30 Nov 2017

Is there such a thing as sustainable consumption?

Alissa writes*

Technically, the word “sustainable” encompasses sustainability in three dimensions: environmental, social, and economic. In this blog post, we will focus on its environmental dimension. As such, it is offset by the word “consumption,” which suggests the depletion of resources. Marketing plays a significant factor in sustainable consumption because it is primarily used to achieve competitive advantage, and recently sustainability has been absorbed as an essential tool for the 21st century. In this light, the terms sustainable and consumption would equate 1 + (-1) = 0. Instead of enforcing sustainable consumption, perhaps it would be more straightforward to restrict consumption altogether, where we minimise the resource intensity of products and maximise function over material use.

We can limit consumption through adapting and improving emerging concepts. In contrast to neoclassical economics, evolutionary economics provides a more realistic account [pdf] of individual behaviour, social interactions, evolving preferences, and habit formation. The two underlying approaches are (1) the “habit-based” approach, emphasising that individuals follow habits and others instead of constantly optimising their choices to avoid costly information-acquiring and alternatives evaluation; (2) the “want-based” approach where individuals are subjected to the socially-constructed desires. Its utilisation can explore policies that enhance sustainable habits and revolutionise sustainable wants. An example of constructing policies under evolutionary economics can be seen in the domain of food consumption through shopping rules (where consumers why food products; how often they shop; the amount of food purchased); storage rules (how consumers store food: temperatures, types of containers); eating habits (nutritive value of meals, how often per days consumers eat plant, meat, and dairy products, tendencies to snack).

The OECD also acknowledges that policy tools should be implemented to change consumption behaviour. However, it is mostly based on information campaigns to raise environmental awareness and acceptability of policies. On this note, regardless of educational efforts, it appears that consumption remains mostly unsustainable. This can perhaps be linked to the concept of habit-based consumption in evolutionary economics above and a myriad of social speculations e.g. the attitude-behaviour gap; internal locus of control; greenwashing, etc.

Should marketing be restricted?

It has been suggested that we have to “strike a balance” between marketing and consumption: profits can still be earned while reducing the environmental impacts of consumption. Needless to say, it is an agreeable statement but perpetuates the misleading notion of growth and prosperity. In this case, it suggests that marketing should continue to boost revenues, yet if we were all to consume minimally, revenues will inevitably stagnant, and company trust will replace marketing as a driver for competitive advantage. On the more moderate side, marketing could be permitted to contribute to “reasonable consumption,” where restricting certain marketing practises, such as advertisements appealing to emotions, should be implemented by the government.

Costs & Benefits

The obvious benefits involve minimising consumption: thus minimising waste and production. This may mean a reduction in jobs within developing nations which could be costly since unemployment means a lower quality of life, and could be beneficial if it means the eradication of low quality work environments and economic slaves working in sweatshops.

Since it is quite a novel experience for humanity to handle species-threatening anthropogenic impacts on the environment, it is inevitably a trial and error and extremely conditional. This means that it will be a costly affair time-wise.

In addition consumer time and effort in having to research and evaluate best choices could create a gap in the communication between consumers and companies. This is perhaps through those who are willing to pay for third party services at their own convenience to do the research for them. Yet this will enforce behavioural change in people that is necessary to be sustainable in the future.

On the other hand, it could create an even closer dialogue between consumers and companies in contrast to the modern day marketing mantra of knowing what the consumer wants before they want it; which is basically just creating socially-constructed desires that have little to no value and exploits the nature of humans to be socially accepted.

Furthermore it could disrupt the big data industry through either restricting data collection or not being able to make use of collected data in targeting specific customers. Yet it could improve the big data industry to be even more inclusive to the needs of consumers for products with greater functionality.

Bottom line: There are a lot more costs in the short run when it comes to marketing restrictions but in the long run it could be a catalyst to behavioural change and economic reform that will benefit everyone sustainably. It is definitely not easy at all.

* Please help my environmental economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice :)