Sustainable consumption 'stumbling in dark' without policy intervention

Efforts to tackle sustainable consumption may be failing due to too much focus on changing individual behaviour, rather than concentrating on the importance of systems change.

This was one of the conclusions from the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? study, in which various experts brainstormed ideas on how humanity can move away from the consumer culture that is underming sustainable living.

According to the report, the current trend among businesses to try and influence consumer behaviour change can inadvertently redirect energy from the cultural, business, and political changes that are necessary.

Erik Assadourian, a senior fellow at Worldwatch Institute, believes that business and government must look to shift consumption patterns through tougher policy measures, such as taxes on unsustainable practices like carbon emissions, plastic bags, and junk food.

Shifts in infrastructure, such as facilitating car-free lifestyles by building bike lanes and shared bike systems, could also promote the scale of cultural change needed, he suggests.

The Institute points out that while corporations have supported some conservation efforts by individuals - sometimes in ways that strategically redirect blame from themselves - the amount of damage done by people and households is only a small fraction of the total waste produced by industries every year.

Another contributing author - Annie Leonard, co-director of The Story of Stuff Project - believes that problems arise when individuals, rather than large-scale waste producers, take blame for the planet's deterioration.

"Describing today's environmental problems and solutions as individual issues has a disempowering effect," she argued. "Even if we really do decrease our driving, stop littering, and refuse plastic bags, the broader impacts are still negligible. Society-wide, we need to implement new technologies, cultural norms, infrastructure, policies, and laws."

Leonard is an advocate for widespread public action to make sustainable living a way of life, rather than a trend. "The good news is that we have everything we need to make big change in the years ahead," she added.

"We have model policies and laws. We have innovative green technologies to help with the transition. We have an informed and concerned public ... the only thing we are missing is widespread citizen action on the issues we already care about."

Maxine Perella


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