Sustainability in consumption: a bottom-up or a top-down approach?

Autor:Eleni Papaoikonomou/Matías Ginieis
Cargo del Autor:Investigadores de la Universitat Rovira i Virgili

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Our enormously productive economy... demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption... we need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate. victor Lebow, 1955

1. Introduction

According to the 2010 United Nations’ Human Development Report (UNDP Report) the greater challenge for the development of a more

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sustainable economy comes from the unsustainability of production and consumption patterns. Earlier on, wiLk (2001) had described consumption as the most urgent environmental and fundamental issue. These discussions are related to the excessive strain that overconsumption is putting on the environment. The proof is all around us: shrunk forests, declining fish stocks, soil degradation and desertification, increasing pollution and waste generation provide evidence that modern individuals ‘consume an inordinate share of the Earth’s resources’ (Hay, 2005, p. 312).

But besides the environmental dimension of consumption and production patterns, much debate has been also generated regarding the social dimension of consumption and production. This implies that on one hand, firms should not only be oriented towards profit generation and maximization but also towards displaying a socially responsible behaviour. On the other hand, consumers should no more be considered as purely guided by utilitarian motives, as they often regard a number of social and environmental concerns before making a consumer decision. The examples are numerous; buying from the local shop to support the local economy, boycotting firms using child labour to condemn these practices, selecting environmental friendly or reusable products to minimize the impact of consumption on the environment.

Given the great diversity of issues and concerns related to sustainability, we should mention the triple line approach (eLkington & HaiLeS, 1998) that encompasses the different aspects of sustainable development and sustainable economic growth; environmental, social and economic.

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However, even though the importance of adopting sustainable practices and principles in consumption is critical in the shift towards a more sustainable paradigm, much discussion is related to whether sustainability in consumption should be a top-down or a bottom-up approach (doBSon, 2006). As CHeRRieR (2006) puts it, the liberalist bottom-up approach considers that sustainability in consumption originates from individual consciousness in the form of grass root movements. The more conservative top-down approach argues in favor of structural regulations that will ‘push’ individuals to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. In this chapter we present examples from both perspectives. In the final part we make concluding remarks about these approaches and their effectiveness.

2. The structuralist top-down approach

In this first approach, sustainability in consumption is a result of structural regulations and public policies which establish norms for behaving. An example would be imposing fines to induce desirable behaviours such

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as avoiding plastics bags or recycling. Regulatory frameworks for sustainable consumption may include formal legal instruments and informal guidelines, norms and standards (see Table 1). The challenge involved is to choose the most appropriate policy tools. Some efforts include product labelling (inkaMP, 2000; kLintMan, 2006), while others refer to educating and creating monetary incentives (SantoPietRo, 1995).


The European Union (EU) Sustainable Consumption and production Action plan

In 2008 the EU Commission presented a plan with proposals on sustainable consumption and production in order to raise consumer awareness and increase the demand for sustainable products.

Much focus of the Production Action Plan is placed on three areas; food, housing and transport. According to the Environmental Impacts of Products (IMPRO) Study these three areas are responsible for the greatest environmental impacts in the EU. In specific, even though EU waste management requirements have led to increased recycling and composting, household waste per EU citizen continues to rise. In an effort to deal with

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the issue, there have been discussions in previous years on imposing a ‘rubbish’ tax in the UK that would involve a pay-as-you-throw scheme even though it has not been put into action yet.

Other measures taken include the establishment of the EU Eco-label that inform consumers about the certified environmental friendly products according to the EU criteria (

Eco-labelling systems do...

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