Between Choice and Structure: Sustainable Consumption and Responsibility

Twenty years ago, the Agenda 21, the global action plan adopted by more than 178 Governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, stated that “the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries”, (Section I, Chapter 4.3). Beyond the necessity “to promote efficiency in production processes and reduce wasteful consumption in the process of economic growth”, it defined the need for governments “to develop a domestic policy framework that will encourage a shift to more sustainable patterns of production and consumption” (Chapter 4.17). Sustainable consumption, thus, was supposed to comprise not just efficiency gains in resource consumption, but also reductions in the overall consumption levels in industrialized countries as well as fundamental changes in current consumption patterns.

Twenty years later, though, debates on sustainable consumption continue to focus on aspects of product efficiency and “smarter”, “greener” ways of consuming, while neglecting politically explosive, yet necessary debates on sufficiency, de-growth, and radical change as well as questions of justice that come with it. As a consequence, emphasis is placed on consumers as being the decisive actors, bearing the responsibility of forcing the economic system towards green growth through the sheer power of their demand. While there is no denying the fact that consumers’ decisions do matter, focusing on the consumer bears the risk of individualizing responsibility in a way that, on the one hand, disregards the social character of consumption, and, on the other hand, allows distracting from the common political responsibility to overcome the societal unease with the idea of change having to go way beyond aesthetic corrections.

Against this backdrop, the discussion forum on „Sustainability and Consumption“ aims to address the question of consumer responsibility in the transformation process towards more sustainable consumption-production-patterns from an environmental and social justice perspective.


Sustainable consumption - whose responsibility is it? Join the discussion here!


The different perspective: While our discussants debate consumer responsibility, Prof. Dr. Jörg Petruschat explores the power of design. Can product designers reformulate lifestyles and help overcome the fixation on ever-growing consumption? Read the article here.
picture-of-Erik Assadourian

Erik Assadourian 

Erik Assadourian is the director of the Transforming Cultures Project at Worldwatch Institute. Most recently he co-directed State of the World 2013.
picture-of-Jô Portilho

Jô Portilho 

Jô Portilho is a PhD student on Social Work (UERJ) and member of the direction board of the National Confederation of Financial Sector Workers (CONTRAF/CUT).
picture-of-Julia Backhaus

Julia Backhaus 

Julia’s PhD research at Maastricht University focuses on sustainable living. She is part of the Sustainable Consumption Research & Action Initiative.
picture-of-Lewis Akenji

Lewis Akenji 

Lewis Akenji is a Senior Policy Coordinator at the Japan-based think-tank IGES. He is one of the organizers of the Global Research Forum on Sustainable Consumption & Production.

Paper by Erik Assadourian


Converting Consumers to Cultural Pioneers and Eco-Missionaries

Erik Assadourian

Consumers, first and foremost, consume, typically understanding that their well-being is obtained through their consumer practices—whether through the stuff they own; the novel experiences they have—such as flying off to a far-off country for vacation; their exotic, high-on-the-food-chain, out-of-season diets; even their simple daily comforts (such as living life at 70 degrees [i.e. 21°C] regardless of the weather outside). Thus the answer to the question at the heart of this discussion of whether the consumer can play a role in getting us to a sustainable consumption and production paradigm is simple: absolutely not.


Certainly some “enlightened” consumers try to live green lifestyles—myself included—avoiding meat and motorized vehicles, and other environmentally harmful goods, but in reality they are still living far, far beyond the ecological limits (yes, me too). As Jennie Moore and William Rees describe in State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible, even if residents of Vancouver all lived vegan, car- and plane-free lifestyles, and lived in passive solar houses foregoing all fossil fuel use, they’d still live a lifestyle that would require an extra third of a planet if everyone lived like them.1 But few consumers will even voluntarily reduce to that level of consumption, let alone to a level that true sustainability entails—a lifestyle that most consumers understand as a ‘developing world’ lifestyle.


A sustainable culture ultimately is in direct conflict with any type of consumer culture. If seven billion people were to live truly sustainable lifestyles (assuming an equitable distribution of wealth rather than a rich elite and an impoverished majority), at best, the world would live like Cubans—with minimal access to fossil fuels, private cars, and unneeded consumer novelties, but with access to enough to eat, excellent education and health care, some basic appliances maintained to last generations, and organic small-scale agriculture that both creates community food security and local livelihoods.2 While many consumers would like access to good education and healthcare, few would sacrifice their freedom to buy whatever they like—whether that be iPhones, cars, pets, or countless other consumer goods. And unfortunately, no level of purchasing hybrid cars instead of SUVs will get us to sustainable consumption, but most likely will only slow the transition, as consumers delude themselves into believing that they’re doing their part to consume sustainably when they’re not.


That noted, the only way we get to a truly sustainable civilization is to reengineer cultural norms to delegitimize the consumer way of life altogether—so that living sustainably feels natural and living as a consumer becomes a societal taboo. Of course, considering that political and economic power (and thus cultural power as most modes of culture are controlled by those with economic power) are in the hands of those promoting consumerism, this sounds like a utopian fantasy. And perhaps it is for now. But ultimately, the consumer culture will implode as ecological systems break down, and as temperatures hit 2, 4, even 6 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial averages. At that point, only the richest will be able to afford to live consumer lifestyles, while the vast majority of people will need to seek out an alternative cultural orientation—ideally a sustainable one, though at that point any that enable them to survive will in all likelihood be accepted, whether that be fascism, theocracy, corporate feudalism, or whatever other models a dystopian future might bring.


In the past 200 years, cultures have changed radically. Growth has become celebrated, thrift set aside, and a consumer lifestyle has become the norm for at least 2 billion people around the world—a number that is projected to increase by another billion over the next 15 years or so.3 This transformation has not been ‘natural’ but engineered by entrepreneurs, corporations, policymakers, even—as the ideas have been internalized—by consumers themselves. As companies saw opportunities in selling everything from doughnuts to disposable diapers, Happy Meals to iPhones, pet dogs to Pepsi-Cola, they spent billions of dollars to sell these as lifestyle symbols ($500 billion in 2012), billions more lobbying governments to help normalize these changes, and through tens of thousands of smaller efforts transformed the dominant cultural paradigm to consumerism.4


This new paradigm is untenable on a finite planet, of course—driving mass extinctions, climate change, pollution, deforestation, and so on. These ecological changes, however, have not stopped those wedded to this system to continue to promote it further. Indeed, every day, high economic growth rates are celebrated in leading newspapers, and low ones are decried as tragedy.


Thus, we will need cultural pioneers that can extract themselves from the dominant consumer cultural paradigm and work toward bringing about a new sustainable culture—ideally now, and in a way that can compete with consumerism. But at least in a way that offers an alternative so that as the consumer culture breaks down a positive alternative will be ready to implement. These pioneers will need to embed themselves in existing institutions—governments, business, education, media and advertising, social movements, even religions—working to overhaul systems and the cultural norms they reinforce to make them orient on sustainability.


There are some signs of hope that this is happening. From social marketing and adjamming efforts that scrutinize the marketing-saturated world we live in today to bold new films like Avatar, which offer new ways of relating to planet Earth. New efforts like Earth Jurisprudence, which is working to give voice to the planet like Human Rights did for much of humanity so many decades ago. And efforts like school meal reform, which is trying to transform the next generation’s palates to like healthy, sustainable fare, just as food companies so effectively did with high sugar, high fat, high salt food with this generation.5


The list of successful efforts—across sectors—is impressive. But in truth, they all add up to just a drop in the ocean. For every cultural pioneer that creates a new “Story of Stuff” that helps people question the consumer way of life, another 10 create games like “Angry Birds”—a game that has absorbed more than 300 thousand years of life energy around the world as players continue to hurl vengeful birds at unrepentant pigs.6 Without some mechanism to expand cultural pioneering efforts, and reeducate humanity more broadly, the only way out of consumerism will most likely be the hard way out. And that’ll mean a nasty, brutish, and short future for most of humanity for centuries to come.


Cultivating a new eco-missionary philosophical movement


If one looks honestly at the history of environmental movement, one cannot help but question whether it has been a success. Yes, it has been essential in cleaning up air and water pollution and protecting certain areas and species. But as was noted by environmentalist Peter Berg in the early 1980s—not long after monumental victories in improving air and water quality—“rescuing the environment has become like running a battlefield aid station in a war against a killing machine that operates just beyond reach, and that shifts its ground after each seeming defeat. No one can doubt the moral basis of environmentalism, but the essentially defensive terms of its endless struggle mitigate against ever stopping the slaughter.”7 At best, playing defense—as the environmental movement does—slows down the destruction of the planet; it does not bring us to a sustainable future.


The environmental movement has, in other critics’ terms, stayed marginalized as a “special interest,” and has been unable to create a powerful vision to redirect human societies and cultures in new directions. Cultural pioneers could play that role but they are too few and too unorganized. What is necessary is to create a deeper strategy to cultivate both pioneers and deeper cultural change. And perhaps the best way to do this is to apply lessons from the successful long-term movements of the past—namely, missionary religious movements that over centuries have reoriented societies in radically new directions.8


How have missionary religious philosophies spread so completely around the world—across such diverse locales and cultural contexts? (Religions, while they are understandably more than this to adherents, are essentially orienting philosophies.) Yes, swords and guns were part of the success equation, as was the adoption and subsequent spread of these philosophies by governments. But a larger part of these philosophies’ success was a powerful, timeless vision, beautiful stories, inspiring exemplars, committed adherents, and the promise of immediate assistance—the offering of food, clothing, education, livelihoods, medical care, even a community.


To succeed, the environmental movement needs to become an ecological-philosophical movement, creating a strong, attractive, orienting philosophy—complete with a cosmology, theodicy (a theory of suffering), ethics, stories and practices that help bind communities together.


At the same time, an ecological philosophical movement will need to spread globally and thus should utilize the provision of social services. Providing social services is not only a worthy goal in itself (especially in a constrained future where social services will most likely become harder to come by for most people) but also a means to both grow the ranks of adherents and change how people view the world and live their lives.
For example, imagine a school that at every turn reinforced the idea that humanity depends completely and utterly on Earth and its complex systems for our well-being. That it is unjust to consume more than your fair share and to have a lifestyle that depends on the exploitation of ecosystems, workers, and communities polluted by factories, mines, and dumps. That the best life to live is one committed to changing this untenable, inhumane, and unsustainable system in ways that improve the well-being of your local community, your broader philosophical community, and above all the planetary community.


This is a philosophy that could be reinforced in every aspect of the school—from what is taught in the classroom (ecology, ethics, activism, and permaculture along with basic math and literacy) to what is served in the lunchroom and everything in between. Some students would walk away just with knowledge, including a better understanding of our dependence on Earth and perhaps a basic livelihood and trade skills—skills that will only grow in value in a post-consumer future. But others would walk away with a deep commitment to this way of thinking, and perhaps even become cultural pioneers or missionaries of this ecological philosophy, starting new schools or other social services that could improve people’s lives while spreading a way of life that could compete with the seductive consumerist philosophy so dominant today.


And this model could be applied to a variety of needs. Eco-clinics could provide basic medicine but also focus on prevention that will help both people and the planet. For example, people with adult-onset diabetes might be asked to spend time tending the eco-clinic garden in partial payment for treatment, growing healthy food to replace the toxic, processed fare that contributed to their diabetes and so many other modern ailments. The clinic could also provide cooking and lifestyle courses as well as engaging with the larger community to help patients eat well and regain their health. In the process, their ecological impact would shrink along with their waistlines as they reduced their consumption of meat and processed food, both of which have higher ecological impacts than locally grown vegetables.


