Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
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Are we heading toward conscious consumption?

A sustainable future lies not only in the hands of individuals, but also in the collective efforts of the society.

We take pride in our green lifestyle; driving a Toyota Prius, drinking fair trade coffee, or buying the new energy efficient plasma television. All of these actions are based on a belief that endorsing green consumer behavior will eventually bring about a more sustainable society. However, this is only partially true since the absolute amount of consumption is increasing at an exponential pace, and thereby outstripping the efficiency gains.
In a recently published article published in Journal of Cleaner Production, a researcher from Institute for Global Environmental Strategies investigated the differences between “green consumerism” and “sustainable consumerism,” including the regulatory approaches used to transform consumption patterns from “green” to “sustainable.” “Green consumerism” addresses activities like efficient production, green purchasing behavior, and recycling. On the other hand, “sustainable consumerism” is a holistic approach to achieving sustainable development where consumers, producers, and government share the responsibilities to consume less in order to reduce the pressure on natural resources. However, this sustainable consumption poses challenges in societies where economic growth is tied to levels of consumption. The author asserts governments are responsible for promoting green consumerism to avoid the imminent environment problems and should not hold consumers responsible for driving the system toward sustainability.
Frameworks like stakeholder salience in the value chain, everyday practices of consumers, and awareness–agency–association can help promote and categorize sustainable consumption and identify individual responsibilities. These frameworks promote the active participation of government and industrial agencies in designing the types of regulatory infrastructures that are conducive to increasing sustainable consumption behaviors. The study highlighted the Attitude-Facilitators-Infrastructure (AFI) framework to address uncontrollable influences around consumers through regulations. There are three critical components of the AFI framework: the right stakeholder attitudes, effective facilitators, and the appropriate infrastructure to promote sustainable lifestyles. If effective facilitators and infrastructure are present, the stakeholder attitude would be less significant as it is today, where consumers are the key players in making a decision between green products and non-green products. For practical regulations, the author suggests policy-framing approaches such as limiting the availability of unsustainable product options, product innovation guidelines, integrating well-being with development goals, and defining the limits of resource extraction and pollution. These approaches can help steer the economy toward sustainable consumption.
Consumers who integrate environmental awareness into their purchases are a key necessity in promoting sustainable product choices and markets. However, the impact of sustainable consumption alone is not large enough to forge a sustainable production and society. Rather, the application of the AFI framework is important for creating regulatory space and infrastructure through the active involvement of stakeholders, government agencies, and industrial leaders to implement changes toward sustainable production and resource use before and after consumer goods.
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Original Paper:
Akenji L. (2014) “Consumer scapegoatism and limits to green consumerism.” Journal of Cleaner Production. 63: 13-23.
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2013.05.022


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