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Understanding Green Consumption

It's tempting to file this under Stating the Obvious, but research undertaken by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council on drivers for sustainable consumption is actually pretty interesting. In Towards a Social Psychology of Sustainable Consumption, Professor Tim Jackson looked at how consumers make choices regarding goods and services that could be considered "green." The conclusions are at once unsurprising yet fascinating:

...far from being able to exercise free choice about what to consume and what not to consume, people often find themselves locked in to unsustainable consumption patterns by factors outside their control. ‘Lock-in’ occurs in part through ‘perverse’ incentive structures – economic constraints, institutional barriers, or inequalities in access that actively encourage unsustainable behaviours.
...no purely functional account of material commodities can provide a robust basis for negotiating more sustainable consumption patterns. Rather material artefacts must be seen as playing important symbolic roles in our lives. This symbolic role of consumer goods allows us to engage in vital ‘social conversations’ about status, identity, social cohesion, and the pursuit of personal and cultural meaning – in short to use the ‘language of goods’ to ‘help create the social world and to find a credible place in it’.

As these examples -- from the "plain English version," no less -- suggest, readers familiar with the language of academic research will be quite at home with this set of reports. Others may find the material a bit too full of jargon and high-level theory. Still, for those of us with an interest in how to encourage the adoption of more sustainable lifestyle patterns, this research is quite important.

Its key conclusion is that policies and programs to encourage sustainability are likely to work best only when grounded in social communities, rather than as individual incentives and penalties. This is especially true when looking at lower-income groups. "Poorer households have less money to afford organic foods, more efficient appliances or fair trade goods," Jackson explains. "But they also face a raft of other disadvantages. Access to a clean environment, affordable public transport and convenient recycling facilities are often worse in more deprived areas." [...] "Social support is vital in encouraging people to break unsustainable habits."

This report is a useful complement to the UK Design Council's Design & Sustainability scoping report we talked about in July. Towards a Social Psychology of Sustainable Consumption examines how we make choices, while Design & Sustainability examines how we determine which choices we have. But like Design & Sustainabiliyt, Jackson's research -- perhaps because of an emphasis on mature social choice theories -- misses out on changing patterns of personal relationships with products. The classic 'consumption' model doesn't always apply in a world where it's increasingly simple to modify or create personalized goods or services.

This underscores the need for a new model of sustainable consumption, one focusing on the powerful combination of personalization and collaboration that characterizes a growing proportion of the goods and services in the post-industrial economy. Both of these forces are potential entry-points for shifts to radically more effective forms of sustainability, if we can figure out how to make use of them. The ability to personalize products eliminates the problem of mass solutions being unsuitable to small-group needs, while the ability to collaborate on the creation and modification of products allows for a far greater breadth of ideas than before, as well as a translation of social and community norms into the design process.

Ultimately, sustainable consumption is not about improving the stuff we use, it's about improving how we use our stuff. Sustainabilty is more than a design checkbox or a product characteristic, it's a lifecycle process. The problem isn't convincing people that they need to consume greener products, it's showing them how to adopt greener lives.


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Comments (6)


God I love dyslexia I for a bit thought the topic was understanding green constipation... babble.

Anyhoo. The main reason for the problem is converse to what many wrongly think mass transit is anything but efficient and cheap. Its massively expensive to run and often is very wasteful to boot as they try to justify massive costs with ridership by.. yes adding more and more marginal routes thus increasing costs even more.

Most bussing is not for the poor its for working people and tourists. They want people with money to get around to all the tourist traps or they want the voting workers to have a bus ride from home to work and back.

As for renewables and greens. They are reserved for the wealthier people who while buying said items also buy alot else. They are sold strictly to garner more sales and as such are "wasted" on the poor who cant buy much anyway.

Finaly energy eff is now a luxury symbol and as such the companies are loath to come out with a cheap maodel as it could ruin thier cash cow. Its only popular with the wealthy because its a symbolic sacrifice for good. If it were cheap it wouldnt be popular and thus wouldnt be as profitable. Only once the welathy stop caring about eff will it realy hit the mass market mid and low level segments.

Roadside Flower:

wintermane, considering total cost (ie private and public), if public transport substituted for most cars (in most urbanly populated areas), it's MUCH cheaper (rail or bus).

compare total economic costs (including individual, corporate and public) of designing, testing, prototyping, manufacturing, shipping and storing and marketing numerous varieties of cars, interest paid on car loans, registration, licenses, fuel production and distribution, tyres, cost and time for maintenance of cars and the roads to carry numerous cars of different sizes, cost of accidents from many poor drivers, traffic police, vehicle safety departments, road design for heavier traffic flows, pollution, real estate costs of garaging/parking the cars etc

versus the much simpler production of a smaller variety of a smaller numbert of mass transit vehicles, less wear and tear on road/rails than more numerous individual vehicles, less private debt, fewer more professional drivers, etc etc you get the picture.

the problem is not the cost. The only problem is how to transition from the old to the new transport model (the high initial cost of doing so works our cheaper in the long run). When govts mess up this transition, as invariably they do (partly cos enough voters aren't ready to support them yet in most places), with too few incentives to switch and too little investment in building a public system, then you may get a more expensive public transport system with few users.


IMHO one very important aspect is the not financial but psychological perspective. Having seen _many_ examples of massive public transportation in Europe and seeing the routes of the tram in my hometown (in Germany) being expanded right now, I assume what we see here is a materialisation of specific cultural values.

Regarding the cost of public transport: The german wikipedia page (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%96PNV) says the economic costs of mobility realized through individual cars are twice as high than through public transportation.


The difference is the road system funds itself many times over simply by being the system all our stuff travels on.

Also a road is far cheaper then a rail line and is fairly much required to have a bus line;/

Now that busses are hitting the million mark alot of towns simply cant afford any kind of mass transit save maybe a van shuttlebus using converted normal vans.

Roadside Flower:

The costs of capital investment and ongoing maintenance of the road system is a function of the number of vehicles and volume of peak traffic. More public/mass transport (fewer private/small vehicles) = fewer vehicles = less wear and tear, less volume, simpler traffic management, less policing, lower accident risk, less pollution, less distribution of fuel, etc etc.

The road v's rail transit is a somewhat differnt issue to public/mass v's private/individual transport. As to which is cheaper overall for moving people, it depends on each situation. A mass/public transport system can choose from a range of vehicles such as heavy rail, light rail, trams, big buses, medium sized bueses, minivans, canal boats and ferries. In the case of goods transit, let truck registration and fuel costs pay directly for their share of road costs (rather than indirectly subsidised) and see what changes emerge in the way we ship goods.

Many European cities with efficient transport use a variety of mass transit systems (including minivans in tight city centres) and car-sharing, interconnecting at key hubs. Brasil has made clever urban use of buses rather than high upfront investment in a rail system. Some small communities in developing nations, have (private) taxis driving in circles all day, one flat fare per passenger regardless of distance.

An efficient and effective system will consider the total long-term cost of transport, including tax subsidies, not just the funds available under the current system where non-car owners' taxes often fund the many public costs of building roads, road traffic policing, ambulance, accidents and other health costs, going to war to secure oil supplies, etc. A more direct user-pays system of taxation and a reduction in hidden subsidies would result in a clearer cost-benefit analysis.


Im just saying dont go all crazy on us and thnk that mas transit is the be all end all and can do everything.

It has its place BUT roads will always be needed and for most of what moves around.

Finaly mass transit is alot easyer to screw up. Build a road it does its job even if your a moron and build it somewhat wrong its still a road. Mass transit however can be screwed up in soo many ways and public officials keep finding new ways every year.


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