As eco-philosophies spread, and their followers grow in number, new opportunities would grow too. The Quakers, a small Christian sect, became a dominant economic and political force of Pennsylvania in the 1700s as well as a major force in the abolition movement. Even today Quakers remain a powerful voice in international peace and governance processes—far beyond what their total membership of 340,000 would seem to warrant. Ecophilosophical adherents could become groomed to play important roles as cultural pioneers, driving cultural change by taking leadership roles in government, the media, business, and education. And in the process, they could hopefully redirect cultures away from consumerism and reorient them on sustainability.


The hope is that we prevent civilizational collapse by spreading a new set of philosophical, ethical, and cultural norms that bring about a life-sustaining civilization to replace our consumer culture. But in reality, the odds are high that the future is going to look more like something out of a dystopian science fiction story, whether that’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Soylent Green, Mad Max, or The Postman—and much sooner than we think.


The second hope is that if we fail to prevent a global ecological transition (or collapse from a human perspective) we at least preserve enough knowledge and wisdom so that as the dust settles in a few centuries, with the population stabilized at a lower number that a changed planetary system can sustain, our great-great-great-great-great grandchildren do not reinvent our mistakes—once again celebrating growth and consumerism on a finite planet—but instead stay true to a philosophy that allows them to sustain the planet that sustains them over millennia.


Cultural pioneers and eco-missionaries will be essential in making either of these hopes reality. And the faster we find and enact the means to convert global consumers into both of these, the more likely the future will be just a little less bleak.


This paper is based on Erik’s chapters “Re-engineering Cultures to Create a Sustainable Civilization,” and “Building an Enduring Environmental Movement,” in State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?


1 Jennie Moore and William E. Rees, “Getting to One-Planet Living,” State of the World 2013 (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2013—to be published April 16th), pp. 39-50.
2 Pat Murphy and Faith Morgan, “Cuba: Lessons from a Forced Decline,” State of the World, op. cit. note 1.
3 McKinsey Global Institute, Urban World: Cities and the Rise of the Consuming Class (June 2012).
4 Jonathan Barnard, “ZenithOptimedia Releases September 2012 Advertising Expenditure Forecasts,” press release (London: ZenithOptimedia, 1 October 2012).
5 For many more examples of cultural pioneering efforts, see State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability (New York: WW Norton & Co., 2010).
6 Adrienne LaFrance, “Macon Money: A social game in Georgia tries to bring residents together across traditional boundaries,” Nieman Journalism Lab, 2 May 2012.
7 Berg quoted in Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered (Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1985), p. 3.
8 Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, The Death of Environmentalism (Oakland, CA: Breakthrough Institute, 2004).

Comments on the Paper by Erik Assadourian

Comment of Erik Assadourian

Will the sustainability of life on the planet be maintained by a new generation of heroes?

Comment of Jô Portilho

In the paper Converting Consumers to Cultural Pioneers and Eco-Missionaries, Erik Assadourian reflects on the demands of the sustainability of Earth and looks for actions to mitigate a grim future. According to this author, the equitative division of the planet’s wealth would reduce the consumption per capita capacity to something like the Cuban standards. Perhaps he is being optimistic! Anyway, this exercise would not mean that we would have the "excellent education and health care" for all, present in Cuba as he himself remarked. It is necessary to have a hegemonic [1] societarian option so that, when there is a milk shortage for everyone, for instance, children and the elderly may be prioritized and the rest may not feel wronged...
In this sense, the role of public politics is as fundamental as the international governmental agreements, such as signing the Kyoto Treaty! Local solutions for global problems will not be able to handle the socioeconomic inequalities between countries and inside each country! But of course the knowledge apprehending the main global problems will be better used by humanity if it manages to aggregate partial and local understandings.
So, to simply center the discussion in dichotomies, such as the production of organic food against large scale agriculture, will not help to solve the complexity of the problem either, especially as the rise in productivity derived from new scientific discoveries is not in itself an element of environmental destruction. It is the private appropriation made of this scientific knowledge that will determinate if the impact of its application on the environment is capable of being naturally and socially absorbed or not - and more, if they will benefit only a few or the majority. The issue, then, is the political definition of how to promote the equitative distribution – that is, in the decision to be taken democratically and collectively by the societies, and not centered in the hands of a dozen “owners of the world”!
Based on the ideas defended by Erik Assadourian, I ask: will the sustainability of life on the planet be maintained by a new generation of heroes unrelated to our history and, consequently, from the process of class struggle? When I refer to class struggle, I speak of the antagonism between social classes, derived from the production mode of the capital, since it is in this confrontation that we become aware of our role in society and how we want it to work.
In relation to culture, the messages about preserving the environment present in the movie Avatar, cited by Assadourian, are important and impact the audiences. However, putting aside the 3D hi-tech, its discourse was not too different from the traditional one propagated by Hollywood. The horrors of the colonization of the USA were already exhibited on the silver screen through the extermination of native populations. It was always the pain of the individuated conscience of some “protagonists” that promoted the “mea culpa” that closed the matter.
To sum it up, the fundamental difference between the author’s point of view and my own is his Weberian analysis of the problem. Assadourian sustains that it is possible that a group of beings enlightened by an ecological philosophy may have all the answers to guide society to a new sustainable paradigm. Max Weber’s classic essay - Die protestantische Ethik und der 'Geist' des Kapitalismus – arguments that Puritan ethics and ideas influenced the development of capitalism since that cultural and religious behavior was conducive to economic rationality.
In the same way, the ecological philosophy suggested by Assadourian will have to promote its own ethics on the importance of changing habits towards sustainability. In other words, it will be a philosophy compatible with the new sustainable rationality. This rationality of an “ideal type” that will guide the populace, however, is outside it. In the proposal of the author, such ideology will be propagated by “cultural pioneers or missionaries of this ecological philosophy”.
From my point of view, human beings are an integral part of nature. But thanks to their teleological characteristics, they are able to think about nature and affect it. As demonstrated by Karl Marx in his Das Kapital (ch. VIII of book I), as man interferes upon nature to transform it to his benefit, he changes himself as a part of nature.
We must also keep in mind that man is not an isolate being. He develops social organizations when a new need arises, such as finding food, shelter, etc. His solutions, then, are found collectively, as the fruit of the process of choices determined in each historical moment, according to the mediations present. And, in these terms, the mediation of the sustainability of the planet is to the present society as scarcity has been to previous societies. For there was a time when we were not able to produce food in such a large scale as it is possible today. What we need, then, is to find an equitative mode of distribution of these increments of productivity, taking in account that present society is more complex and quantitatively larger than the previous ones.
I share the opinion of British historian E.P. Thompson, who understands that the class configures itself according to the way men live the production relationships, according to their experiences in social relationships as a whole. These collective experiences cause change, even if some groups believe that they are able to guide alone all humanity!
In the words of Thompson [2]: "Intellectuals frequently dream with a class like a motorcycle with an empty seat. Jumping on it, they take the wheel, since they have the true theory. This is a characteristic illusion, it is the “false consciousness” of the intellectual bourgeois. But, when similar concepts dominate the entire intelligentsia, can we speak of “false consciousness”? On the contrary, such concepts are very convenient to it." (Thompson, 2001, p. 281)
So, if we think only in individualistic solutions for centuries-old global problems, we wont the an answer at the end of the tunnel. For this reason, I believe that we will still lose a great part of our natural resources and quality of life, which already seems scarce, until we join forces to break the logic of the market to change society from the inside, by its history, by the democratic fight taken to the last consequences.
[1] The reference is Antonio Gramsci´s concept of hegemony.
[2] Free translation from the Brazilian edition of THOMPSON, E.P. As peculiaridades dos ingleses e outros artigos/E. P. Thompson; editors: Antônio Luigi Negro and Sérgio Silva - Campinas, SP: Editora da Unicamp, 2001.

Culture samplers instead of cultural pioneers and eco-missionaries

Comment of Julia Backhaus

I enjoyed Erik Assadourian’s position paper as a very inspirational, educational and even entertaining read (who would have thought this much precious time is wasted on Angry Birds!?). Next to the content of his text, it is particularly his agreeable writing style with a clear focus, structure and line of argument that certainly also contributed to the reading pleasure.


In terms of content, I could not agree more: a suitable focus for action towards sustainable living is indeed our consumer culture which is firmly embedded in existing institutions. It is appropriate to speak of a co-evolution of our lifestyle, culture and institutions until the current state of dangerous overconsumption in the industrialised world. Although I take issue with the term “engineering”, I support Erik Assadourian’s assessment of the developments: “This transformation [of a consumer lifestyle having become the norm] has not been ‘natural’ but engineered by entrepreneurs, corporations, policymakers, even – as the ideas have been internalised – by consumers themselves.” At another instance in the text, Erik Assadourian asserts that “the only way we get to a truly sustainable civilisation is to reengineer cultural norms to delegitimize the consumer way of life all together […].” Again, I agree with the ‘target for action’ or ‘leverage point’ he proposes namely cultural norms and the social institutions they are shaped by. I query the wording, however.


The reason why I question the usage of the word “engineering” is its deterministic connotation. I want to believe (with the full might of my probably illusionary free will) that norms cannot be straightforwardly engineered. They slowly develop over time, constantly attuning to changing internal and external conditions in terms of our knowledge, identity, values and perceptions, as well as the social institutions, infrastructures and information surrounding and available to us. I have to admit that a strategic parallelisation of several institutions is possible and can help to construct and strengthen particular cultural norms. The history of my home country Germany is a sad proof of how terribly wrong such undertaking can go. I do not want to live in a green totalitarian regime! Yes, even if that inevitably leads to the “nasty” and “brutish” doomsday scenarios Erik Assadourian sketches in his paper. I therefore advocate the avoidance of any “cultural engineering” jargon.


A similarly uncanny feeling worries me when reading about “eco-missionaries”. To avoid the marginalisation experienced by environmentalism and to organise scattered cultural pioneers, Erik Assadourian argues, sustainable living would ideally become a world-ordering philosophy embroidered with “a powerful, timeless vision, beautiful stories, inspiring exemplars, committed adherents, and the promise of immediate assistance […]”; thereby mimicking missionary religious philosophies that successfully spread around the globe in the past. The notion of an “ecological-philosophical movement, creating a strong, attractive, orienting philosophy – complete with a cosmology, theodicy […], ethics, stories and practices […]” appears harmless. But who decides what the vision looks like, who the exemplars are and what practices are endorsed? Maybe we do not all need the same vision of a good life to live sustainably. Maybe the practices suitable for some people in some settings are unsuited for others. The means to achieve a particular end are too easily justified when being under the impression one knows what is right for mankind. Even if the end is as noble as steering civilisation away from collapse, it is worth to exercise extreme caution.


One can argue along similar lines when considering cultural pioneers. I only know historic examples of pioneers who subdued precious (and often sustainably living) cultures in their efforts of conquering new land, leaving behind a trail of destruction.


In addition, I would like to stress that religions mostly operate through fear. If believers misbehave they are thought to face punishment in their next lives or their afterlife. If believers act in accordance to prescribed rules they are thought to be rewarded. The “sustainability religion” would probably promise reward and punishment awaiting us in this rather than the next life as the catastrophic consequences of our current actions are likely to be felt by the current and certainly to be endured by the next generations. Research shows, however, that reference to doomsday scenarios hardly motivates actions. Fear is not inspiring! People are motivated and inspired by making collective commitments, taking action together and experiencing immediate benefits.


