DEVELOPMENT | Why Sustainable Consumption is not enough


Taken from Darren Willman

Before I start, I wish to state that although my title might seem somewhat defeatist, this article does not argue against Sustainable Consumption, but against the idea that somehow sustainable and ethical consumerism is enough to solve all the world's woes. When we think of sustainable consumption images of Fairtrade packets (the yummy chocolates) and organic labels we find in the supermarkets come immediately to mind. However, like the image above states: Ethical [sustainable] consumerism is still consumerism. So, what is it that really needs to change?

As I was reading the OECD's report on Promoting Sustainable Consumption, it dawned on me that, whilst promoting sustainable consumption is good, we are taking away from a larger issue of tackling the real offenders to environmental and social decline--i.e. the main large scale economic drivers. I believe that individuals should contribute, but by asking the individual consumer to take on the responsibility of fixing the world's environmental and social issues is unrealistic and very much problematic. Individual actions, WILL have an affect on small bodies--i.e. local neighbourhoods and local-level government bodies in the best case scenario--but have not yet been proven to make its mark on larger social issues. It is our hope that individual actions which influence local bodies, can then act as a catalyst for discussions on a wider forum.

I am a big fan of the Story of Stuff Project. It was probably one of the first things I watched before making this attempt at living an ethical lifestyle, and man was this particular video eye-opening. I knew that shopping responsibly wouldn't change the world, but I still believe it makes a difference to someone's life, even if only my own. However, during these past two years it was evident that the individual consumer buying ecologically and socially sound goods was good, but not the solution to the problem it claims to solve.

I would walk into the supermarkets and scour the stores to find the few Fairtrade items they had (I don't shop at the organic section, but I do buy my vegetables from the small green grocers who I believe in more than corporate organic labels). As a sustainable international development specialist (I think I just made that up) this is a great place to start, but if we think that this is where it should end then it definitely negates from the issue of sound environmental and social policies and actions that need to be made from the government and corporate levels.

So where do we stand? What am I really trying to tell the reader who is embarking on being an Ethical Consumer? Continue shopping as ethically and sustainably as possible, but we should also strive to one day be citizens and not individuals when it comes to creating and being change. This is only the beginning, the starting point before we can really make an impact on this ideology we are trying to promote.

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  1. Consuming responsibly is one part of the equation. People Tree back up your argument here: calling for greater corporate responsibility for supplier wages and safety standards in the wake of yesterday's building collapse in Bangladesh which claimed the lives of garment workers.

  2. Hi!

    What you've discovered could be viewed as depressing, but more than that, I view it as having a greater awareness- which I firmly believe is really what's needed if we want to effectively solve anything over the long term. I never believed that responsible consumption could SOLVE problems like poverty or environmental degradation, but the word 'solve' implies ideal. Eradication of (almost) 100% of the problem. All at the same time. In my opinion, any progress is progress, so long as it's not going to result in maladaptation, and create or transfer the problem to other areas in the future. The great thing about environmentally and socially ethical production is that it now realises the connection between human wellbeing and the planet's wellbeing. Because of that, I think consumers who come to purchase those products (and hopefully the companies who produce them) will continue to have those values at the core of their decisions, and (ethical) consumerism will not get out of hand.

    There is never going to be one ultimate solution, and any solution will require the participation and support of the individual for policies as much as the good intentions and enforcement of the policies themselves. Neither can exist without the other. Politicians and organisations are just individuals too, if they do not have the support of the wider population. This is especially the case regarding giant issues like poverty or climate change which by their very nature are incredibly ingrained in global, national and also individual systems of operating day to day, year by year. But because of that, step by step is the only way for that change to replace those operating systems gradually - and to become newly ingrained. Taking the time and effort to purchase in a way which does more good than harm is already a massive rewrite of an individual/company operating system which has never, ever been challenged before in the history of human civilization. And the trade of resources is what got the world into its poor/rich imbalance in the first place, so it is by far one of the most important places to start when tackling and seeking to reverse inequality.

    Anyway. I'd be really interested to know what you think :)

    PS: Great blog. Very glad to have discovered it today!