In the wake of the climate crisis, many advocates have put forward the notion that sustainable consumption can be a viable approach to tackling one of the world’s most pressing and complicated issues.
While for many the concept of sustainable consumption may be a contradiction in terms, others see it as being a pathway towards a greener future while remaining firmly within the logics of a capitalist political economy. However, even for those who adopt this latter view, sustainable consumption continues to be fraught with complexities. On the one hand, small independent brands seek to provide a cohesive range of organic cotton and recycled nylon garments and on the other larger retailers such as H&M and Zara seek to implement “conscious collections” despite being firmly committed to a fast fashion business model. The prevalence of greenwashing thus makes it increasingly difficult for consumers to make well-informed decisions about where they purchase sustainable products.
The European Environmental Agency define sustainable consumption as:
The use of goods and services that respond to the basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimising the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardise the needs of future generations. (cited in Crane et al. 2019. p. 370)
While this is a useful starting point for understanding sustainable consumption, crucially this definition fails to define what level of consumption is deemed “sustainable”. To elaborate on this definition, it might be useful to consider the planetary boundaries as outlined by economist Kate Raworth and how consumption contributes to different forms of environmental degradation. Mapping sustainability using such models will help make such definitions of sustainable consumption more practically useful.
Source: Kate Raworth
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) researchers, Andrew Crane et al., however, problematise the notion of "sustainable consumption" when they argue that consumer society is built on two assumptions (Crane et al., 2009, 369). Firstly, “that consumption can continue to increase because there are no finite resource limits” and secondly that “the by-products and wastes created by consumption can be disposed of indefinitely” (Crane et al., 2009, 369). As such, Crane et al. suggest that sustainable consumption may not be a particularly useful term for understanding how we relate to the planet’s natural resources.
Despite such limitations, Crane et al. outline five steps that may help bring about sustainable consumption which are as follows:
(1) produce environmentally responsible products
(2) recapture product
(3) provide service replacements for products
(4) produce sharing models
(5) reduce demand
(Crane et al. 2019, p. 371-377)
In response to the first approach, while products can be produced more sustainably whether these goods can ever be considered to be a true form of “sustainable consumption” is up for debate. For instance, not all raw materials can originate from genuinely sustainable sources. This suggests that “sustainable consumption” will never be able to materialise in the game-changing way that its proponents advocate. For instance, while it is possible to choose organic cotton, (which is free from GMO and pesticide use) research shows that it takes 10,000 litres of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt or pair of jeans (WRAP, 2017, p.17). The vast majority of the Aral Sea has diminished due to unsustainable cotton growing practices, which often has far more to do with scale rather than growing methods used. In this instance, until we can learn how to grow cotton without water on mass, truly sustainable cotton consumption will remain a myth.
Secondly, is the need to consider the potential of product recapture to advance more sustainable forms consumerism. Product recapture refers to the move towards a more circular economy to “recapture” waste and bring it back into productive uses. While brands are making considerable advancements and innovations in the sustainability field, arguably we will never be able to shift to a 100% circular economy. One example of this limitation can be seen in the realm of textiles recycling.
While it is possible to recycle singular-fibre blends (e.g. 100% cotton or 100% polyester), the technology does not yet exist to separate multi-fibre blends (e.g. 3% elastane, 97% cotton which is the typical blend for skinny jeans). This means that these items still have to go to landfill if they become damaged beyond wear.
Difference Between Linear and Circular Economy
Source: Sustainability Guide
Furthermore, it can be argued that the notion of “sustainable consumption” puts the needs of the consumer both before other stakeholder groups and before the needs of the planet. For sustainable consumption to be truly effective, the needs of different stakeholders such as communities that are exposed to environmental hazards must be taken into consideration.
Thirdly, Crane et al. propose shifting from an ownership model to making the use of ongoing services. Using an example of a washing machine they contend that by replacing physical ownership and moving towards a continuous service “firms can substantially reduce the amount of material goods being produced” (Crane et al., 2019, p. 375). However, Crane et al. fail to mention the transport emissions associated with such a shift. While some consumers may walk to a local laundrette, many will request a courier collection and drop-off. As such, whether the change to a service model can produce more sustainable forms of consumption will require further research.
In a similar vein to shifting to a service economy, is the trend towards product sharing. Arguably, product sharing does produce some viable sustainability benefits. For instance, instead of buying a new cotton dress consuming 10,000+ litres of water, one can use a service such as Rent the Runway in the U.S. or Hurr Collective in the U.K. This is particularly useful for events such as weddings where women might purchase a dress and only wear it once only for it to be forever stored away in a wardrobe.
Research by clothes recycling charity Traid shows that 23% on London’s wardrobe remains unworn (Traid, 2020, para. 3). However, similar to the service economy example, sharing also often requires transport- the associated emissions of which should not be underestimated. This is not to mention the sense of pride that comes with ownership or how often rentals come at a high price tag. For consumers looking for more day-to-day pieces, a more valuable investment might be swapping or purchasing pre-loved pieces from re-selling apps such as Depop or Vestiaire Collective.
Clothes Swapping in Action, London, U.K
Source: Haulternative Closet
Finally and arguably, the most sustainable form of consumption is buying less (Crane et al. 2019, p. 377). However, this is also the most challenging form of sustainable consumption to achieve and will likely require a shift beyond CSR initiatives into the realm of government legislation. However, we urgently need the government to take such steps. In 2017 the government of Kenya introduced a ban on all plastic bags with a threat of four years imprisonment or a $40,000 fine for anyone breaking the law (Crane et al. 2019, p. 377). Arguably, such an approach will be more effective than a consumer-led “voluntary simplicity” or consumption “downsizing” where consumers choose to consume less overall (Crane et al. 2019, p. 377).
The approaches to sustainable consumerism as outlined by Crane et al. show varying degrees of potential success from the limitations of sustainable production to the more robust strengths of reducing demand (Crane et al., 2019, p.371-377). However, this raises broader definitional concerns as to whether buying less can be considered to be a form of “sustainable consumption” as arguably buying less is the antithesis of consumerism.
While the question “what is sustainable consumption and how might it be achieved?” is a probing one, the danger of falling into the trap of assuming that “sustainable consumption” is, in fact, something that can be achieved remains. While it is perhaps unfair to say that “sustainable consumption” is an oxymoron, this term should be taken with a healthy dose of scepticism, nonetheless.
Crane, Andrew, Matten, Drink, Glozer, Sarah, Spence, Laura. 2019. Business Ethics: Managing Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability in the Age of Globalisation. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Raworth, Kate. 2020. Doughnut. Kate Raworth. [Online] Available at: https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/
Speranza, Andrea. 2018. 123 million clothes in London unworn. Traid. [Online] Available at: https://www.traid.org.uk/123-million-clothes-in-london-unworn/
Sustainability Guide. 2020. Circular Economy. Sustainability Guide. [Online] Available at: https://sustainabilityguide.eu/sustainability/circular-economy/
WRAP. 2017. Valuing Our Clothes: the Cost of UK Fashion. WRAP. [Online] Available at: https://www.wrap.org.uk/sustainable-textiles/valuing-our-clothes%20