Let’s consider how cultural norms can be changed to support sustainable lifestyles if engineering and proselytising are awkward approaches, at least with the respect to the discourses they conjure. The duality of structure grants us agency, always enabled or constrained by structure. This implies that the current socio-economic-political system we live in and its institutions enable (if not, encourage) a consumerist lifestyle. However, a more sustainable lifestyle than most of us in the industrialised world are leading today is not an impossibility. This raises two questions: How can we achieve consumption reduction where it is already feasible despite current structural constraints? And: how can we bring about the structural changes necessary to establish a Cuban lifestyle with low consumption levels yet sufficient nutrition and high quality education and health care all around the world?


The answer to both questions as Erik Assadourian suggests is a change of cultural norms in individuals and institutions. Culture and individual norms are mutually constituent and interrelated; one influences the other. Our individual norms are shaped by the cultural context we live in, the people we see, the stories we hear, etc. – and hence are, for a large part shared. Erik Assadourian proposes a plausible strategy to start with re-orienting institutions such as education and medicine at sustainability. Here economic profit should be less of a concern and social goals should be paramount already (although contrary, worrying trends can be observed).


I wonder whether we cannot beat consumer culture with its own weapons: media engage in clever campaigns for downshifting and consumption reduction, news present positive achievements in sustainable living instead of solely reporting on high costs and technical challenges related to transitioning, schools and eco-clinics do as Erik Assadourian suggests, (even more) artists challenge prevailing consumption norms, small (and then growing) business prove that money can be made in the pursuit of social and environmental goals. Indeed, visions, exemplars and practices are needed, but many of them and different ones for different people. I would very much like to see processes set in motion (by citizen groups and local policy makers, for example) that engage people in developing a local vision, finding local exemplars and re-inventing local practices. These groups should not be isolated, they can inspire and learn from each other and social media are a powerful tool to connect across time and space. These local processes are arenas for culture samplers who experiment with new and revive old norms for sustainable lifestyles.

Comment of Lewis Akenji

Paper by Jô Portilho


Sustainability and Consumption of Human Life

Jô Portilho

The mantra reverberates in the world that consumption, the way it has been presented since the twentieth century, is unsustainable. Indeed! Luxury consumption, and its pseudo-democratizing, as much as consumption below the minimum of the miserable populations spread around the planet (visibly found in developing countries, but now crowding the fringes of those developed) are Siamese twins of the state of barbarism. According to Eduardo Galeano (2008),


"those who run the game pretend they do not know it, but anyone with eyes can see that most people consume little, very little or nothing, necessarily, to ensure an existence of the little nature we have left. Social injustice is not an error to correct or a defect to overcome: it is an essential need. There is no nature capable of feeding a shopping mall as big as the size of the planet." 


These two extreme poles are unsustainable in the opinion of a growing universe of people. Maybe that's why public policies that focus on the advancement of people from layers below the poverty line in order to make them rise to the middle-class are so celebrated today in Latin America, especially in Brazil.1 Can the much-touted social rise of 27 million Brazilians who have been living in extreme poverty2 before and who can now afford at least "3 meals a day", as defended by former President Lula, be blamed for the destruction of the country’s environment? The logic of combating poverty (a combat which is absolutely fundamental) ends up blaming environmental degradation3 on social advancement rather than blaming it on the social relationship that produces it. The logic of capital as a social relation of production interferes in the areas of economy, politics and culture. As a result, the transfer of income-policies that facilitated the current level of social mobility in Brazil is only a government policy, not a State policy: introduced by the government of former President Lula, it is followed by the current President Dilma Rulsseff, but since it is not a law, future presidents can decide to stop it any moment. So, what do we have to produce, and from which resources, to ensure this “minimum” level of access to consumption? Or rather: what are “basic consumption needs”?


 "In Brazil, according to the Ministry of Cities, about 60 million Brazilians (9.6 million urban households) are not served by the network of sewage collection and, of these, approximately 15 million (3.4 million households) do not have access to piped water. Even more alarming is the information that when it is collected, only 25% of sewage is treated, the remainder is being dumped 'in nature’, i.e. without any treatment, into rivers or the sea. (...) 65% of hospital admissions in the country are due to waterborne diseases." (Consumers International et al., 2005, p. 31)


According to the Oslo Ministerial Roundtable Conference on Sustainable Production and Consumption in 1995, sustainable consumption is “the use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of live, 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”.


Human beings have been taught that it is their exaggerated individual consumption which has destroyed the planet, and that the solution would therefore involve the review of this consumption in terms of both post-consumer waste (recycle your domestic trash!) and use of resources (use less water!). As a consequence, after the social relations of capital have managed both to degrade the environment by polluting and plundering lands and seas and to change human relationships in a demeaning way over the last two centuries, concerns about the sustainability of the planet are shifted from production to "unconscious consumption". However, assigning accountability this way does not take into account that, in capitalist logic, the production process is dialectically interwoven with the social reproduction, which makes it impossible to separate the logic of production from that of distribution.


In this same sense, focusing primarily on the "passive and active consumers” while disregarding the power of advertising efforts and the media, seems somewhat idealistic.  The solutions are not on the hands of those who allow themselves to be seduced, or not, into following a false need for consumption. The consumer is not an extraterrestrial being, he is a worker in the factory, a school teacher, businessman, politician, citizen! Once the consumer is part of the social relations permeated by a capitalist logic which requires consumption as its safeguard, there will not be individual solutions. Even when organized into associations which push public policies to promote so called “sustainable consumption”, consumers cannot be sure that such policies will end the existing power inequalities in national and international trade relations (Consumers International et al, 2005, p.21).


Of course, we cannot underestimate the capacity of resilience that organized consumers have to say “no” for the offer of products which they do not wish to consume or that do not meet their needs. But neither can we assume that all consumers are part of a homogeneous category, randomly scattered across the globe, although the market, as Eduardo Galeano recalls, imposes "on the whole world a way of life that reproduces human beings like photocopies of the exemplary consumer”. 


If all consumers corresponded to the same North American standard, populations of Africa could refuse to consume the medicines distributed to them in human testing regimes, or refuse to eat GM food offered as humanitarian aid.4 However, since there is a class society, the competition for access to food and essential goods precedes awareness of destruction. Hunger is a bad counselor!


Nevertheless, we believe that the struggle and resistance of social and workers’ movements which has persisted throughout history has prevented things from becoming even worse. If we think of the example of Latin America, we observe that structural impediments that originated in centuries of agrarian export economy based on slave labor subordinated the region to a growing dependency on the central capitalism. This model of uneven development guaranteed the self-support of developed countries at the expense of underdevelopment, subjugating multitudes of human beings to the status of "social waste". Obviously, all this happened with a lot of fighting and bloodshed.


Unlike what happened post-war in countries of central capitalism, poverty and perverse, degrading working conditions were imposed on the outskirts where natural resources were exploited for the purpose of capital appreciation in the center.  This same logic impeded an agrarian reform in Brazil that would dignify the peasants´ living conditions. In this context, people who were forced off their farms joined the urban unemployed and swelled the outskirts of cities and slums. The struggle of the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST), therefore, is a fundamental part of the process of social reaction against the expansion of local and global inequalities. The increasing concentration and centralization of income marginalized the human being, turning those who are not used by the circuit of capital into “rejected goods without use”. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman refers to these people as "'human garbage', inescapable byproduct of modernization" and regrets that today they are present in all parts of the world because there is nowhere else to dump them.


Bauman draws our attention to the irony of the fact that we live in a society that developed the knowledge which allows us to offer sophisticated solutions for the process of production / consumption and mobility to move around the planet never seen before, but cannot create space for all. Now, the “surplus people” have to stay where they were “produced”, even though there is no room for them.

This sociologist reflects on the refugee status and makes an important statement about its function (or total dysfunction) in the "liquid society" at the beginning of the 21st century. The article5 mentions the existence of 12 million "people in transition" and a prospect of at least one billion "refugees transformed into exiles" by 2050. The author mocks the euphemism of "people in transition" for expressing the exact opposite of the reality of refugee camps: "The unique meaning of being sent to a place called 'refugee camp' is that all other conceivable places are out of the refugees’ limits.”


Based on the research of Michel Agier, Bauman notes that the refugee status is often assigned even within the country in which the “refugee” was born, the country in which he was living: "Agier has every reason to merge refugee camps, homeless camps and urban ghettos in one category – that of the 'corridors of exiles'. Residents of this place [...] are all redundant. Rejects or refuse of society. In short, waste." From my point of view one does not need to visit some miserable country in Africa - who has been to Brazil knows that peripheral capitalist development and these "corridors of exiles" share the same surroundings. It also happens in France or the US where we find lots of ghettos.


Bauman estimates that in the context of a society generating surpluses, those who are not compatible with the capital ethos are considered redundant. This is the genesis of the social question: it is necessary to put out “classes of human beings considered, for one or other reason, suspects to resist this manipulation, or who refuse openly to submit to the patterns. In other words, the categories accused of generating uncertainty, and therefore disturbing and undermining the future order". As for the rest, they try to escape this hell by dedicating themselves to finding new and constant ways to increase the productivity of labor which are often transformed too quickly into ideal conditions for their own elimination from the production process. Thanks to technical progress, entire sectors become useless and are discarded every day - "the collateral losses side of economic progress."


The sociologist believes that this state of affairs is inherent to modern society and has been presented as a source producer of garbage, “the local governance, or what is left of them that face the daunting task of seeking, finding and implementing local solutions to the problems generated globally, of universal character. In essence, this problem is resumed in the management of the industry of removal and recycling of waste and scrap”. 


The concept of sustainability is linked with sustainable development which has been discussed in world conferences on environmental questions for the last decades. The debates basically point to the extremes of world consumption and emphasize the need for urgent actions. However, they remain rooted in a model where the market controls the people; which is not tolerable for miserable people in poor countries and unsustainable even for the people from the so called developed countries.  Some European Union State members have been implementing all the “immutable” commands of the market, destroying the fundamental human and labour conditions as imposed by international institutions.6 In the name of market sustainability, governments forget the “sustainability of societies".


While there is need for global solutions, the great difficulty lies in determining the margins of independence nation-states can have under the imposition of policies designed by international institutions. Otherwise, the line defined between local development and the well-being of its population on the one hand and environmental preservation on the other will not be fair. The difficulties double in the case of those countries which are considered poor but are curiously rich of natural resources like ore, water and/or biodiversity. Should they be forced to preserve these resources even if that means not attending to their population starving for resources fundamental to human existence?    


But however terrifying the picture: the greatest danger is that we believe that things cannot be changed and that it is not possible anymore to find democratic solutions for the human existence.


The gateway to the preservation of life on the planet may not yet be well signposted, but certainly will be found on the wall opposite the shining lights of the market.


