index_img1.gif Consumer behaviour has a major impact on overall sustainability
Only a change in consumption behaviour will bring about the necessary effects. (This is what "major impact" means.) And: Only a change in consumption behaviour will make it possible to stay within the (politically agreed-upon) thresholds for emissions and other environmental harms (this is what "impact on overall sustainability" stands for). Domestic consumption levels have increased dramatically in the recent past Various evidence What consumption areas are of key relevance for sustainability? How can the impact of consumption on sustainability be calculated?
For a policy aiming at sustainability, is steering consumer behaviour a promising route? This question, which aims at the core of one of the conference’s main topics, is also closely connected to a contemporary political debate: Will we – consumers, mankind – have to change our behaviour in order to save the planet from climate change, loss of biodiversity and the pollution of the environment with nitrogen and toxic waste, just to mention a few of those areas where the long-term stability of the earth’s ecosystem and human well-being are in danger? Will we be able to change our behaviour? Or is it instead more environmental-friendly production – a “techno fix” – and a socially more just market order that will help us to not overturn the ecosystem und to reach a more equal distribution of welfare?
The position that calls for a radical change in behaviour is represented by business writer Tim Jackson, whose book Prosperity without Growth (2009) was cited frequently by speakers at the conference “Sustainable Consumption 2011”. The other position, which seeks to address global environmental problems not by changing consumer behaviour but with the help of greener production and by technological innovation in general, has been prominently articulated recently by British environmentalist Mark Lynas, author of The God Species (2011).
The debate on “steering consumer behaviour” was reconstructed on the map on the basis of material presented or discussed at the conference.
Especially of concern are three questions:
  • What is the maximum that can be gained by an approach focussed on consumption instead of regulation on the side of production? How big is the contribution of consumption behaviour to overall unsustainable practices of our societies?
  • In order to arrive at a more sustainable consumption behaviour, change will be necessary. What extent of change in consumer behaviour will be possible? What do we know about the circumstances of behavioural change: What methods and strategies can trigger changes? What do we know about their efficiency?
  • Looking at those areas where change can reasonably be expected to happen: What are the net effects of possible changes in consumer behaviour? Which part of the maximum that is possible can actually be realized?
The topic map “Steering” is structured accordingly. The central thesis “Steering consumer behaviour is a promising route for sustainability policy” is jointly supported by three further claims, which are elaborated in three maps (“Steering 1, 2 and 3”):
All of these three claims have to be supported in order to prove the central hypothesis.
One example to illustrate the general idea behind the structuring scheme:
Emissions are one key factor regarding sustainability. In Germany, CO2 emissions per capita/year are currently 7,5 tons/year. To the amount that these emissions are either directly caused by private households or could be influenced by consumer behaviour, this is a piece of evidence supporting the claim that consumer behaviour does matter.
A certain percentage of these 7,5 tons/year can be traced to electricity consumption in private households. With the help of smart metering and awareness campaigns, energy use in private households can be reduced. Studies show that in private households, savings of electricity up to 3,7 % (Goelz et al., AV 154) and more can be achieved. This shows that consumers are indeed able to change their bevaviour significantly.
Do those changes in consumer behaviour that can be achieved have a significant impact on overall sustainability? 3,7 % less energy-consumption in private households would amount to 1,1 % of all electricity consumption in Germany. Whether or not this reduction has significant effects on emissions, depends upon questions as these:
  • How much reduction of energy-consumption will be necessary in the long term (Kyoto)?  
  • How efficient is the production of electricity?
  •  Is overall consumption really reduced by 1,1 %? Or will the the savings with the help of smart meters  be outweighed by higher energy use altogether - e.g., because households use more electrical devices?
The first “leg” of the argument, “Consumer behaviour has a major impact” (map “Steering 1”), is supported by further claims and some evidence. Also, there is a question asking for more details, and an observation (the red ‘under construction’) indicating the need for further research that arises when looking at the information presented in the map. (Note: We did not check whether or not the research tasks indicated by the red ‘under construction’ signs have been dealt with elsewhere in the literature!)
Several sub-arguments follow. Some of them support and some refute the first line of evidence that was brought into consideration.