What do you mean, “consume less”?

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Our high levels of consumption in Western, affluent countries is contributing to environmental problems, such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Efforts to make consumption “greener” have so far been unable to halt environmental degradation, spurring a growing number of researchers to argue for a need for substantial change in consumption patterns for high-consuming classes, including reducing the amount of consumption. To “consume less” may seem like a straight-forward idea, but it is often used as an abstract concept without specifying what it entails in practice. When arguing for “consuming less”, what does that actually mean?

In my recently published review article, I suggest distinguishing between four different types of consumption changes that consuming less can entail. First, consuming less can of course mean to literally consume less, that is, to reduce the quantity of consumption. For example, not owning a television or not spending the holiday vacationing in a far-away destination that requires a flight reduces the absolute amount of consumption.

However, such reductions in consumption levels are not always possible. In many cases consuming less doesn’t mean not consuming at all. For instance, consuming less of one product may result in shifting to a less environmentally harmful alternative. For example, much research indicates that we should consume less meat and dairy products. This of course does not mean that we eat less; rather, we replace the meat and dairy products in our diets with plant-based alternatives that have a smaller ecological footprint. Similarly, research has argued for the need to reduce private car use.  It is difficult to demand people travel shorter distances; rather, we can shift to alternative modes of transportation, such as public transport or biking.

In addition, sometimes consuming less may mean that we buy less new things and keep using what we already own. For example, it is not realistic to demand that we not wear clothes or own a phone, but if we extend the lifespan of the clothes and the electronics that we already own, we don’t need to buy as many new products.

Finally, sometimes we only have occasional use for a product, such as a drill or a book. In these instances, it may make the most sense to not buy these products for ourselves, but to borrow, rent, or in other ways share them with others. That way, we collectively consume less, as we are sharing products among us instead of everyone owning their own.

Thus, “consuming less” is not as simple an idea as it may first appear. It can actually entail a variety of ways of changing our consumption patterns: absolute reductions in the amount of consumption, changing modes of consumption, extending product lifespans, or sharing products. Understanding the variety of consumption changes that we can make to reduce ecological footprints can help us be more successful in our efforts to address environmental degradation.

Maria Sandberg,
Doctoral student

To read more about different ways of consuming less, see my recently published article, in which I develop a typology to differentiate between types of consumption changes and discuss consumption changes in housing, nutrition, mobility and other categories of consumption:

Sandberg, Maria (2021), “Sufficiency transitions: A review of consumption changes for environmental sustainability”, Journal of Cleaner Production, 293 (15 April 2021), 126097. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.126097

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