What should be done to make household consumption sustainable

Before answering the final question, it is useful to review briefly a number of theoretical approaches regarding determinations of lifestyle, environmental behaviour and environmentally compatible production. Our starting point is the IHAT equation, a variant of the well-known population-based IPAT equation (Ehrlich and Holdren, 1971):

I(mpact) = H(ousehold number) X A(ffluence) X T(echnology)

According to this equation one may influence the overall environmental impact by either addressing the number of households (H), the consumption level per household (A) or the technological means employed in producing consumer goods and services.

The so-called Ecological Modernization Theory (EMT) (Spaargaren, 2000) starts from the assumption that environmental problems need to be addressed by the technological and organizational capabilities of modern societies. The EMT originated among environmental sociologists. They argue that environmental technologies are important in bringing about more sustainable means of industrial production and consumption. Several objections were raised concerning the EMT. It is not a classical 'theory' that can be rejected or accepted, and Glasbergen (2002) considers it a container concept that adds little analytical value to our set of environmental policy tools. In contrast, Scherer (2004) expands the EMT by proposing an interlinked network of the ecosphere, the techno-sphere and the sociosphere. In doing so she specifically addresses the need to include other species and ecosystems in designing sustainable technological and social systems of production and consumption, thereby giving environmental quality aspects their rightful place in the framework of sustainable consumption.

Environmental economists (Van den Bergh and Ferrer-i-Carbonell, 2000) argue that in studying consumer behaviour and seeking a comprehensive perspective on the limits and opportunities of sustainable consumption, at least five levels of 'consumer behaviour' need to be considered: preferences, motivations, constraints, decisions based on given preferences, goals and constraints (e.g. environmental tax policies change not only prices but also incomes which will subsequently affect behaviour: this aspect is often referred to as 'rebound', the unwanted change in behaviour which offsets technological efficiency improvements) and types of decisions relevant to environmental impact assessments (e.g. buying, use, reuse, recycling, repair, illegal dumping and waste treatment).

Environmental psychologists argue that behavioural change can be achieved by either employing psychological or structural strategies (Steg and Buijs, 2004). Psychological strategies are aimed at changing perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, values and norms. Giving feedback on the consequences of individual behaviour may be effective but it may be even more effective in the case of strong group behaviour or cohesion. Feedback combined with commitment (e.g. in so-called ecoteams) may overcome the voluntary nature of psychological strategies. Structural strategies are aimed at changing the context in which choices are made — examples are setting prices and making laws and regulations. Their effectiveness strongly depends on enforcement control and monitoring. Physical strategies may include offering energy-saving light bulbs, environmentally friendly products or providing access to 'green electricity'. Their effectiveness may be offset by rebound phenomena. Any type of intervention will be more effective, feasible and acceptable if it is systemically planned, executed and evaluated. An example is the 'DO IT' principle (Geller, 2002).

'DO IT' refers to the four steps in the intervention process: Define, Observe, Implement and Test.

Intercountry comparisons of households in the ToolSust project clearly showed the importance of industry, government and social institutions in determining the impact of consumption and thereby in suggesting possible energy-saving options. For example, the electricity supply system and the public transportation system are largely beyond household-level control.

Households are inclined to purchase energy-saving appliances, and to change food consumption patterns if the prices remain acceptable. However, they do not want to reduce their number of appliances, reduce mobility patterns or change holiday destinations. Relevant lessons for cities are that consumers think that energy and waste handling are more important than traffic while cities think the opposite. Moreover, cities often have logistic problems with providing organic food and consumers lack knowledge about labels. City administrators should improve both the communication within their organization and the external communication with their citizens.

The issue of trust deserves specific attention. Trust comes on foot and leaves on horseback and is often the only basis on which consumers act. Once their trust has been abused it is very difficult to restore it. Think of the example of global change in which scientists are often perceived to support a position pro or con depending on their place of employment. Consumers may react by completely disregarding the global change debate and its relevant outcomes.

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