lowered the costs of lighting and so encouraged more production for more consumption. It also led to the design and production of more lights for an increasing number of settings, since power for lighting has effectively become so much cheaper.
A second problem with relying on ‘green-growth’ is that it cannot be implemented quickly enough to counter the legacy of established high-polluting systems and products. Innovation and technological substitution takes time, and ‘brown’, environmentally destructive, industries like gas-fired power generation, or the manufacture of petrol-fuelled cars, remain in place, a powerful and enduring legacy that must be slowly substituted with low carbon alternatives, such as solar energy generation or electric vehicles. This process of substitution takes time, and there is now less and less time to counter catastrophic climate change.
Thirdly, ‘green growth’ leaves in place the ‘consumption problem’ it claims it will indirectly solve. This is a critical issue because technology over the last three decades has lowered or eradicated most barriers to consumption, along with those that once restricted or slowed global flows of money, information, goods and services. Credit systems now allow for instant transactions, with the purchase of goods and services online enabling more rapid and frequent purchases, their environmental impacts largely hidden from the consumer. This ‘frictionless’ deregulated online hyper-market has amplified the effects of the first two barriers to change, and encouraged the kind of hyper-consumption and hyper-development evident in China, India, and other developing economies.
In China producing more electric vehicles and bicycles, super-fast trains, and an impressive array of other green infrastructure projects has not slowed emission production sufficiently. Similarly, most young Chinese consumers, when asked, desire larger homes, larger cars, and all the trappings of Western-style middle class consumption. These same consumers generally want ‘something done’ about climate change and the nation’s environmental problems, but understand little about the direct links between the objects of their desires and these larger problems. This is consistent with the argument presented here, that technological innovations and green growth cannot of themselves reduce the increasingly serious impacts of consumption, but must be complemented by a number of targeted economic, informational and material strategies, whose ultimate goal is to reshape the attitudes, habits and routines of today’s consumers towards sustainable consumption.
In the long list of targets accompanying the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12, ‘Enabling Sustainable Consumption and Production’, three related themes stand out: firstly, the importance of increasing environmental transparency and traceability in consumer products and services, so that consumers are able to make better informed decisions; secondly, that waste reduction and elimination must be encouraged and implemented across all product and service categories; and thirdly, that economic levers and incentives must be developed to reduce the impacts of consumption across all categories of goods and services. We are now many years behind meeting this target. Given the scale, universal spread and entrenchment of our overconsumption, it is now high time we started to worry about consumption.