Consumers are often not as sovereign as they might think, since their behaviour is shaped by factors they cannot influence. The same applies for businesses: they are embedded in a system that rewards profit, sales of material goods, growth, using externalities, and so on. A more systemic and holistic perspective seem to be necessary to analyse these persistent consumption and consumption problems. In this way, new forms of complex and reflexive governance could possibly be best suited to solve these problems and be considered as the logical next phase in the evolution of policy making. This in order to understand how policy instruments can lead to greening of the markets and stimulate more sustainable consumption patterns by individuals and households. A review of systemic and holistic theories that could contribute to SCP is hence desired
A variety of theories takes a more overarching view on consumption and production. They look at systems of consumption and production, their institutional setting, and how government and other forms of governance can change this. In particular, we distinguish two main system-related concepts that could be useful for the SCP field: the system innovation approach (Rotmans, Kemp et al. 2000; Geels 2002; Loorbach 2007), and the innovation systems approach (e.g. Freeman 1987; Lundvall 1992; Nelson 1993; Breschi and Malerba 1997; Edquist 1997; Cooke 2001; Hekkert, Suurs et al. 2007). The empirical focus of the former approach is on ‘system innovations’. It sees a partly locked-in, interdependent mainstream regime of technical artefacts, user practices, infrastructure, values; a niche level with novel practices, and a landscape that moulds the degrees of freedom of the regime. Regimes hence usually change in an incremental way. The system innovation approach has, since its origins, a sustainability driver. The empirical focus of the latter approach places knowledge, innovation, and (interactive) learning as core aspects within a well structured network of actors. It is interested in understanding development and diffusion of innovation. This approach argues that the right mix of knowledge infrastructure, entrepreneurship, risk capital, launch markets etc. must be in place. The innovation systems approach is not necessarily focused on sustainability issues, albeit some important contributions to the SCP agenda could be derived from a systemic and holistic use of this approach (Andersen 2008)
It has been acknowledged that policy intervention is acceptable when individual actors or markets do not achieve objectives that from an overall society perspective are desirable (Edquist and Chaminade 2006). Traditional policy approaches imply the application of regulatory, economic and informative instruments that adjust framework conditions. Often, a single instrument or a limited mix of instruments is applied that has to do the trick: a ‘silver bullet’ that changes market and framework conditions is asked for, in the hope that such changes in market and framework conditions create a dynamics that makes consumption and production more sustainable. Systemic theories to innovation focus on failures in the socio-economic system, which is so much broader than the interaction in a production-market-consumption value chain. It is such ‘system failures’ that are addressed by systemic instruments.
The main idea behind the use of systemic instruments is that they truly differ from traditional policy –they are realistically achievable but require great coordination efforts. Clearly, the use of systemic instruments might allow the identification of targeted solutions for specific problems but they would also attempt to tackle the problem as a whole. The functioning of the system can be understood, framework conditions can be enhanced, specific areas can be targeted, broad (technology) areas can be developed, market and societal penetration is facilitated, and system change is intended. If technologies or social instruments are targeted towards amending specific social demands, behavioural change can be induced. Ultimately, the use of systemic instruments may lead to a ‘tailor made’ approach for amending system failures that would contribute to producer and consumer behavioural change. SCP is a systemic challenge where the application of individual, traditional policy instruments is not always sufficient. Systemic failures hinder changes to SCP, and hence systemic instruments are needed.
This paper seeks to provide lessons from systemic approaches to innovation that could be useful for the SCP domain. In order to do so, two strands of theories and a number of related cases (from the mobility, agro-food, and energy use in and around housing domains) are discussed and analysed – In particular, exemplary cases where systemic theories of change were the basis for policy intervention. This paper makes a contribution from the system innovation approach to the SCP literature by exemplifying the added value of policy interventions done with a systemic mindset, the specific characteristics of systemic instruments, and general lessons and implications for SCP policies derived from a number of cases. Finally, some shortcomings of the aforementioned approaches are also highlighted (in relation to its applicability to SCP).
(*) This paper is based on results from the European project Sustainable Consumption Policies Effectiveness Evaluation (SCOPE2). This project is being conducted under the EU's 6th Framework Programme in order to contribute to a deeper understanding on how to promote SCP.