40.1 A Quality Strategy for Sustainable Development?

Mikkel Thrane , Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University, Aalborg East, Denmark
E.H. Nielsen , Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University, Aalborg East, Denmark
Full Papers
  • Quality strategy final.pdf (150.4 kB)
  • A fundamental challenge concerning sustainable development (SD), is how to create the basis for a world that can support 9-10 billion inhabitants that are pursuing the western life stile based on a nearly insatiable consumption of material goods. The IPAT equation, generally credited to Erhlich and Holdren (1971), says that the environmental impact (I) is a function of the population size (P), the affluence level (A) and the technology (T).

    Due to ethical reasons, it is difficult to address the P factor directly, but assumingly population growth will be stabilized through increased affluence level at some point. Proponents of a sufficiency strategy for SD suggest addressing the affluence level (A), by reducing the consumption in the rich countries, and obtain higher life quality by other means than material goods. Finally, an efficiency strategy implies addressing the T, by reducing the environmental impacts per unit of product that is produced and consumed.

    While examining the potential in efficiency strategy, the present paper propose that it is relevant to distinguish between a strategy which address ‘technological' improvements as described above, and a strategy that promote ‘labour intensive' production and consumption.

    Existing studies have shown that labour intensive products, such as services and products with high service content, represent a relatively small environmental burden, because human labour comes with no or little environmental impact, and because they bind a scarce production and consumption factor, namely human labour or time. This is also referred to as the time rebound effect (2008). One example of products with a higher service content could be quality products which in many cases has involved more design, more knowledge, more attention to detail and other factors that often involve more labour. This strategy has an additional advantage as it binds another scarce production and consumption factor, namely money, as quality products typically are more expensive. This is referred to as the money rebound effect, and suggests that it is highly relevant to measure environmental burdens per product ‘value' instead of merely per ‘unit' (Weidema 2008, Thiesen et al. 2008).

    Studies exist that estimates the environmental burdens as a function of increasing income level based on IO LCA e.g. Thiesen et al. (2008). But as the product types are highly aggregated, it is not possible to e.g. distinguish between different types of food or wine – nor is it possible to distinguish between a cheap wine and an expensive wine. Hence, it is indirectly assumed that the environmental burden is the same per Euro of product for expensive and cheap version of the same product. Our assumption is that this provides misleading results, as it suggests a linear relationship between income (or spending) and the environmental burden. It also hides the potentials in a quality strategy for SD, where we buy less - but better altogether.

    Why not buy ‘less and better' meat and wine, or simply just buy ‘better' food products, as long as it is expensive enough and represent a significant negative money and time rebound effect that will reduce the overall consumption. We acknowledge the ethical and practical limitations of this strategy in relation to low-income groups especially in developing countries.

    The hypothesis ‘that quality products represent a feasible strategy for SD', is examined through a case study of different types of popular food products, where it is possible to clearly distinguish between a discount and a quality version. The case study is based on a qualitative assessment of the environmental sustainability of quality variants of wine, beer, water, cheese, meat, seafood, coffee, and bread – where we include considerations of time and money rebound effects. From the same perspective the article also includes more general discussion about organic versus conventional food, local versus global food, fast versus slow food, and home-delivery versus traditional shopping. Besides food products, there are other product categories such as transport, housing, textiles etc, which could be interesting to analyse, but this has been considered out the scope of the present article. Hence, besides a few references to other products categories, the present article will mainly address food products.

    It is obvious that there are limitations to a quality strategy for SD, the purpose of this article is to identify cases within the scope of food products, that both support and contradict the hypotheses – and to discuss the potentials and limitations of such a strategy in relation to different types of food products, but also in relation to how it could be used in a governance perspective.


    Ehrlich PR and Holdren JP (1971) Impact of Population Growth. Science, 171:1212-17.

    Thiesen J, Christensen T S, Kristensen T G, Andersen R D, Brunoe B, Gregersen T K, Thrane M,

    Weidema B P. (2008). Rebound Effects of Price Differences. International Journal of Life Cycle

    Assessment 13(2):104-114.

    Weidema BP (2008): Rebound effects of sustainable production. Presentation to the "Sustainable Consumption and Production" session of the conference "Bridging the Gap; Responding to Environmental Change - From Words to Deeds", Portorož, Slovenia, 2008.05.14-16. (Also presented to LCAVIII, Seattle, 2008.09.30).