Sustainable or responsible consumption

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A social phenomenon characteristic of all societies in all times, consumption may be defined as the acquisition, use, and destruction of goods and services. It is comprised of the value of goods and services bought by people, as individual purchases are aggregated over time and space. Consumption is then the aggregate of all economic activity that does not entail the design, production and marketing of goods and services, and usually represents the largest component of GDP. Many persons judge the economic performance of their country mainly in terms of consumption level and dynamics. Current income is the most relevant determinant of consumption.

Classification and patterns

Consumption may be classified according to the durability of purchased objects. In this vein, a broad classification separates durable goods (such as cars and television) from non-durable goods (as in food) and from services (as in a restaurant). These three categories often show different paths of growth. In Western countries, consumption has steadily grown over the last 60 years, with the exception of a few deep recessions. Consumption growth has been smoother than that of increases or decreases in private investment or of net export growth. In particular, services have always systematically grown (measured in economic value and in employment statistics) at a fairly steady pace, non-durables have often mirrored the business cycle and durables have often over-shot fluctuations in GDP.

Goods and services are consumed for the satisfaction of needs and wants. Expenditures are influenced by many different factors besides income: general lifestyles, habits, age of the household‘s members, attitudes toward savings or consumption, a standard level of consumption to maintain or improve over time, decisions regarding active saving strategies, opportunities to obtain consumer credit, past acquisition decisions, innovative sales proposals, and sensitivity to advertising. While orthodox, neoclassical economics insists on ―consumer sovereignty‖, meaning the right of consumers to reveal their preferences in the market buying whatever they want to buy, other traditions in economics (such as the institutional economics of Thorstein Veblen) have tried to find and explain social patterns in consumption. Veblen coined the expression ―conspicuous consumption‖ to account for the behaviour of buyers who buy prestigious goods in order to show their priviliged position in the social hierachy.

in the 1970s Fred Hirsch came very close to taking an environmentalist position when he applied the term ―positional goods‖ to products or services (such as waterfront holiday houses, golf-club membership in arid countries) that are exclusive by nature, and would be inaccessible to the majority of the population even if incomes were to increase. Taking this perspective, one could ask whether automobiles too are ―positional goods‖ at a global level. Viewed critically, marketing literature, as well as the literature on advertising can be used to classify and understand patterns and social motivations of consumption.

In economic theory, there is in general a presumption that goods can substitute for each other. If the price of apples goes up, people will buy pears instead. Exceptions to that rule give rise to the notion of ―lexicographic preferences‖. These are seen as very special cases, as when people in willingness-to-accept-compensation surveys refuse to give up a beautiful landscape or to accept the loss of a species at any price. But this type of preference is not so strange. From a biological point of view, we know that the minimum required amount of water or of food (energy for endosomatic use), cannot be substituted by anything else. In ecological economics, therefore, we dispute the view that consumption is to be explained only by subjective, inscrutable preferences.

Sustainable consumption

In terms of natural resources, orthodox economics indeed forgets totally that all consumption entails material flows and energy transformation, as well as the work of other people. Contemporary forms of consumption however frequently raise the question of sustainability, so that today most people are somewhat aware that the human species is leaving a legacy of destruction: climate change, biodiversity loss, depletion of various minerals and fuels. Over the past decade an increasing amount of research has intersected consumer issues with environmental degradation. For example, the consumption of many kinds of new household technologies is associated with the consumption of energy, water and other resources. From an ecological economic point of view we face a clear dilemma: on the one hand environmental pressures require that consumption be curbed, probably in absolute terms. On the other hand most economists hold that consumption is closely related to welfare and should grow without limits.

Policy focus

Consumer behaviour is an important determinant of the impact that society has on the environment. The actions that people take and the choices they make – to consume certain products and services rather than others or to live in certain ways - all have direct and indirect impacts on the environment, as well as on personal (and collective) well-being. This is why the topic of ‗sustainable consumption‘ has become a central focus for national and international policies. Manfred Max-Neef‘s distinction between ―needs‖ and ―satisfactors‖ of needs is here very pertinent.

The questions posed by sustainability today are more and more focused on the problem of consumption patterns. In this context, sustainable consumption calls for integrating a series of problems. ―Sustainable consumption is an umbrella term that brings together a number of key issues, such as meeting needs, enhancing quality of life, improving efficiency, minimising waste, taking a lifecycle perspective and taking into account the equity dimension.‖ (UNEP, 2001) Unsustainable lifestyles and practices however continue to dominate. Material and energy flows have to decrease at the global level, but how this might be achieved is not clear.

Consumers are seen as multiple and diffuse sources of pollution. In this context, governments rely primarily on increasing consumer awareneness and providing better information about the impacts that products generate in order to help consumers make better choices. But current policies affect the foundations of these choices very little: freedom of action is justified by a free and unfettered market. Sustainable consumption asks us to consider issues that go beyond the individual when we shop. These include not only the ecological impacts of what we buy but also the equity, human rights and political dimensions of sustainability in the production and consumption process of goods and services.

Redefining and addressing consumption

In adopting an ecological perspective, we can return to the etymology of consumption. Consumption comes first from cum-summa, which means making the sum, completing, achieving. It would be wise to shift the definition of consumption from one that has come to inherently imply destruction for the sake of human pleasure, back to the etymological roots of the word, to a definition that emphasises, appreciates, and is compatible with the interwoven processes of engaging in relations with the (human and non human) beings in our environment, that complete us as human beings. To avoid unrealistic propositions in pursuit of sustainable consumption however, social functions of consumption have to be understood. The history of consumption shows us how today‘s consumer society is extremely fragmented and multiple, focused on a multitude of individuals. This recent social pattern is based on the promotion of individual choices and actions. The rhetoric of ‗consumer sovereignty‘ is counter-productive because it regards choice as individualistic and fails to unravel the social, psychological and institutional influences on private behaviours. What we decide to buy is influenced by many factors, including our age and health, place of residence, income and wealth, moods and social beliefs and relations.

Studies of consumption investigate how and why groups and individuals consume goods and services, and how this affects society and human relationships. Contemporary studies focus on meanings of goods, role of consumption in identity making, and the 'consumer' society. Consumption is not only a way of meeting needs, but also a manner for producing social interactions, and constructing relations to the world through objects. Challenging commodity consumption and accumulation of objects requires other social forms, necessarily more collective. Essential questions in consumption analysis are therefore first, ―How do products find their ways into people‘s lives?‖, and second, ―How do they affect and how are they affected by daily practices?‖.


  • John Lintott (1998), Beyond the economics of more: the place of consumption in ecological economics, Ecological Economics 25 (1998) 239 – 248
  • UNEP (2001), Consumption Opportunities: Strategies for Change, United Nations Environment Programme, Paris.
  • Tim Jackson, Motivating Sustainable Consumption. A review of evidence on consumer behaviour and behavioural change. A report to the Sustainable Development Research Network, 2005 :