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Sustainable consumption: challenges and solutions

Academic Discipline: Environment
Course Name: Society, Environment, and Sustainability
Assignment Subject: Sustainable consumption: challenges and solutions
Academic Level: Undergraduate-third year
Referencing Style: APA
Word Count: 1,955

The rise of the environmental theme and the promotion of the objective of sustainable development have been accompanied on the part of public institutions by a renewed interest in the sphere of consumption. This interest has prolonged third-party claims increasingly aimed at everyday consumer activities associated with a wide range of pressures on the environment, which are perceived as problems of concern: increased use of resources, energy requirements, pollution, and end-of-life product disposal. On each of these points, concerns have been reinforced by trends that can be identified in advance, hence an image that has come to be commonly conveyed as that of an economic development fostered through consumption, but committed to a path that accentuates these pressures on the environment, and thus does not meet the necessary demands of sustainability.

The aim of this paper is to provide a better understanding of the expansive dynamics that are manifested in the industrialized countries, but also on a broader institutional sphere required to institute a discursive framework attempting to conform consumer acts to improved demands (Pecoraro & Uusitalo, 2014). Their aim is to make it possible for the institutional arrangements to be more effectively applied on a path towards sustainability. The arguments to follow will be subjected to a series of points that will consider the rise of the stakes between consumption and the imperatives of sustainability having reinforced the justifications that will be used to articulate explanations on the work to be done, the reasons for doing so, and the targets favoured for making the necessary adjustments amongst consumers, and in the market.

Sustainable consumption is defined as the use of services and products that meet essential needs and contribute to improved quality of life while minimizing the quantities of natural resources and toxic materials used, as well as the quantities of waste and pollutants throughout the life cycle of the service or product, so that the resource needs of future generations can be met (Bergstrom & Randall, 2016). This evolution can be followed in the various operational developments with which the communities and groups have sought to present solutions to the environmental damage attributed to consumption practices.

With this momentum, consumption is not only taken as an object of intervention, by trying to remove negative effects and to submit it to the criteria of sustainability. The initiatives have taken an orientation which mainly targets the population, essentially considered as a group of consumers, who are expected to become aware of their share of responsibility in pressures on natural resources and environments, and thus the need to adapt their consumption habits in order to improve the situation (Miniero et al., 2014). In the underlying reasoning, it is thus the sum of these individual adaptations that should be able to benefit the community by putting it on the path of sustainability.

The development of sustainable consumption can first of all be analyzed as a transformation of the relationship between individuals and the market. This is why the dependence of consumption practices on a certain state of supply, as well as the exploitation of messages by producers and distributors, are essential dimensions to understand the mechanisms involved in the development of sustainable consumption. Namely, as an institutional concept, the challenge of sustainable consumption lies in embodying a mixture between socio-economic and moral stakes (Giesler & Veresiu, 2014). In this perspective, individual citizen behaviour, by influencing supply and production structures, is seen as the driver of change in terms of sustainable consumption.

The way consumers take ownership of a product or service is largely dependent on social context and practices, and show the importance of production and regulation structures in the determinants of individual consumption. These approaches may be merged down the line, but they nevertheless proceed from different logics, as each one bears a certain conception of the consumer and the relationship between individual choice and collective regulation (Pecoraro & Uusitalo, 2014). The explanation and updating of these different analysis schemes would make it possible to explore more deeply the foundations of sustainable consumption and the levers to be activated in order to promote their development.

Citizen consumer
Applied to the sphere of consumption, the wishes of reducing the pressures of human activities on the environment have gradually contributed to the construction of a citizen consumer (Giesler & Veresiu, 2014). By re-imagining the act of consumption in such a way as to reintroduce the citizen and the dimension of responsibility, awareness programs tend to have a dual objective in the field of consumption and beyond: on the one hand, to draw the attention of the citizens on complex problems and, on the other hand, to offer them practical perspectives, explaining how everyday actions can be translated a sustainable development approach (Miniero et al., 2014). The effectiveness of the approaches also tends to be linked, especially in institutional apprehension patterns, to a condition that internalizes the necessity of changing their practices, the stakes involved appear equally to show that these choices – both collective and individual – will not lead to a decrease in the quality of life, or even increase it over time.

In the arguments, consumers are assured of a counterpart to their efforts, in this case by the promise of a better social status. For interested actors, whether they are politically, administratively or environmentally oriented, the issue seems to justify the construction and promotion of a state of general and permanent mobilization (Keller, Halkier, & Wilska, 2016). Indeed, the evolution of consumer practices in a direction more favourable to sustainable consumption seems to be possible only if individuals accept the efforts required. The rise of the theme of sustainable development has reinforced the idea that this objective must be achieved through the participation of the citizen, and that this means finding suitable mechanisms. The problem tends to be perceived and posed in such a way that the necessary change requires that the greater part of the population cooperate. In other words, they must be able to view these efforts as well founded, but also credible from the standpoint of the effects to be expected.