1 The Official Document of the United Nations Conference for the Environment, known as Rio+20, contains 58 clauses on combatting poverty. Available at; (last accessed on January, 24, 2013).
2 The ILO office in Brazil on 19/07/2012 posted a report showing data compiled between 2002 and 2009 showing a decline of 36.5% in the number of people living below the poverty line, i.e., 27.9 million Brazilians.  
3 In the Brazilian case, it should be noted that economic growth increased the demand for energy, leading, for example, to the construction of more hydroelectric dams on indigenous lands and pristine ecosystems, exploration of pre-salt layer, etc.
4 As an illustration, I suggest the film "The Constant Gardener" (2005) by Fernando Meirelles, which analyzes the issues of political influence of pharmaceutical companies in poor countries.
5 The article Sobre estar fora dentro, e dentro, mas fora  (On being out inside, and inside but out) was published in the international press on 19/02/2011 and later included in the book Isto não é um diário  (This is not a diary) by Zygmunt Bauman (2012), pp. 201-211.
6 International bodies created from Breton Woods to regulate the liberal greed of capitalism after the crisis of 1929 and World War II have not shown to be sufficiently democratic or independent of the global economic forces and politics. These institutions are the breeders of the largest social inequality of mankind.

Comments on the Paper by Jô Portilho

Missing strategies on how to break through the systemic failing

Comment of Erik Assadourian

The paper makes it clear that the challenges of consumption are systemic, not a problem of uneducated consumers. Social injustice is “an essential need” of our current consumer-capitalist system. Indeed, the global consumption and production system is so fully stacked toward wasteful exploitation and extraction—including as the author notes the discard of “human waste”—that it may be beyond our collective ability to stop. And certainly far beyond that of individual consumers’ agency to address in any meaningful way (at least if they focus on their power to consume differently rather than their power as political, social and cultural actors).


The concern though is that the paper concludes without strategies on how to break through this systemic failing. As Jô notes, “the greatest danger is that we believe that things cannot be changed and that it is not possible anymore to find democratic solutions for the human existence. The gateway to the preservation of life on the planet may not yet be well signposted, but certainly will be found on the wall opposite of the shining lights of the market.”


This is the heart of the paper and yet is only included as a concluding remark. What can be inferred from these points? If I understood correctly, it is that a sustainable society will come through abandoning capitalism and its alluring complementary ideology of consumerism (i.e. the shining lights). But will socialism in some new form replace capitalism, or will a new untried system take its place? What will that new system look like?


And how does that reconcile with the point before that assume democratic solutions are necessary? Is it realistic to think that there are democratic paths to such major governance and economic transitions? Perhaps modern democracy has merely been an extravagance of the elite, propped up by the abundance of freely flowing fossil fuels? With 9 billion people, climatic changes of 4-6 degrees Celsius, and other environmental disruptions, what are the odds that even basic human rights and decency are sustained in the centuries to come, let alone democratic institutions.


What is clear is that the faster the transition to a sustainable world—possibly even using means currently too taboo to even consider, whether that’s political, economic, cultural, or religious revolution—the more of our humanity we’ll be able to sustain in the centuries to come. While Jô’s paper explores the problems effectively, exploring these questions in depth could strengthen her paper significantly.

Comment of Jô Portilho

Comment of Julia Backhaus

A reform of institutions would spare us a demoralising debate

Comment of Lewis Akenji

Two words that make international political discussions of sustainable consumption seem like a game of dodge ball: population and equity. Juçara Portilho’s paper encircles both. She juxtaposes “luxury consumption” with “consumption below the minimum” level of human need and calls them the “Siamese twins” of unsustainable consumption. Rich countries have historically, in the course of their growth, caused more environmental damage, which, ironically, is affecting poorer countries more, and is further hindering their chances at economic growth. The population argument is made along the lines that fertility rates in poorer countries tend to be higher, and that the continuous increase in population (especially while many Northern countries are experiencing population decline) is and will keep driving unsustainable consumption.


Implicit to the need for sustainable consumption, especially when comparing consumption levels across different social classes or geographic regions, is a moral call for people to act upon the common foundations of one humanity, to step beyond their individual selves and behave more responsibly. This deceptively simple call for nobility can be a source of conflict – at individual and larger societal levels. People have been known to become more responsible consumers out of altruism; some because there is no other option (but to limit their consumption to what is available); some out of guilt (towards under-consumers, for example, or a warming planet, or for the sake of their kids, etc.). Some who consume within ecological limits have been known to act in self-righteousness towards others – perhaps assuming they’ve earned a moral license.


Living in a (global) society very easily can pit individual values against societal momentum. So one easily gets a situation where the Greens get upset because while they're saving the planet by using public transportation and carrying their eco bags when shopping, the Joneses and the Simpsons are guzzling it up with their SUVs and ski trips to winter themed malls in the Arabian Desert. All the while, it is the least vulnerable groups of society that suffer even more.


These issues have dogged negotiations towards international approaches to sustainable consumption. The first attempt to address this at the global level was at the first UN sustainable development conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. There, sustainable consumption was declared as one of the overarching objectives and essential requirements for sustainable development. Chapter four of Agenda 21 [1], the blueprint for action resulting from Rio, was dedicated to “changing consumption patterns”. It recognised the imbalances in consumption patterns between Northern and Southern countries, acknowledging that: “Although consumption patterns are very high in certain parts of the world, the basic consumer needs of a large section of humanity are not being met. This results in excessive demands and unsustainable lifestyles among the richer segments, which place immense stress on the environment. The poorer segments, meanwhile, are unable to meet food, health care, shelter and educational needs” (§4.5). Heads of States agreed that in pursuing environmental protection at international level, any measures “must take fully into account the current imbalances in the global patterns of consumption and production” (§4.4). Therefore what is needed is a “multipronged strategy focusing on demand, meeting the basic needs of the poor, and reducing wastage and the use of finite resources in the production process” (§4.5).


Far from it, little has improved with the above declarations. In fact, UN member states acknowledge that there is an “implementation gap” between their policies and actions taken. Trends are getting worse. Societies where consumerism had not been a way of life are now being exposed: we are not protecting those living within ecological limits. Instead, in emerging economies where most of these traditional societies are found, all is being done to urge them to join the economic consumerism rush - consumer loans, credit cards and other credit systems being introduced. Institutions of capitalism and rules that thrive on distinctions in consumption status are gaining hold.


So much such that the traditional North-South divide in consumption level is blurring. There is an emerging consumer class in developing countries that has copied and sometimes surpassed affluent lifestyles of the North. While this consumer class is growing, poverty is also becoming more entrenched. I have earlier written about a “dichotomy of social existence” in developing countries, where income distribution among the population is “lopsided, leading to conspicuous consumption by the rich, an emerging consumer class cast against the many slums in cities and large pockets of poor rural areas [2].” Yet poverty is not a trademark of just developing countries. In industrialised countries it is on the rise – at the same time when the top percentile of rich people is amassing even more wealth. It is a perverse system!


And clearly at this juncture it would be unproductive to abandon individuals at the centre of the moral maze. Labour codes, international trade agreements, pricing and exploitation mandates for resources, representation in international institutions... a reform of institutions would spare us a demoralising debate, not the least by taking away the bad options that pit societies or individuals against each other. As Portilho puts it, “…competition for access to food and essential goods precedes awareness of destruction. Hunger is a bad counsellor.”



[1] See Agenda 21, available at

[2] See Lewis Akenji, Magnus Bengtsson and Simon Olsen, “Global Outlook on SCP Policies: Asia Pacific”, Chapter 5 (Pg 108 – 129) in: UNEP (2012), Global Outlook on Sustainable consumption and Production Policies: Taking Action Together. UNEP.

Paper by Julia Backhaus


Enabling and enjoying sustainable consumption

Julia Backhaus

People have the choice! Business and government like asserting this claim suggesting that what is being produced and consumed in our global economies solely caters to people’s wishes. Following this logic, the responsibility and power to bring about change towards sustainability, hence, lies with everyone of us – individually. Supportive arguments put forward by industry and government are “we only supply what people demand” or “we should not tinker with people’s choices”. And it is hard to counter argue. Who would like to question the freedom of choice?


But let’s take a closer look at the freedom of choice, this grand good in theory, in practice. In reality, the choices we make are influenced by a myriad of factors, internal and external ones. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the way we travel and how we live depends on what we like, what is available to us and what we can afford. Internal factors affecting our behaviours and choices include, for example, our knowledge, habits, attitudes, norms and values. Examples of influential external factors are the infrastructures, culture, policies, and institutional framework around us and monetary assets available to us. The distinction between internal and external factors is more theoretical than actual because they are so mutually dependent, e.g. values, culture, habits and infrastructures influence one another. Making a differentiation between internal and external factors, nevertheless, helps to argue the point that the individual alone hardly has the power to bring about the changes needed to foster sustainable consumption.


These needed changes involving internal and external choice influencers cut across scales and domains, involving systems of production, distribution and consumption in the domains of food, mobility, housing, clothing, etc. They range from the local to the global, take time and require the engagement of many. Granted, there are some people who have comparatively more power and influence to bring about systemic changes and there are some with much power but little interest in change. There are few who actively pursue change towards sustainability already but there are many who seemingly hardly care. Considering the sheer scale and complexity of the issue, systemic changes for sustainable consumption appear to be a daunting task.


Across cultures, countries and communities, we can observe numerous people who are already engaged in more sustainable ways of living, however. They hardly fly, holiday close to home, eat less meat, grow their own veggies, use renewable energy, buy second-hand, share or barter, etc. Some do so because they cannot, others because they do not want to afford high-impact consumerist lifestyles. We also observe systemic changes of all sorts already. There are plenty of examples of energy or food cooperatives, car or product sharing networks, cohousing initiatives, etc. It is too early to get excited, however, because these changes are taking place in niches, among small yet growing population segments. Large-scale, mainstream changes are still outstanding.


One might assume that it cannot be too difficult to foster alternative ways of living as all signs seem to point at some inevitable challenges to be dealt with that simply require change. In the face of climate change, dawning resource scarcities, environmental degradation, growing inequalities, biodiversity loss, etc. alternative ways of production and consumption are not a possibility but a necessity. This enumeration of challenges may appear random and disconnected, but all are in fact symptoms of a single phenomenon: global consumer culture. And this phenomenon is firmly embedded in and held in place by socio-technical-political-economic systems aimed at GDP growth, i.e. growth in the consumption of products and services. In short, it is spurred by capitalist economies. These systems operate in overshoot and exploitation mode, but harmful effects are felt with significant delay1 and strongest among those who are most vulnerable yet less visible.2 No wonder that the climate and the environment currently rank rather low among public concerns in wealthy (in monetary terms), developed societies.3


Ironically, consumer culture does not even hold its promises. Economic systems aimed at continued GDP-growth, supposedly make us all better off, happier, healthier, etc. And they do – but only some of us, until a certain threshold and at enormous environmental and social cost. Beyond that threshold, continued increase in consumption levels does not deliver continued increase in happiness and well-being.4 For most people living in developed countries, consumption reduction will not entail significant constraints. The opposite is frequently the case with people who reduce their resource and energy consumption finding their lives enriched in many ways.5


To backtrack and summarise: We are faced with enormous global environmental challenges with a multitude of interlaced causes and effects. Consumer culture is at the heart of the problem, yet systemic change involving the mainstream of society is hard to achieve. It may be tempting to point at national governments, industry and business as the key players to bring about change, but they sufficiently demonstrated their unwillingness or inability to act over the past decades. So what to do? How to turn current niche practices into the new mainstream? There are many ways to intervene in our systems of production and consumption6 but what are possible leverage points to bring about mainstream sustainable consumption?


I would like to argue that small (read: local) is beautiful (read: effective) and take a stand for the subsidiarity principle. Of course, supportive framework conditions on national or even global scale, including appropriate policy agendas, subsidy schemes, indicators, etc. are helpful – but not essential. There are examples of cities, municipalities and communities that are successfully pursuing ambitious sustainability plans without much national support. They are looking for the most suitable solutions bottom-up, trying to gather the necessary support as they go. As a side effect, these local programmes for changes towards sustainability are rather independent from external developments and more resilient than larger-scale, top-down approaches.


