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Keywords:

  • consumer behavior;
  • consumer choice;
  • consumer culture;
  • evolutionary psychology;
  • industrial ecology;
  • symbolic interactionism

Summary

Industrial ecology has mainly been concerned with improving the efficiency of production systems. But addressing consumption is also vital in reducing the impact of society on its environment. The concept of sustainable consumption is a response to this. But the debates about sustainable consumption can only really be understood in the context of much wider and deeper debates about consumption and about consumer behavior itself. This article explores some of these wider debates. In particular, it draws attention to a fundamental disagreement that runs through the literature on consumption and haunts the debate on sustainable consumption: the question of whether, or to what extent, consumption can be taken as “good for us.” Some approaches assume that increasing consumption is more or less synonymous with improved well-being: the more we consume the better off we are. Others argue, just as vehemently, that the scale of consumption in modern society is both environmentally and psychologically damaging, and that we could reduce consumption significantly without threatening the quality of our lives. This second viewpoint suggests that a kind of “double dividend” is inherent in sustainable consumption: the ability to live better by consuming less and reduce our impact on the environment in the process. In the final analysis, this article argues, such “win-win” solutions may exist but will require a concerted societal effort to realize.