Meanwhile, attention remains on the demand side, with reasoning tending to consider that consumer choices and purchasing decisions are essentially on the individual level. The leap from the individual level to the collective level is based on the assumption that the influence of consumers can be cumulative (Bergstrom & Randall, 2016). By removing broader contextual elements, these implicit assumptions lead to a reduced apprehension that consumer and social practices have historically developed as manifestations of both local and global linkages of social interdependencies (Hubacek, Feng, Chen, & Kagawa, 2016). But in keeping with this logic, the reduction of pressures on the environment and the collective well-being require individual accountability and more awareness and reflexivity on the part of the consumer, especially in a buying situation.

In this context, intervening on the demand side may seem more accessible than on the supply side, because of the quasi-global dynamics of the organization of the production and marketing channels (Keller, Halkier, & Wilska, 2016). However, there are many barriers to effectively delivering information to consumers and getting them to act accordingly, which stem from the increasing complexity and volume of environmental information consumers have access to, consumer skepticism about the credibility of most information sources, and the clandestine dilemmas that arise in the decision-making process (Bergstrom & Randall, 2016). Precisely, the objective of sustainable consumption seems to extend to targeting certain behavioural determinants of consumption, notably those of the economic and environmental.

The market
More than consumers, it is in fact their way of consuming that the solutions also have to be aimed at. The approaches envisaged or initiated tend to highlight the notion that it is by the ability of consumers to change their practices that certain corrections and excessive pressures on the environment can be applied (Hubacek et al., 2016). In the discussion area which combines the issues of consumption and sustainability, the positions taken, at the most general level, tend to agree on the encouragement of ecological consumerism. There is thus developed a discourse that tends to tell everyone that he has the choice and that this choice can have non-negligible consequences (Miniero et al., 2014). It is suggested that the consumer-citizen is supposed to adjust his choices to new higher principles, those precisely grouped behind the label of sustainable consumption. Namely, if the consumer receives the relevant information, and if he has alternative (sustainable) choices for the product available, he is expected to demonstrate goodwill and shift some buying habits towards new standards more consistent with sustainable goals.

In this way, the consumer actually appears as an intermediate link in the process to be triggered. The approach is indeed indirect, intermediated and transitive, as it is a matter of changing consumer behaviour, and in the end, changing production. In other words, it is a question of trying to influence supply through demand, to arrive at the appearance of market signals (Hubacek et al., 2016). In short, it is the supply that is supposed to adjust to demand, to a more responsible demand (Giesler & Veresiu, 2014). In this scheme, the consumer tends to be given a new role in the market mechanisms, whereby he is subsequently expected to demonstrate the spirit of sustainability, social consciousness, environmental friendliness, and so encourages producers and distributors to meet expectations.

In order to function, however, this scheme presupposes a form of consumer confidence, reflected in the hope that refraining from buying one product or preferring another one will have an effect somewhere upstream in the economic circuit. What this discursive construct proposes is also a rather individual way of responding to the problems raised. Even if they are collective, going through the sphere of consumption tends to shift the management of these problems towards a more individualized course of action (Giesler & Veresiu, 2014). It is a form that targets each individual as a consumer, so as to convince him that changing his personal habits can produce wider social improvements. Beyond that, the question is also one of how responsibilities are distributed, all the more so because the call to the rationality of the consumer is compared to an entire economic system. These processes involved contain a large part of betting on the reflective capacities of individuals in their consumption practices. At the individual level, however, the reception of these prescriptive messages remains dependent on a complex set of motivations and the phenomena of information overload. Invitations to consume sustainably remain in competition with the more or less direct advertising or commercial demands to which each individual is subjected daily.

The confrontation between the persistent logics of marketing and those of sustainable consumption are fraught with potential tensions, as the forces behind them are largely divergent. These logics aspire each time to control the behaviour of the consumer, but they do so from opposing aspects. Consequently, the market space of consumption is targeted by forms of desire, which are in conflict with the logics that seek to produce more responsible attitudes towards minimizing consumption overall. The situation is challenging, insofar as the objective of sustainable consumption triggers a responsible approach, a rationalist scheme, and finally a change in an economic system which would require consumers to rethink all their practices. If individual behaviour is supposed to evolve, these structural orientations remain in fact largely predominant. The desire to reflect on one’s own needs, on how to satisfy them, seems to attempt only a tiny minority of the population of the industrialized countries. But the advance of post-materialist values is still a widely controversial hypothesis and the hope of seeing consumers evolve in this direction may still seem optimistic in the short term.

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Giesler, M., & Veresiu, E. (2014). Creating the responsible consumer: Moralistic governance regimes and consumer subjectivity. Journal of Consumer Research, 41(3), 840-857.

Hubacek, K., Feng, K., Chen, B., & Kagawa, S. (2016). Linking Local Consumption to Global Impacts. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 20(3), 382-386.

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