What makes these initiatives successful is their context-embedded approach. Instead of offering one-size-fits-all options they are designing tailor-made solutions taking into account local specificities. Not every solution will work in any context, but only in particular geographical, social, political, economic or cultural settings (in marketing language: for particular target groups). Ideally, local actors collaborate to establish a range of sustainable options that entice numerous people to test and experiment. Often, people who get involved in change efforts discover they enjoy doing things differently, be it for economic, environmental or social reasons. The more people are doing things differently than before or than most others, the more people will follow. We can speak of a “diffusion of new practices”, e.g. cleaning, travelling, cooking.7 Practice already substantiates this hope for natural diffusion: even sceptics can be won over once they see that something is working well for others.


The much evoked necessary change away from consumer culture towards social institutions, norms and values for sustainable consumption cannot be induced from the outside, but needs to be felt and appreciated – individually and collectively. Engagement and experience are the most powerful and suitable vehicles for that. In other words, efforts at change solely targeting people’s wallets or solely appealing to morale are unlikely to “do the trick”. People’s assessment whether a more sustainable choice works well for them usually comes from personal or valued-others’ experience. Therefore, more sustainable choices are more likely to become mainstreamed the easier and more comfortable and enjoyable they are.


It may be hard for some to realise that many people are not opting for the most rational choice from an economic point of view. Policy-makers frequently fall into the trap of believing the most rational choice will be the one most frequently made and that price signals are the best approach to change. Marketers have already understood otherwise. Once we pay attention to the myriad of internal and external factors influencing people’s choices, we’ll be much better at developing innovative, alternative consumption schemes.


Research has shown that success factors of local sustainability initiatives or programmes include the involvement of relevant stakeholders in the design and implementation of such initiatives, clever networking, long-term and integrated thinking across domains, good short-term timing and constant evaluation and flexibility in planning and implementation. Flexibility is important because developments that occur over time (e.g. changing public opinions, subsidy schemes or stakeholder engagement) need to be taken into account.8 In addition, successful initiatives greatly profit from inspirational people with charisma and dedication driving efforts forward.


Looking for sustainable solutions locally can also be a way to build more resilient, just and future-proof communities. Rather than solely relying on money as medium to trade goods and services in individualistic societies, people can engage in local cooperation and the direct trade of knowledge, products, skills and services. Under the banner of social innovation, entrepreneurs, policy-makers and civil society actors alike are already experimenting with time banks, collaborative consumption schemes or local currencies that foster local economies and more sustainable living. Instead of disqualifying people without paid employment, everyone is able to participate and contribute as people are valued in terms of their time and actions in these alternative systems of production and consumption.


How realistic is it to suppose that consumer culture will cease vis-à-vis city, municipality and community initiatives for more sustainable consumption? From the current perspective, this probably hardly appears realistic because such initiatives are, although growing in numbers, still sparse, compartmentalised per domain rather than integrated and small-scale rather than dominant. Creating local framework conditions that make some sustainable consumption choices the default option and allow experimentation with others is a giant leap towards creating new life worlds, however. Surrounded by new ideas, options, infrastructures and different ways of doing things, norms and values are likely to co-evolve and change along. In other words, the cultural shift that is part and parcel for collective and hence also individual sustainable consumption does not precede but succeed contextual changes.


If the most doable and effective way towards sustainable consumption is the set-up of frameworks that render sustainable choices in people’s everyday lives more possible and fun, several steps to be taken here and now on the local level follow from this:


1. Courageous policy-makers are needed! Do not wait for national government or businesses to pave the way but develop ideas for liveable and sustainable cities and communities involving all relevant stakeholders and step-by-step approaches to foster change.

2. Support those that already have clever ideas and initiatives. Connect and inspire them.

3. Do not expect change to happen overnight – haste brings waste! Take your time to involve others, to listen, to plan and re-plan. The more people become professionally or privately engaged the more self-perpetuating change becomes. Keep track of developments, make sure they add up and be flexible.

4. Enabling sustainable consumption cannot and should not be left to local policy initiatives alone, however. Complaining and worrying is easy, but taking action is more fun! At the end of the day everyone of us should feel responsible to engage in changes towards more sustainable consumption. Those of us who feel more responsible than others – let’s make it easy and fun also for them!


1 Meadows, D., J. Randers, and D. Meadows, Limits to growth: the 30-year update2004, White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.
2 Contribution of Working Group II, in Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, et al., Editors. 2007: Cambridge, UK.
3 European Commission, Standard Eurobarometer Autumn 2012: Public opinion in the European Union, 2012.
4 Easterlin, R.A., Explaining happiness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2003. 100(19): p. 11176-11183.
5 Schreurs, J., Living with Less: Prospects for Sustainability, in ICIS 2010, University Maastricht Maastricht
6 Meadows, D., Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, 1999, The Sustainability Institute.
7 Shove, E., Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience: The Social Organisation of Normality 2003, Oxford: Berg.
8 Breukers, S.C., et al., Connecting research to practice to improve energy demand-side management (DSM). Energy, 2011. 36(4): p. 2176-2185.

Comments on the Paper by Julia Backhaus

We cannot expect the transition to post-consumerism to be “easy and fun”

Comment of Erik Assadourian

Julia makes some very important points in her opening: while industry and government convey that they are not shaping people’s choices and broader norms, it is very clear that they are. Thus, considering that they’re shaping the system to make people into consumers, sustainable consumption demands re-shaping the system, not empowering individual consumers. As she notes, “consumer culture is at the heart of the problem,” which I very much agree with.


Unfortunately I do not fully agree with her solutions. Take localization. Julia suggests localized solutions will be more effective. While contextualizing can be useful, marketers have shown that they can manipulate context and force a homogenized product across cultures and have a much larger impact in the process. Look at McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. With the right strategies, you can get just about anyone to eat burgers and fries. A bit of marketing, some in-store playgrounds, some toys for the kiddies, and voila: in less than a generation or two the taboo hamburger becomes the iconic meal of first the USA and now many parts of the world. While local efforts will probably make the communities that adopt them more resilient—e.g. if a sharing ethic is created, if neighbors know and help each other, if some of the food is produced locally, etc.—the changes that they can implement locally won’t be enough to stop runaway climate change or probably even slow its rapid movement forward.


Moreover, due to the sheer scope of the changes we need, we cannot expect the transition to post-consumerism to be “easy and fun.” Sure, community gardens and tool libraries can be the positive face to our transition but at the same time we’ll have to “give up” so much. If we really want to prevent climate collapse and not just assuage our guilt and pretend that we’re doing our part, we’re going to have to rapidly abandon air conditioning, long-distance vacation travel, most of the meat we eat, our cars, our beloved dogs and cats, and many other consumer entitlements. That suggests we’ll need bolder strategies to get people to adopt these changes. Thus perhaps what we’ll really need are not an abundance of small local efforts, but a committed minority that acts boldly. How many Americans were an active part of the Abolition or Civil Rights movements? Very few—but they were deeply committed—willing to risk life, limb, and their freedom. I give more chance of success to a small committed group acting than a plethora of small-scale efforts around the world. Especially as for every one of these small efforts, there are hundreds of small-scale efforts to get more people flying, buying pets, eating fast food, or thousands of other ways to convert 1-2 billion individuals into new consumers over the next 25 years—as economists estimate and as companies work toward making happen.

Comment of Jô Portilho

Comment of Julia Backhaus

We need an army of do-gooders

Comment of Lewis Akenji

“…the individual alone hardly has the power to bring about
the changes needed to foster sustainable consumption.”

Julia Backhaus


The paper by Julia Backhaus starts by ticking off some of the easy talking points used by business and government in justifying practical promotion of consumerism while at the same time talking about the need for consumers to act more sustainably. The typical excuses include: market supply as a direct response to demand, freedom of choice, and consumers as rational economic actors. Notice they are mostly market-related, the individual reduced to an economic actor. These talking points have been debunked in research paper after paper, though that has not stopped the excuses being used.


Backhaus, to show how constrained consumers are, differentiates between “internal” factors (knowledge, habits, attitudes, norms and values) and “external” factors (infrastructure, culture, policies, and institutional framework) affecting choice and behaviour.


Take the example of a city dweller with pro-sustainability values (e.g. likes riding bicycles to work) but comes up against the limits of infrastructure (e.g. no bike tracks on roads). The reality: you can buy all the bikes you want, but you will not use them on our roads - unless of course you want to be crushed by “legitimate” road users - car owners!


Backhaus acknowledges that changing the current social and physical configuration to ensure sustainable consumption is a big challenge at the broad systems level. Disillusioned with government inaction, she reverts to the power of local communities, the impact of actions at the local level and the need to learn from successful initiatives with “context-embedded” approaches.


Community owned farms, local currencies, etc. These foster ownership, encourage meaningful engagement and trust among members of the community. Community activism also allows members to (at least in the domain of activity where there is local action) avoid participation in the mainstream aspect of society which is considered unsustainable.


While community action and small-scale activities do not address the global scale of sustainability, they provide glimpses of possibilities, social experiments that can then be brought into the mainstream. The challenge here is what is often referred to as mainstreaming; the other is up-scaling. Can these local examples be broadened enough to apply at broader societal level? Or, indeed, is it necessary to do so? While I regretfully cannot answer the question, and while agreeing with Backhaus on the importance of local actions, I would perhaps want to caution that isolated instances of sustainable consumption would not be enough for living sustainably on the planet.


Hopefully, however, these beacons of sustainable sustainability can start a momentum towards reconfiguration of our mainstream social infrastructure (churches, hospitals, neighbourhood bars, PTAs, sewing clubs), inspire new, determined types of politicians and policies (choice-editing, ecological tax reform, focus development on achieving well-being) and demand a different design of physical infrastructure (shared transport modes, joint ownership of housing facilities, etc). And all of these in a timeframe that can address the challenge of unsustainable consumption while we can still revert to ecological limits of the planet.


We need an army of do-gooders, assemblies of small meaningful actions that chip away at the core of the hardened consumer culture. This includes seeing out-of-market solutions, not being locked in the ultra-capitalistic view of life - what propagated the problem in the first place. Barter, skills trade, time banks, farming collectives, poets, village actors, and (yes, call me naïve) lovers! The real test though is to see results beyond individual or local regimes. Effects of unsustainable consumption are not localised; a bad local environment has effects globally. Ultimately we need to see solutions at a global level. So while we push a few “green” individuals and communities hard, we must find a way of connecting those individual initiatives, to create a mainflow towards an overall one-planet accommodation for humanity.

Paper by Lewis Akenji


Sustainable Consumption or Consumer Scapegoatism? A provocation

Lewis Akenji

"The fact is, though, that we can be law-abiding and peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal."  Malcolm Gladwell


The objects we admire most from lost worlds are artefacts of the cultures that consumed their great civilisations.


The Maya civilisation had elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories. Jared Diamond (2005) notes that Mayans were skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizeable underground reservoirs for rainwater storage .  Yet, today their story is told from ruins of their majestic pyramids scattered around Central America, standing as symbols of their one-time greatness. Similarly, 16th century Easter Island was a healthy, thriving civilisation flourishing with abundant sea life and farming to feed a growing population until as recently as the 18th century. After their sudden collapse, today cultural traits of their hitherto power are held up by remains of nearly 900 gargantuan stone statues, moai, some weighing 80 tons. The same tragic historical trajectory goes with the Norse. The Vikings who settled into the Eastern Settlements of Greenland a thousand years ago built law-abiding communities with a viable economy; fostered great trade relations with their neighbours, and were successful in agriculture to feed their economy. To celebrate their cultural superiority, they flaunted the typical wealth flags of the time: church bells, stained glass windows, bronze candlesticks, etc. The Norse civilisation lasted for 400 years and then vanished.


