14.2 Innovative approaches to strengthen Sustainable Consumption

Frieder Rubik , Research field, Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IW), Heidelberg, Germany
Harri Kalimo , Institute for European Studies, Brussels, Belgium
Gerd Scholl , Research field "Sustainable consumption", Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IW), Berlin, Germany
Full Papers
  • Rubik-Kalimo-Scholl _2009_ Addressing Climate Change through Innovative .pdf (274.4 kB)
  • The background

    Despite comprehensive policy actions, the negative impacts of the consumption societies remain on the increase. The trend urges a rethinking of SCP policies. Particularly opportune in this respect would seem a shift in the focus of SCP policies; a shift from on production and products to consumption. Indeed, a gradual shift in the interests of policy makers from production towards consumption may be taking place. This paper explores this shift from the angle of policy instruments. This is done while providing an analytical framework, with which the most pertinent characteristics of promising sustainable consumption instruments are extracted. On the basis of these findings, suggestions will be provided for further improving policies on sustainable consumption. 

    This paper will be based on the EU funded research project “ASCEE” (“Assessing the potential of various instruments for sustainable consumption practises and greening of the market” February 2007 - November 2008). It was co-ordinated by IÖW and carried out together with IES, Brussels, and SIFO, Oslo.

    Empirical findings

    There are few national action plans, or at least framework programmes, that address SCP specifically (e.g. Finland, United Kingdom, Sweden). Sometimes these SCP strategies represent further developments of previous strategies on Integrated Product Policy. Although there thus appears to be a lack of integrated and cohesive strategies on sustainable consumption, countries, such as Germany, or Denmark employ a wide range of policy instruments relevant for such a strategy.

    ASCEE concentrated on policy instruments that promote sustainable consumption practices and contribute to a greening of the market. The focus was on innovative policies and top-down instrument approaches. Only few completely new instruments to SC policy were encountered. The British Red/Green Calculator and the Finnish Eco-Benchmark tool are examples of instruments that are innovative in this narrow sense. Instruments which are (merely) new to a specific application context were encountered more often. Examples include the diffusion of the “TopTen” internet platform from Switzerland to other European countries, or the uptake of Green Public Procurement.

    Core strategy

    This paper will provide a framework for processing and illuminating the latest policy interventions on sustainable consumption; policies will be divided in terms of their contribution to changing or enabling a change in consumer behaviour. They will be grouped along three dimensions: raising consumer awareness, making sustainable consumption easy, and greening the markets. The distinctions between the dimensions highlight the fact that consumption needs to be understood as a process: it runs all the way from planning and purchase to usage and, finally, disposal.

    For example, “Raising consumer awareness” is closely associated with the planning phase of the consumption process, while “making sustainable consumption easy” and the “greening of markets” are more closely linked with the purchase phase. Therefore, by grouping these three dimensions separately, distinctions between the planning and purchasing phases in the consumption process may be better highlighted.

    Evidently, raising consumer awareness is an important factor in changing behaviour. Awareness raising instruments are, however, limited. They depend on the consumer reacting voluntarily, sometimes without the necessary infrastructure or without help in overcoming barriers to changed behaviour.

    It should also be acknowledged that consumers may be willing, but unable to act in a sustainable manner. If more sustainable products are not easily available, are hard to know about or are hard to understand, or if they are prohibitively expensive, the greener purchasing decision may not occur regardless of the awareness and goodwill of the consumer. In fact, the mere perception that one is unable to adapt to certain behaviour may be sufficient to prevent consumers from taking action. Therefore, consumer behaviour needs to be taken from the level of awareness to that of action. The “value action gap” needs to be filled.

    The “greening of markets” is the third dimension in the analysis. It can be achieved in different ways in terms of “market penetration” and “environmental performance”, namely by improving the environmental performance of products, by phasing out or even prohibiting products with bad environmental performance, and by increasing the market share of environmentally benign products.

    These three dimensions complement each other, and environmental policy instruments may address several of them at the same time.

    Practical insights and policy recommendations

    Next, the identified, latest policy instruments on sustainable consumption will be analyzed through the three dimensions of the analytical framework. Particular attention is made to the most pertinent instruments through case studies, which will cover, for instance, information campaigns (e.g. UK’s “We’re In This Together” and the Danish “One Tonne Less”), information tools (e.g. TopTen internet platform), and economic instruments (e.g. Dutch tax advantages for sustainable investments). The analysis will reveal insights on, for example the role of collective action, the adaptability of instruments as well as the need for creating solid, consumption-focused evidence base.

    Four layers of recommendations are foreseen: the policy foundation, the policy approach, the policy instruments and the policy documentation. In terms of the policy foundation, any policy promoting sustainable consumption needs to be properly founded by explicitly acknowledging household consumption as a policy domain in its own right. Building upon that, the policy approach taken should enable policy makers to, for example, take flexible roles, integrate relevant stakeholders in an appropriate way, and establish an institutional framework that supports effective policy implementation. Our findings call for instruments that are adaptable to changing circumstances, and that address consumption not only as an individual (buying) behaviour, but rather as a social process. The instruments should take both the environmental and social requirements into account. On the documentation layer, SC policies will benefit from being monitored. This will enable a sound assessment and a purposeful re-design of the policy. Finally, one should note that, what happens on one layer may have repercussions on the other layers. Monitoring might induce a change in the design of policy instruments, new evidence on the nature of consumption might call for other stakeholders to be taken on board, the more careful consideration of social issues might lead to a shift of emphasis among consumption domains.