What is sustainable household consumption

Before defining sustainable household consumption we should first define consumption, since consumption has different meanings in different disciplines (Stearns, 2001).

The natural scientists' meaning

As referred to above, matter or energy can neither be produced nor consumed. Consumption is therefore essentially transformation of matter or energy. The transformation is a 'downhill process' implying the appearance of pollution and a decrease in the utility of the transformed resource. In other words consumption gives rise to environmental impacts. These can be 'direct impacts' (e.g. CO2 emissions from the combustion of coal for electricity generation), or 'indirect impacts'. For example, consider the consumption of bread. The pesticide emissions resulting from the production of wheat which is used for the baking of bread are indirect impacts of the consumption of bread. Similarly energy use can be direct (e.g. natural gas used in home heating), or indirect (e.g. diesel oil used by farmers is an indirect energy input in the production of cotton jeans).

The economists' meaning

Economists define consumption as part of total economic activity: it is the total spending on consumer goods and services. The rest of economic activity consists of capital goods investment.

The ecologists' meaning

To ecologists plants are producers, and humans and animals are consumers. For example, humans consume materials that are produced by green plants in photosynthesis.

The sociologists' meaning

Consumption is not precisely defined in a sociological sense. This is reflected in terms such as 'conspicuous consumption' and 'consumerism'. The latter term is formulated as 'a society in which many people formulated their goals in life partly through acquiring goods that they clearly do not need for subsistence or for traditional display' (Stearns, 2001).

The anthropologists' meaning

Anthropologists acknowledge the ambiguities associated with the very word 'consume', since it suggests both an enlargement through incorporation or intake and a withering away. Consuming is thus both enrichment and impoverishment. The latter is even more literally reflected in the wasting disease that used to be called 'consumption' and is nowadays better known as tuberculosis (Brewer and Porter, 1993). Douglas and Isherwood (1979) define consumption as a use of material possessions that is beyond commerce and free within the law.

Summarizing, various disciplines define consumption differently. Some definitions have a neutral connotation; others are more normative. Stern (1997) tries to combine the various meanings by presenting the following definition:

Consumption consists of human and human-induced transformations of materials and energy. Consumption is environmentally important to the extent that it makes materials or energy less available for future use, moves a biophysical system toward a different state or, through its effects on those systems threatens human health, welfare or other things people value.

Taking the common definition of sustainability into account (WCED, 1987) we call a consumption 'sustainable', if consumption aimed at meeting the needs of future generations is not prevented by the consumption of current generations.

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