The message from history: societies that institutionalise cultures of consumption might have, in their heydays, seemed infallible; today we know that ecological limitations are unforgiving to those that think they can consume and grow forever.


And yet we think we are different, better.  Our technology is more sophisticated, our military with stronger firepower, our food better genetically modified, our plastic more versatile and our machines and medicines keep us alive longer. This is the refrain repeated from our parliaments, our quick-fix TV stations, our corporations, our schools – the institutions that guard our culture. Anyone who reads similarities from history is ridiculed as a doomsday Malthusian. All responsible individuals have to do is consume more, to contribute to the economy that supports this great civilization.


Be it green or brown consumption, government and institutional embrace of any new label is circumscribed by the inability to imagine a world beyond consumer spending and economic growth. To pick on the individual consumer here is not entirely wrong, but it misses the stronger drivers and guardians of ever-increasing consumption patterns: Institutions are custodians of ways of life, of cultures.


An axiom that has shaped policy approaches to sustainable consumption (SC) is that if more consumers understand the environmental consequences of their consumption patterns, through their market choices they would inevitably put pressure on retailers and manufacturers to move towards sustainable production. The result is proliferation of the consumption of “green” products, eco-labels, consumer awareness campaigns, etc (Akenji 2012). In designing strategies and activities for sustainability, governments have relegated the role of consumers to end-users.


Hobson (2006, P 309) has noted in this approach the perverse framing that “all individuals possess a utility function” which the free market simply answers to. Applied by producers, being green strategically provides a market for products. Confirmed by de Boer (2003, P 258) through marketing research, companies are mainly motivated to use tools such as eco-labelling if they can “always be translated into traditional business criteria, aimed at short-term and long-term profits”.


The distorting lens here is continuous economic growth being the dominant paradigm; one which remains central to government legitimacy. On the one hand, conceptually SC at its most effective needs people to consume as little as necessary, in order to reduce environmental pressures and to free up consumption space for others. In contradiction, market-economy systems need to constantly increase consumption in order to sustain the economy. Consumption drives production, which drives economic growth. Witness the encouragement through advertisements, consumer loans and credit systems that have seen steady increases in consumer indebtedness. Sociologist Nick Turnbull surmises that “the state, rather than undertaking the risk of deficit spending to stimulate growth itself, is using policy mechanisms to encourage households to do this” (Spaargaren, 2003). Government and market conceptualisation of SC is thus carefully calibrated to not slow down the economy but to operate as a peripheral activity, that safeguards only against the most damaging and immediate environmental problems. Consequently, an increased emphasis is being put on efficient production and green consumerism, which allows governments to walk a fine line that pays lip service to SC while encouraging continuous consumption. At the same time, this places responsibility on consumers to undertake the function of maintaining economic growth while simultaneously, even if contradictorily, bearing the burden to drive the system towards sustainability. This is consumer scapegoatism!


A  paradoxical consequence of promoting green consumerism, well demonstrated by the case of eco-household appliances, is the so-called “rebound effect”: although washing machines and television sets have become more efficient, savings per unit have meant that people buy even more - the absolute amount of consumption has increased, outstripping the efficiency gains.


Princen and Clapp (Princen et al. 2002) have used the concept of “distancing” to explain one of the consequences of isolating consumers from a holistic view of the production-consumption system. To Princen, physical, cultural and other forms of distancing keep the consumer away from understanding how lifestyle purchases affect resource extraction for production. Similarly, Clapp argues that because household waste is conveniently and regularly collected and disposed of, people have little understanding of where the waste associated with the production of their purchases ends up. This leads to a growing mental, cultural and geographic distance between consumers and their waste. The more people are isolated as final-end consumers, green or otherwise, distancing causes ecological feedback to be severed, leading to decisions that perpetuate resource overuse and increased waste generation.


The intention with end-of-pipe green consumerism is not to change production processes, let alone the institutions that prop over-consumption, but to modify the products that are consumed. Sustainability is thus based on the subjective perception of the producer and the consumer, not necessarily on the facts of whether such behaviour would achieve the end objectives of sustainability. Activities such as buying energy-efficient drying machines rather than using natural sunlight to dry clothes, or buying bottled tap water packaged in recyclable PET bottles begin to take higher meaning under green consumerism.  For the green end-consumer, a warm glow is derived from believing the green-marketing hype and buying sometimes unnecessary eco-products, and not from any realistic understanding of the ecological consequences, especially as consumption accumulates.


To achieve sustainable consumption, the appropriate level of meaningful action is institutional; to change the logic and modify the social and physical infrastructure that promotes consumerism.  This does not relinquish the consumer of his/her responsibility, of which there are many; rather it recognises the limits to individual action and highlights the risks that continuous consumerism, albeit green, will drive the planetary system beyond recoverable limits of resource extraction, social dissatisfaction and rampant pollution.


In a study (Akenji and Bengtsson 2010), we’ve looked at the relative powers of major stakeholders in the value chains of consumer products. Analysing each group’s interests, its influence on other actors and the production-consumption system, and the instruments it uses to wield its power, we identified that the consumer is not the most salient stakeholder. Brand owners, retailers and consumers form a nexus of influence of the value chain, but it is the brand owner who is the lead actor. This emphasizes why a limited focus on consumers would only render frustrating results. Instead, the lead actor should be targeted so that it can use its power to shift the entire value chain. Beyond this, reform should not be limited to increased efficiency but to transform the corporate culture, to rethink how corporations organize themselves to meet societal needs.


Corporate reform should be accompanied with editing out unsustainable products from the market.   When it comes to interfering on individual choices, policy makers regard individual consumption as a sovereign domain, which is beyond the reach of public intervention; “neo-liberal thinking cautions against using public policy to unduly manage consumer decision making”  (Cohen 2005). Yet governments have always intervened in consumption, (e.g. of tobacco, firearms and alcohol) by employing such criteria as public safety and public health. Viewing the effects of unsustainable consumption as public concern, choice-editing demands that sustainability criteria be used to set minimum standards below which products will automatically fall off the shelf. This might not resonate well with the myopic crowd that espouses the now abused notion of freedom of choice; yet there is little logic in individual freedom that consumes away the livelihood of an entire planet!


Solutions must also address systems of provision. The extent to which everyday household consumption behaviour can change is not only dependent on consumer attitude but also on highly interdependent socio-technical networks or systems of provision (Chappells and Shove 2003) – i.e. how services or resources are produced, distributed and used. Demand for household services like energy, water and waste management is structured by the utility companies, manufacturers and regulators involved in specifying technologies and systems, managing loads and modifying resource flows. Therefore, a more effective framing of SC policy needs to look beyond individual actions.


Beyond environmentally conscious single-unit designs, we especially need broader physical planning that integrates multiple functionalities of housing, mobility, feeding, and work, to optimize resource (re)use and facilitate healthier community development. This should be combined with a sustainability audit of public utility systems and systems of provision. Possible outcomes include restrictions of unsustainable options (e.g. non-renewable energy sources) and application of eco-friendly tariffs (e.g. progressive charges for water and energy bills). 


Above all, we need to construct a new vision beyond economic definitions; one that engages positive attributes in people and inspires new solutions. At the heart of consumption is the drive to be better, for people to lead happier lives. But that is not registered in the parameters we use in evaluating success of a society. The widely used GDP has economic dynamism as a priority; in a society where growth has become an end to itself, human well-being has become subservient. A nursing mother’s time with the new-born baby does not contribute to GDP growth; neither do non-consumptive leisurely activities like taking a walk, nor does helping a friend in the garden count. The things which experience and research show that make people happy without spending money – a sense of belonging to and trust in community, a meaningful contribution to society, physical health, love - have little direct resonance on the GDP. Instead, spending on cancer treatment or paying insurance against robbery stimulates GDP growth. It’s ironic; our parameters of economic success come at the expense of our own happiness!  And so the ways in which we are encouraged to demonstrate success are ultimately detrimental to the planet upon which we depend.


The Mayas, the Vikings, the Easter Islanders, are but a few examples of civilizations which, right at the peak of their cultures, when they were at their strongest, suddenly collapsed! Historical narratives have always preferred to isolate warfare as the cause of the collapse of great civilisations - which in some cases is true. But while the envy of militant neighbouring empires or warring colonialists have sometimes been the immediate cause, this view tends to ignore the preparatory work done by the societies themselves, the long term causes that led to their demise. Where history brings in nature, it has often picked cataclysmic events – natural disasters, epidemics – to justify that those civilisations were destroyed by forces out of human control. Mounting evidence from scientific research is beginning to show a more complete picture. It is the way we organise our societies, the institutions that guard our way of life, and our everyday patterns of production and consumption that determine our future.


In the last days of the Norse, as pressures increased on their limited forests and resources, they continued to thrash the trees, to trade in church bells, stained glass windows, silk, silver – artefacts that showed their society as supreme. On the Easter Islands, the palm trees fell beyond the ecological balance and nature came in with climatic extremes. Ancient Egypt is yet another example of a collapsed civilisation which we romanticise in our TV documentaries and movies, flashing crafted objects unearthed from burial tombs, measuring perfect geometric dimensions of their pyramids, and offering vivid narratives of their scientific supremacy and ceremonies lush with gold.


War and disasters might contribute, but they only succeed when we have laid the groundwork, shifting the ecological balance, and made the natural system upon which we depend to be so vulnerable that man-made or human disaster is only a trigger that pushes us over the tipping point. As Jared Diamond shows, our institutions are tuned to think more about our social survival – fashion, cars, TVs, fountains – and less about our biological survival – forests, water, energy. That logic needs to change; and the more we shift the burden from institutional to individual level, the more we scapegoat individual consumers, the tougher the challenge to our civilisation.



Akenji, Lewis. 2012. “Consumer Scapegoatism and Limits to Green Consumerism” in Proceedings: Global Research Forum on Sustainable Consumption and Production Workshop, June 13-15, 2012, Rio de Janiero, Brazil

Akenji, Lewis, and Magnus Bengtsson. 2010. “Is the Customer Really King? Stakeholder Analysis for Sustainable Consumption and Production Using the Example of the Packaging Value Chain”, in Sustainable Consumption and Production in the Asia-Pacific Region: Effective Responses in a Resource Constrained World. IGES, Hayama, pp. 23-46.

Chappells, Heathers and Elizabeth Shove. 2003. "The environment and the home." Paper for Environment and Human Behaviour Seminar, Policy Studies Institute: London, 2003.

Cohen, Maurie J. (2005), “Sustainable Consumption in National Context: An Introduction to the Special Issue” in Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy, Volume 1, Issue 1, spring 2005;

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking, 2005

De Boer, Joop. 2003. Sustainability Labelling Schemes: the logic of their claims and their functions for stakeholders. Business Staretgy and the Environment 12, 254 – 264 (2003).

