Rethinking Consumption (from UNEP Green Jobs report)

More-efficient and cleaner technologies are essential instruments in the sustainability toolbox— promising to moderate modern economies’ draw on resources. And the emergence of a new type of service economy will provide additional maneuvering space in the quest for a more sustainable economy. Sooner rather than later, however, we need to confront the specter of insatiable consumerism itself. There is a danger that the consumer juggernaut will overwhelm even the most sophisticated methods and technologies that can be devised to make consumption [production?] lean and super-efficient. Consuming better does not obviate the need to consider moderation in overall consumption levels. It is worth recalling ecological economist Herman Daly’s warning that “to do more efficiently that which should not be done in the first place is no cause for rejoicing.” And Wolfgang Sachs of the Wuppertal Institute in Germany has cautioned that we need to think as much about sufficiency as efficiency.

How societies go about the task of discouraging “excessive” consumption (at least in the wealthy countries; the world’s poor, by contrast, indisputably need to increase their consumption if they are to leave behind conditions of misery) is not part of the remit of this report. But what needs scrutiny is the predominance of highly individualized consumption patterns that inevitably lead to the multiplication of many goods and services on a grand scale—a redundancy that implies far greater material requirements than necessary. The balance of public and private consumption needs as much attention as the development of less-polluting technologies.

Government action is indispensable in overcoming the immense structural impediments to lowering consumption levels and to more public forms of consumption. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in transportation: low-density, sprawling settlement patterns translate into large distances separating homes, workplaces, schools, and stores—rendering public transit, biking, and walking difficult or impossible. While the decision as to what kind of automobile to buy is up to consumers, the more basic decision whether to buy one at all is frequently out of their control. Likewise in housing, homeowners have a range of choices for heating and air-conditioning. But it is in developers’ and builders’ hands whether a house incorporates adequate insulation and energy-efficient windows; these fundamental decisions dictate heating and cooling needs over the life of the house.

In recognition of these realities, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has referred to an “infrastructure of consumption” that compels people to engage in involuntary patterns of consumption. As important as it is for consumers to choose more efficient products, this alone cannot overcome these structural constraints. Forward-looking government policies—improved land-use planning, environment-oriented norms and standards, and the creation of a reinvigorated public infrastructure that allows for greater social provision of certain goods and services—will help ensure that consumers are not overly compelled to make consumption-intensive choices.

Another key area where government action is needed is consumer credit. Whereas consumer credit is now geared to maintaining the hyper-throughput economy, which encourages people to carry high personal debts, finance in a sustainable consumption economy will need to devise ways to allow—and to reward—the purchase of efficient, high-quality, durable, and environment friendly products. These undoubtedly have a higher upfront cost of purchase, but over time such items will be economically more advantageous to consumers than cheaper, flimsier items that must be replaced frequently. Governments could help consumers by offering advantageous credit terms for “green” purchases (and this could be linked to green labeling programs). The Japanese and German governments do this to support the installation of solar roofs on private homes, but many other eco-friendly purchases could be encouraged in the same way. Or, governments can offer targeted rebates for green purchases or energy efficiency upgrades and retrofits.

To further encourage the manufacture and purchase of environmentally benign products, governments could design policies that offer tax rebates for the best-performing products while taxing those that fall short of standards. A graduated system could be constructed in which rates of both rebates and fees are scaled according to how efficient, long lasting, or otherwise environment friendly an item is. Such a blend, known as a “feebate,” has been used to some extent vis-à-vis energy producers, but the concept has not yet been implemented in a consumer setting. A feebate system might even be more effective if hitched up with other policies, such as eco-labeling and EPR laws.