Skip to Main content

Sustainable consumption

Sustainable consumption is an umbrella term that brings together a number of key issues, such as improving efficiency, minimising waste, taking a lifecycle perspective but also taking into account the equity dimension, meeting needs, and enhancing quality of life. The UNEP (2001) publication ‘Consumption Opportunities’ explicitly subsumes particular aspects under this umbrella:

  • efficient consumption (decoupling),
  • different consumption (changing infrastructure and choices),
  • conscious consumption (choosing and using more consciously), and
  • appropriate consumption (questioning levels and drivers of consumption)

Over the past decade an increasing amount of research has seen the intersection of consumption issues with those of environmental degradation, including climate change, biodiversity loss, depletion of various minerals and fuels. Consumer decisions indeed are an important determinant of the impact that society has on the environment. The actions that people take and the choices they make to consume certain products and services all have direct and indirect impacts on the environment, as well as on personal (and collective) well-being.

Sustainable consumption however is not simply about buying the right products. This is one aspect but it is far from being the main one. Sustainable consumption has to be understood as sustainable lifestyles, for each individual as well as for societies. Sustainable lifestyles should ensure that everyone can live a decent life within ecological limits.

Common sense in the political debates is the hope that new and better technological developments in accordance with green or sustainable consumer procurement will make the difference. In this context, governments rely primarily on policies designed to increase consumer awareness and provide better information about the impacts that products generate in order to help consumers make better choices.

As a result one of the major elements of today’s sustainable consumption discourse is to encourage consumers to play their roles as active market actors and to take responsibility to buy green or more sustainable products. Such an approach often goes hand in hand with the rhetoric of ‘consumer sovereignty‘, putting the onus on the individual Increasing demand should induce innovation for more sustainable products and services. This is supposed to lead to changes within the current economic system towards sustainable growth. Such a perception however reflects a weak sustainable consumption perspective, asking for relative improvements in product efficiency, but failing to refer to absolute ecological limits such as those for CO2 emissions at a country or regional level.

Instead sustainable consumption has to consider sustainable resource consumption, and take into account the complete product life cycle based on full life cycle assessment. Sustainable resource consumption involves the consumption patterns of industries, governments, households and individuals and so bridges individual consumption and resource management. Such a strong sustainable consumption then stands for limiting the consumption of depletable resources, as well as a use of renewable resources limited to their reproduction rate.

In addition strong sustainable consumption demands giving specific attention to the levels and patterns of consumption. In doing so, it recognises consumers as responsible citizens while also accepting the social embeddedness of behavioural decisions. Additionally, it strengthens social developments to perceive well-being as independent from material commodities and to increase human well-being through social structures. Opportunities for strong sustainable consumption obviously presuppose radical changes, social innovations and thinking out of the box.

A strong sustainable consumption approach therefore reaches beyond consumption as an economic activity taking place in markets based on monetary values. For example, it also reflects the way time is used and considers the risk of continuously shifting labour and skills from non market based structures towards the commodity based economy. Strong sustainable consumption patterns explicitly takes into account activities like neighbourhood exchange, community or subsistence work. They involve social dimensions in order to integrate, for example, questions of social coherence or gender issues.


UNEP (2001), Consumption Opportunities: Strategies for Change, United Nations Environment Programme, Paris.

For further reading

Lorek, S. & Fuchs, D. (2013) Strong Sustainable Consumption Governance – Precondition For A Degrowth Path? Journal of Cleaner Production, 38, 36-43.

Lintott, J. (1998) Beyond the economics of more: the place of consumption in ecological economics, Ecological Economics, 25, 239-248.

Jackson, Tim. (2012) Prosperity without growth: Economics for a finite planet. Routledge.

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Sylvia Lorek

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

Comments are closed.