Hobson, Kertsy. 2006. “Competing Discourses of Sustainable Consumption: Does the ‘Rationalization of Lifestyles’ Make Sense?”, in Tim Jackson (Ed) The Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Consumption. Earthscan, London, pp305 – 327

Princen, Thomas, Michael Maniates, Ken Conca (eds.) 2002. Confronting Consumption. Cambridge Mass., MIT Press

Spaargaren, Gert. 2003. “Sustainable Consumption: A Theoretical and Environmental Policy Perspective” in Society and Natural Resources, 16:687–701, Taylor & Francis Inc.

Comments on the Paper by Lewis Akenji

The biggest question of how do we get there is left unanswered

Comment of Erik Assadourian

Lewis makes an excellent point that while our global consumer culture seems infallible, so did other now collapsed cultures. And I would add that more recently so too did the powerful Soviet system, which collapsed so speedily. The idea that our current global consumerist system isn’t fragile is absurd and this paper effectively draws attention to this point.


As well—Lewis makes the valuable point that “our institutions are tuned to think more about our social survival – fashion, cars, TVs, fountains – and less about our biological survival – forests, water, energy.” And makes it clear that focusing on the consumer’s role in changing behaviors will fail to fix this skewed focus or our obsession with economic growth as the dominant system paradigm.


Lewis makes some good suggestions on how we can start to change the system: choice editing, moving beyond GDP/shifting what we understand as success. But truthfully, these types of changes depend on the very institutions that have been captured/co-opted by those entities (such as corporations) that have so much to lose if we move to a post-consumer orientation. Thus the biggest question of how do we get there—Reform? Evolution? Revolution?—is left unanswered. Or perhaps that omission was intentional. Perhaps the inability to make these changes is so overwhelming that the only option left is to wait for our collective collapse and pick up the pieces once that process wraps up. But in that case, the reader deserves suggestions on how to ready himself for the rebuilding process that will inevitably follow.

We need strong, democratically-managed institutions, permeated by the paradigm of global solidarity

Comment of Jô Portilho

With his article Sustainable Consumption or Consumer Scapegoatism? A provocation, Lewis Akenji raises really fundamental questions for those who desire to remove the debate about sustainability and consumerism from the pure field of ideas and take it to the social commitment to necessary changes.


His analysis recovers the importance of deeply “listening” to what was left to us by history as an inexorable message, while make us remember that nothing lasts forever in the same shape: neither the very good nor the very bad!


Among the “provocations” pointed by Akenji, the role of society’s institutions, especially those involved in the creation and implementation of public policies appears as the central point. The neoliberal vision of the state defends a reduction of its role as a provider of social welfare (“minimal state”), while demands a posture of protection and incentive, at all costs, to the logic of the market (“maximal state”).


Akenji gives a good example to this issue when he refers to the propaganda effort about “efficient production and green consumerism” spread by the media together with governmental policies taken from the top. The author demonstrates that the paradigm of constant growth, implemented by the national states, transfers to the consumer the individualized responsibility to prevent the collapse of the system: all must keep consuming without interruption and, for the consumers more committed with the defense of the environment, green production is created, at a higher cost, of course!


This shifting of the responsibility and the risk to the final consumer, that Akenji points as “scapegoatism”, is very functional to the globalized capitalism. In it, the division of the responsibility for a worthy, healthy and happy life for all is totally unequal. However, we cannot fall in the trap that we will solve the contradictions posited by the unscrupulous relation between the great capital and the national states by devaluing politics in itself. To the contrary, options of structural changes towards a sustainable planet in no way can exist without strong, democratically-managed institutions, permeated by the paradigm of global solidarity.


According to Akenji, we understand that “to achieve sustainable consumption, the appropriate level of meaningful action is institutional”. But I would like to stress that I conceive the institutional field represented by decisory instances that reflect society as a whole, and not only as fractions of social classes with a higher income! Consequently, this is not about patronizing the consumers, but conceding them the right to be citizens before they are labeled as only consumers.


In this sense, Akenji again touches an essential point when he discusses the production chain and the important role of the brand owners. According to the author, even though the consumer is an important stakeholder, he does not have the same power of influence in the value chain. I agree with him that the impact of unsustainable consumption is a problem of public interest. It would be essential, for this very reason, that governmental decisions prohibiting the sale of products harmful to the environment and the health of the people who make, sell or consume them, should not be so “carpet bombed” by the neoliberal logic through the media. According to this logic, public interest must bow to individual desire, as the isolated individual is the only one with power of choice and veto!


Another point that I, as Akenki, judge essential in the discussion on sustainability is the system of delivering services such as supplying water and energy... As it is a service used by the entire population, it is indispensable to have public and transparent control over its management, quality and costs.


I would like to stress my agreement with the author’s ideas about recovering evaluation criteria that go beyond a purely economic vision. The way to overcome the process of environmental destruction cannot be a hostage of prioritizing the “inexorable” economic dynamism of the GDP instead of human and nature well-being.


I conclude with a textual citation of Lewis Akenji that I consider the inflection point for changing direction to a sustainable world: “The things which experience and research show that make people happy without spending money – a sense of belonging to and trust in community, a meaningful contribution to society, physical health, love - have little direct resonance on the GDP.”

What kind of corporate reform and alternative institutional logics do we need and how can we bring them about?

Comment of Julia Backhaus

I appreciate the irony Lewis Akenji employs to describe the shortcomings of our current culture, economy and institutional arrangements after just having elaborated on the demise of past civilisations: “All responsible individuals have to do is consume more, to contribute to the economy that supports this great civilisation” [emphasis added]. I agree that the phenomenon of “consumer scapegoatism” exists, but prefer to frame it as “responsibility escapism”, arguing along the same lines as Lewis Akenji does. In my own position paper, I also took the stand that it is rather convenient for policy makers and companies to hide behind the notion of freedom of choice and delegate the burden of responsibility to the individual consumer. In other words, Akenji and I are in agreement when endorsing action to be taken on the level of culture, institutional arrangements and systems of provision rather than the individual consumer.
If I follow Lewis Akenji’s line of argumentation correctly, he stipulates that most power to bring about change in our system of production and consumption lies with brand owners. For Akenji, the key to success appears to be corporate reform accompanied, possibly pushed by policy action. I wonder, though, how brand owners, the lead actors, are to be targeted beyond choice-editing, i.e. the obligatory phasing out of products and services that do not withstand certain sustainability standards. I support choice editing for the same reason Lewis Akenji puts forward, namely the fact that policy has always interfered with people’s choices and has every right to do so if this interference serves the right purpose, such as public safety or health. Political philosophy suggests that another such right purpose is aiding the worst off. Considering how bad our planet is off already, and how this in turn affects the vulnerable populations of our global society most severely, a political action to protect our environment is expedient. Then again, choice editing alone cannot be sufficient to motivate corporate reform of the kind Lewis Akenji promotes, namely a rethinking of the goals corporate efforts pursue.
A second avenue for action Lewis Akenji proposes is the use of more appropriate aggregate indicators than GDP. This argument is commonplace in sustainable consumption discussions and many alternative indicators are being explored. My question would be whether the employment of alternative aggregate indicators will indeed have the desired effects, i.e. whether this instrument will suffice to bring about the desired corporate reform. I find another line of argument put forward by Lewis Akenji particularly intriguing, namely the idea “to change the logic” of consumption. For him, this goes (way) beyond efficiency and the consumption of green rather than brown products and services. Instead, consumption operating by this new logic involves actual consumption reduction, i.e. consuming “as little as necessary”. This is nicely in line with Erik Assadourian’s suggestion to re-engineer consumer culture into a sustainable culture.
I would be curious to learn about the alternative cultural logic (or logics?) Lewis Akenji had in mind when writing his position paper. In my own work, I am studying principles that organise our socio-technical systems and that are safeguarded by institutions, the “custodians of ways of life” as Lewis Akenji so eloquently phrased it. The currently dominant paradigm or organising principle governing our norms, values, culture, systems of provision, etc. is consumption (and hence GPD) growth, rightly blamed for the potential downfall of our civilisation by Lewis Akenji in his position paper. The alternative principle most spoken of in the policy arena is efficiency, which is important but considered to be insufficient by the sustainable consumption community if we are to live within planetary boundaries. The two other principles I am investigating in my research are sufficiency and creativity: where can we find these principles at work already, which actors are supportive of these principles, which power relations are strengthened which ones undermined when these principles are at work and, possibly most importantly, how could these more sustainable organising principles be stimulated, by policy, business, societal actors, etc.? Because this is the focus of my own work, I would have loved to read more about how Lewis Akenji would describe and characterise the current logic of our institutions, the alternative logic he would endorse and how he thinks that changes in logic can be brought about, supported or facilitated.
Contrary to what he seems to suggest (although this may be my own, mistaken interpretation of his writings), i.e. that dominant institutions such as parliaments, TV stations, corporations and schools safeguard the logic (I would call it “organising principle”) of growth, I hope to discover in my research that alternative logics are in place already, also within these institutions. Luckily (for us and our planet), there are numerous institutions, including civil society, medicine, education, religion, family, etc., that exist to safeguard comfort, health, prosperity and happiness – the kind of goals the logics (or principles) of sufficiency and creativity would aim at and the kind of goals Lewis Akenji considers to be signposts for desirable corporate reform. Instead of also subordinating these institutions, sustainability’s last resorts, to market mechanisms, policy aimed at supporting sustainable societies would strengthen them by accounting for all, not only economic profits to be made. Here I have come full circle to Lewis Akenji’s arguments in favour of alternative indicators than GDP, broken down to more concrete policy objectives.
The notion of “social survival” also calls for some pondering. Certainly, advertisement wants to make us believe that only the latest fashion, the hippest music and the sportiest car makes us sexy and successful. And indeed, people consume to engage in social conversations, to tell others who they are and what they value. If we look closely, we can see trends that demand no or less consumption for “social survival”, however, namely collaborative consumption, repair cafés, community gardens – all of which also tackle the challenge of “distancing” Lewis Akenji also addresses. Ideally, social and biological survival will mean the same thing, one day!

Comment of Lewis Akenji

Joint Position Paper

NowHere, NoWhere – Where and when is Utopia?

by Judith Gouverneur



  1. Points of Convergence


To start with, there’s a lot of agreement. First, on the challenge: “In the face of climate change, dawning resource scarcities, environmental degradation, growing inequalities, biodiversity loss, etc., alternative ways of production and consumption are not a possibility but a necessity.” (Julia Backhaus)  Second, on the problem behind the challenge – and thus on the central target for action: “[These challenges] are in fact synonyms of a single phenomenon: global consumer culture. And this phenomenon is firmly embedded in and held in place by socio-technical-political-economic systems aimed at GDP growth […]. In short, it is spurred by capitalist economies”. (Julia Backhaus) Third, there’s agreement on the fact that there is a tendency to shift responsibility from the production to the consumption side, from system to individual: “After the social relations of capital have managed both to degrade the environment […] and to change human relationships […], concerns about the sustainability of the planet are shifted from production to ‘unconscious consumption’.” (Jô Portilho)


According to Lewis Akenji, the described shift of responsibilities involves a problematic doubling of demands, „plac[ing] responsibility on consumers to undertake the function of maintaining economic growth while simultaneously, even contradictorily, bearing the burden to drive the system towards sustainability.“ Whether this blame shifting towards consumers is another coup of the capitalist system, opening up new, “green” market areas which allow consumers „[to] delude themselves into believing that they’re doing their part to consume sustainably when they are not“ (Erik Assadourian); whether it is purposefully conducted, as conveyed in Lewis Akenji’s formula of “consumer scapegoatism“, or rather a matter of „responsibility escapism“, as Julia Backhaus puts it – what is agreed is that „it is rather convenient for policy makers and companies to hide behind the notion of freedom of choice and delegate the burden of responsibility to the individual consumer.“ (Julia Backhaus)


But when it comes to defining consumer’s role within the much needed transformation of unsustainable lifestyles, freedom of choice is a highly problematic concept – and at least questionable as an argument. Julia Backhaus describes this difficulty as the complex interaction of mutually affective internal (that is, knowledge, habits, attitudes, norms, values) and external influences (such as infrastructure, culture, policies, institutional framework) on the individual which at least relativizes the idea of freedom of choice. For Jô Portilho, the consequences of the systematic entanglement of the individual are very clear: „The consumer is not an extraterrestrial being, he is a worker in a factory, a school teacher, businessman, politician, citizen! Once the consumer is part of the social relations permeated by a logic which requires consumption as its safeguard, there will be no individual solutions”. While there is agreement on the fact that “the individual alone hardly has the power to bring about the changes needed to foster sustainable consumption” (Julia Backhaus), both Julia Backhaus and Lewis Akenji also indicate the ambiguity of the concept, pointing not just towards its misuse but also towards the danger of foreclosing potentials for action and innovation which a more positive reference on the ideal of individual freedom of choice and action as a reclaim of not just social, but also political rights might offer.


