The myths of sustainable consumption, by Alison Singer

Across the globe the concept of sustainable consumption is being touted as the way of the future, a change in lifestyle and values that promises “green growth”– economic growth that doesn’t hurt the environment. Though not without obstacles and controversy, this concept has been embraced by policymakers, consumers, and industry.

The idea is that, by providing consumers with a choice of products reflecting their new environmental values, the market will self-regulate its way towards a more sustainable future, one in which supermarket shelves are lined with ecologically friendly products, and workers in developing countries are receiving fair wages for their labor. Eco-labeling, taxes on water and energy consumption, recycling incentives, education and communication campaigns, and advertising are examples of methods to promote sustainable consumption, all of which are endorsed by the OECD.

However, sustainable consumption fails to address the root problem: that unfettered economic growth–no matter how ecologically-minded–is still unsustainable. In State of the World 2013, Annie Leonard points out that the focus on sustainable consumption “distracts us from identifying and demanding change from the real drivers of environmental decline…. Describing today’s environmental problems and solutions as individual issues also has a disempowering effect, leaving people to feel that their greatest power lies in perfecting their daily choices.” A Nordic research group is attempting to dispel the myths of sustainable consumption in order to help policymakers implement genuinely effective policies. Belief in these myths helps pave the dangerous road to timid government policies.

The most damaging myths, outlined in a recent webinar, are the following:

- the belief that small individual actions will have a spill-over effect;
- if everyone does a little we will collectively achieve a lot;
- more information leads to sustainable behavior.

The reason that these myths are so dangerous is that they place the burden of responsibility on consumers instead of producers, and this in turn influences the types of policies implemented by the state. However, the focus is still on consumption itself, as opposed to a deep-seated behavioral shift towards downsizing and degrowth. These myths allow government to enact short-term, minimal policies like taxes on bottled water and plastic bags, or requiring energy labels on appliances. While individual effort is certainly important, and a good starting point, it is a terrible end-point. Leonard argues that radical change involves three stages – a big idea of how things could be better, a commitment to move beyond individual action, and finally, collective action. A focus on sustainable consumption keeps society firmly fixated on individuals and increases the barriers to taking collective action.