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  1. The Climate-KIC team
  2. Michael Hauschild SPARK! lecture
  3. Saturday, 07 November 2015
Michael Hauschild in his Spark! Lecture hinted that consumption is affecting sustainability.

How are trends in consumption affecting sustainability?
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As people are becoming more affluent and technology better, products and also services become more affordable. Although some products are improved and have a lesser environmental impact during their lifecycles, some products are no longer made to last. Many people today are able to purchase whatever they want and even have a lot of "luxury" items. Whatever is broken, is usually not fixed, it is simply replaced by another, newer item as it is "cheap" even if it was just one little part that needed fixing. Technology improves so quickly that older versions become obsolete, which often leaves the consumer no choice but to purchase a new item.

As Michael Hauschild mentioned, technology has a difficult time keeping up with consumption in order to even out the benefits with the increased usage. Washing machines use a lot less water and are more efficient, more people are using them today then in the past, which has an overall worse effect on being sustainable. This will continue to be a great challenge in my opinion. I also agree with Michael that it is important to keep in mind the entire lifecycle of products to determine its sustainability and to also avoid problem shifting down the line.

For consumers it is still difficult to make the "right and sustainable" choices all the time and just relying on person's good moral is not enough. Therefore, it is important to make products which, from the start of their production and even the prior resource allocations, consider the entire lifecycle. Helping consumer make more sustainable choices is crucial to mitigate the effects of increased consumption.
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The values of our society are not focused on sustainability (at least not yet but there might be a slow change coming). Today the price has a major impact on the purchase decision, so we could call it the (personal) financial impact. Of course that makes sense - if I buy too many expensive products, I might not have enough money left to pay my next meal. If people can get a similar product for a cheaper price, they'll usually go for that. That's what shops aim at when giving discounts, doing sales, and what keeps most people from buying e.g. fairtrade organic bananas instead of the cheap banana right next to it. Many people would say that they cannot afford the more expensive option. Which might be right for some. On the other hand you could ask them: "When have you last purchased a new smartphone, how much did you pay for it and was it really crucial to get it or would your previous phone still have worked?" or "Do you smoke, if so how much do you spend for it per day or month?" and so on... So usually it is a matter of what we want. If we want to take the more expensive, but more eco-friendly option, are we willing to abstain from purchasing other items? Could we make a purchase decision based on the (global) environmental impact instead of the personal financial impact?

That's where we need to talk about trends, behaviour, and societal (or personal) values. Today it's undeniably fashionable to own a smartphone. And it becomes increasingly necessary, too: starting from the expectations of your friends/family/colleagues to be available via mail/whatsapp/facebook at any time, to the increasing inability of people to find a place/information/direction without consulting their phone instantly, to the development of new, fancy, and sometimes eco-friendly and sustainable products or services that are controlled and operated by an app on the smartphone. For example smart-meters for private homes. It's certainly a good idea to connect many processes in the house in a clever way to make them more energy-efficient, but usually the user would control them via smartphone. This just being one example to illustrate the necessity of having a smartphone. So even if I refuse to get one and keep on using my dumbphone until it might seriously die one day in the far future, I see more and more boundaries when not having one. Many options and services that most people are using naturally on a daily basis are just not available to me. So what do I want? Do I really want to be excluded from all of that? So the point is (and the smartphone case being just one example) - even if one wants to live in a (more) sustainable way and keeps an eye in the environmental impact, it is not always easy to do so giving the society one lives in.

There we need to change the society and it's values as well. It shouldn't be "cool" to have the newest/biggest/fastest whatsoever, but friends and family should rather admire you for keeping the old item running for as long as possible ("Your TV screen still works fine? Damn it, mine broke beyond repair last month.";) But of course, selling items keeps the economy running (and growing). If people need to buy less, we also need to produce less (environmentally spoken: good!), but it also means less people can earn their living from producing and selling these items. The question is, if we find a way to keep the employment and wealth up, while still producing less? That's the challenge to tackle!
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I think some component of consumption trends is becoming increasingly physiological and rooted in habits, social status indicators, and personal reward, having a detrimental effect on the progress towards sustainability.Even if consumers have the best intentions to purchase more sustainable products, the fact is they are still consumers-- consuming good that have used energy and will create waste. I tam thinking of clothing, electronics, and food products.... all of which are usually far from being sustainably produced, packaged, delivered, and recycled. As emerging economies continue to develop and increase their purchasing power, as Ines as has talked about, these people will inherently consume more given the current trends in our society.
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The importance of this long-recognized but lightly embraced dependence is that there are boundaries to Earth's natural resources and hence to any economic development that depends on the – purposes that, if not honored, will gravely influence the future.
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Agreed, the conundrum of increased use due to lower costs is a hard one to tackle, especially in a world where people are constantly competing with each other to 'keep up with the Jones' and display their high tech or leisurely lifestyle. Everyone wants these conveniences and people only think in silos of their own behaviour - exactly as you mentioned Ines, 'well if I buy a third TV that is energy efficient that's better for the planet', not really questioning their behaviour beyond this. It's kind of like the feel good factor we all get from recycling and patting us on the back for 'doing good', though in many cases the recycling still ends up in landfill (not in Germany perhaps, but many countries, incl. Ireland). Products are just so cheap nowadays and there are so many marketing and advertising tricks used to lure people in, that we lose all reason - like Black Friday sales on products we'd never normally consider buying!

These reduced costs make even pragmatic people change their behaviours, for example I had a travel adaptor that 'broke', turns out the fuse was just broken but it took me holding onto that adaptor and taking it with me back to Ireland to find the right fuse which sure, only cost 30cent BUT I could have saved all that hassle and time finding the small electronics store etc. and just got one delivered from Amazon for €3.

This is where I think more and more systems of labelling will play a role, and though I don't think they're the saving grace, since they can overwhelm people, education is key. As more and more people are forced to get real about the impacts on a systemic scale, of their behaviour, it will slowly but surely influence things. It would be interesting for example to look at the sales of factory versus 'free-range' eggs, I would like to believe the sales of the former are dropping. Similarly the awareness of society is increasing concerning issues like child labour on clothes etc. More education, more promotion of these things from high power people (sadly celebrities seem to do the trick), will help transition people towards demanding more stringent controls and consuming less disposable goods.
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