Individualizing responsibility is not just futile, it is dangerous


Lewis Akenji calls attention to another interesting problem which is closely related to the blame shifting-practice, namely that individualizing the responsibility to bring about a more sustainable way of living may not only be unfair and little productive, but also dangerous as it threatens to undermine solidarity and social cohesion. „Take the example of a city dweller with pro-sustainability values (e.g. likes riding bicycles to work) but comes up against the limits of infrastructure (e.g. no bike tracks on roads). The reality: you can buy all the bikes you want, but you will not use them on our roads – unless of course you want to be crushed by the ‘legitimate’ road users – car owners!” Against this background, it becomes clear that Julia Backhaus‘ call for the mainstreaming of sustainable choices and initiatives which up to date remain “niche practices” is not just a strategic question. It is also of utmost importance when we want to make sure the “project sustainability” will not be viewed as one which can only be realized outside society or even against it instead of together with and within society.


In this context, the question also arises of whether there is such a thing as the often claimed sustainable consumption and whether it really serves the environment and the people or rather promotes a moralization of consumption which underestimates the social relevance of consumption and hence abets the drifting apart of society. „It would be unproductive to abandon individuals at the center of the morale maze”, says Lewis Akenji. “A reform of institutions would spare us a demoralising debate, not the least by taking away the bad options that pit societies or individuals against each other.“


As a consequence, there is urgent need to strengthen politics, meaning not only the reinforcement of the primacy of (democratic) politics over the markets and a re-politicization of the concept of sustainability, but also the re-solidarization of consumers. ”We cannot fall in the trap that we will solve the contradictions posited by the unscrupulous relation between the great capital and the national states by devaluating politics in itself”, warns Jô Portilho. “To the contrary, options of structural change towards a sustainable planet in no way can exist without strong, democratically managed institutions, permeated by the paradigm of global solidarity.” And according to Erik Assadourian, the way individuals conceive themselves will influence the way they address the challenge of overcoming current unsustainable lifestyles: “Indeed, the global consumption and production system is so fully stacked toward wasteful exploitation and extraction […] that it may be beyond our collective ability to stop. And certainly far beyond that of individual consumers’ agency to address in any meaningful way (at least if they focus on their power to consume differently rather than their power as political and social actors).“


It’s not only about what or how much we consume – We also have to change what we see in consumption


Consequently, all authors treat consumption not primarily as a private action, but as a social activity through which, on the one hand, social processes of identification and distinction and, more indirectly, the allocation of social recognition takes place and which, on the other hand, acts as both pillar and driver for production, hence contributing to the perpetuation of a system based and depending on continuous growth. Through this, the authors make one thing very clear: Those who take seriously the need for a change of our ways of living cannot tie this demand to consumption alone, much less to individual, private consumption, but will have to include the production system as well as the existing institutions as crucial and influential pillars of the current system.


Besides concrete action targeted at corporate reform and a re-orienting of institutions, actions will also have to be directed towards an at least partial decoupling of consumption from the social functions it fulfills, meaning we will need to find and provide socially viable alternatives. As for the processes of how social recognition is being distributed throughout society, for example, an important step towards the decoupling of social status and consumption would be to restructure the employment and working sector in a way that allows for different mechanisms of recognition-allocation beyond money and its most visible expression, consumption. “Instead of disqualifying people without paid employment, everyone is able to participate and contribute as people are valued in terms of their time and actions in these alternative systems of production and consumption”. (Julia Backhaus)


Sustainability as justice


Throughout the discussion, something else becomes clear as well: Those who take seriously the need for a change of our ways of living will have to read the question of a sustainable living together also as a question of justice. On a first level, this is directly comprehensible, for if it was alright with us that in the foreseeable future a decreasing number of people will be able to live under humane circumstances we would not have to have this urgent debate, at least not here and now. But in the context of consumer responsibility, justice also points to the problem of a highly differential access to freedom of action and choice.  „Of course, we cannot underestimate the capacity of resilience that organized consumers have to say ‘no’”, says Jô Portilho. “But neither can we assume that all consumers are part of a homogeneous category [...]. If all consumers corresponded to the same North American standard, populations of Africa could refuse to consume the medicines distributed to them in human testing regimes, or refuse to eat GM food offered as humanitarian aid. However, since there is a class society, the competition for access to food and essential goods precedes awareness of destruction. Hunger is a bad counselor!“ And finally, the articles show that the growing inequity within societies as well as at a global level is not only conceived as unjust, but holds an explosive force which gives fighting injustice a significance beyond the motive of building a more equitable world. Erik Assadourian expresses this very drastically, saying that „ultimately, the consumer culture will implode as ecological systems break down, and as temperatures hit 2, 4, even 6 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial averages. At that point, only the richest will be able to afford to live consumer lifestyles, while the vast majority of people will need to seek out an alternative cultural orientation—ideally a sustainable one, though at that point any that enable them to survive will in all likelihood be accepted, whether that be fascism, theocracy, corporate feudalism, or whatever other models a dystopian future might bring.”


  1. Points of Divergence


To sum up, the discussants widely agree on the fact that the challenges of our consumption-driven society are primarily systemic and that therefore, the necessary change will have to be a change of the existing system, complete with the culture, values and norms at its basis and the institutions in which they are embedded. Without letting consumers off the hook too easily – focusing on the individual for action will most certainly not do. Rather, what we need is ideas that transcend the borders of the uniform thinking in which we have established ourselves quite comfortably, often accepting the alleged lack of alternatives too easily as an excuse for inaction.


So, is the search for sustainable ways of life, for sustainable models of society and development taking us to the edge of our imagination? Probably not, but it sure takes the discussants to the edge of accordance.


When it comes to the questions of “Where to go?” and “How to get there?” the authors’ ideas range from a democratic, bottom up-driven transformation to ideas recalling the concept of development dictatorships; from the very practical and action-oriented idea of a plurality of local initiatives developing into the fundamental cultural change identified as necessary to plans for an avant-garde driven reengineering of cultural norms „to delegitimize the consumer way of life altogether – so that living sustainably feels natural and living as a consumer becomes a societal taboo.” What sounds like a “utopian fantasy” – as opposed to a multitude of possible dystopian futures – to Erik Assadourian, is harshly criticized by both its commentators. Interestingly enough, it’s the same finding of the inseparability of social relations from the dominant relations of production – although derived from completely different theoretical backgrounds – that lead Assadourian to the conclusion that „we will need cultural pioneers that can extract themselves from the dominant consumer cultural paradigm and work toward bringing about a new sustainable culture. […] These pioneers will need to embed themselves in existing institutions – government, business, education media and advertising, social movements, even religions – working to overhaul systems and the cultural norms they reinforce to make them orient on sustainability.“ Jô Portilho, on the contrary, strongly rejects this idea on the grounds of its authoritarian approach. Even though Portilho does not say so explicitly, her thoughts about „human garbage“ present a strong warning against any kind of utopia which presents itself as a closed and therefore radically exclusive ideology. For any principle withheld from democratic contestation will necessarily produce whole groups of people who are simply not wanted. No such principle will ever be sustainable, not even sustainability itself. „The ecological philosophy suggested by Assadourian will have to promote its own ethics on the importance of changing habits towards sustainability. In other words, it will be a philosophy compatible with the new sustainable rationality. This rationality of an ‚ideal type‘ [that] will guide the populace […] is outside it”, while according to Jô Portilho, we “[need] to join forces to break the logic of the market to change society from the inside”.


Arguing along similar lines, Julia Backhaus dismisses Assadourian’s approach as a possible road to a “green totalitarian regime”. Her utopia is a pluralistic one, a utopia of many small utopias: „Indeed, visions, exemplars and practices are needed, but many of them and different ones for different people.“ Lewis Akenji aligns himself with this, suggesting „assemblies of small meaningful actions that chip away at the core of the hardened consumer culture. This includes seeing out-of-market solutions, not being locked in the ultra-capitalistic view of life“.


Erik Assadourian’s idea of cultural pioneers and eco-missionaries creating a global ecological-philosophical movement “complete with a cosmology, theodicy […], ethics, stories and practices that help bind communities together” understandably enough conjures up fears and historic memories of the worst kind, and respective developments would surely have to be observed with “extreme caution”, as Backhaus says. However, the parallel Assadourian draws to religion and its multiple shapes also allows reading the idea as one directed at an overall consensus within which competition between a plurality of interpretations is possible or even intended.


  1. Points of Departure


So, where do we go from here? In fact, one of the most important lessons might be that we will have to come to accept and appreciate that a certain amount of insecurity and antagonism of ideas will always accompany us on our search for more sustainable ways of living together. With the way towards sustainable lifestyles still widely uncharted, for now it makes sense to focus not only on the destination, but to consider the way ahead already as part of the change we are calling for. As such, we have to make sure the transformation will be a democratic, that is: an emancipative process which does not foreclose, but open up points of access for as broad a public as possible. This process, of course, will take time. For it to succeed, we will have to make sure that all these actions are being increasingly embedded in society and will be propped up by parallel larger-scale changes which lead to “more supportive framework conditions on national or even global scale, including appropriate policy agendas, subsidy schemes, indicators, etc.”  That is: We need a fundamental systemic change which does not build upon the individualization of responsibility that will wear out social solidarity and has already distorted our ideas of freedom and community, but rather encourages people to rediscover their actions as meaningful and to re-open spaces of political action. Because “the greatest danger is that we believe that things cannot be changed and that it is not possible anymore to find democratic solutions for the human existence.” (Jô Portilho)

Comments of Joint Position Paper

Kommentar von Erik Assadourian

Kommentar von Jô Portilho

Kommentar von Julia Backhaus

Kommentar von Lewis Akenji


Judith Gouverneur (Ed.)
Is different really enough? Thoughts on a new role for consumption

FES Perspectives, July 2013


Economic growth remains the focus of both policies and societies worldwide. In the meantime, social inequality rises and the ecological destruction of our planet continues to accelerate. We know that things have to change, but struggle to imagine a good life beyond the consumption driven lifestyles we have established ourselves in. In this publication, experts from different parts of the world address the question of consumer responsibility in the necessary transformation process towards more sustainable societies and set out to look for new roles for consumption.

Between Choice and Structure: Sustainable Consumption and Responsibility