Overcoming society’s consuming passion: towards sustainable consumption

A transformation in current consumption patterns will “decrease environmental damage, secure provision of essential goods and services to the poor, … lead to healthier lifestyles, economic efficiency, and an overall increase in quality of life.” So writes German economist Lucia Reisch in an article on consumerism and sustainability which appears in the book Environmental Thought. Many people, both within and outside the green movement, would certainly subscribe to Reisch’s view.

The statement also highlights the gulf between our aspirations towards sustainability and the present reality. For, as Reisch acknowledges, among the millions of affluent individuals in the western world and the elites of the developing world, “lifestyles with a lighter impact on the ecological, social and cultural system seem to remain the choice of the few” (p.232).

The overconsumption of the affluent, according to Reisch, is characterised by high levels (volumes) of consumption, ‘elitist’ consumption of positional (luxury) goods, and highly inefficient resource use (p.232). Despite the clearly unsustainable nature of such consumption behaviour, the habitual expectation of complete freedom of choice in consumption decisions – what has become known as ‘consumer sovereignty’ – creates a huge barrier to moving consumption patterns towards sustainability.

A further problem is that affluent consumption is about far more than meeting needs; consumption is a highly complex psycho-social-cultural act. Reisch describes how, at the individual level, the consumption of goods and services “can symbolise and create: position and status; competence and respectability; expression and identity; and can facilitate: imaginative hedonism; and compensation” (p.232). These symbolic functions of modern consumption at the individual level must be addressed if overconsumption behaviour is to be modified.

As I have discussed on Wellsharp previously, eco-efficiency is the focus of many hopes for sustainability. Reisch notes that ‘Factor Four’ and ‘Factor Ten’ proposals for efficiency improvements in consumption patterns may include, for example, the purchase of local, seasonal, organic produce; and sharing, pooling and leasing strategies for a variety of domestic items. However, eco-efficiency alone is far from enough to deliver sustainability. Efficiency-motivated changes in behaviour “can take place without reflection and changes in values” (p.231) and thus the gains can easily be negated by a variety of side effects that I have looked at here. What this means is that efficiencies in one area simply open up opportunities for increased consumption in other areas.

What is really needed, according to Reisch, is not only an increase in resource efficiency but also a thoroughgoing assessment of goods and services to identify those that “do not contribute to human welfare and which hence do not need to be produced at all.” The keyword should be sufficiency. Strategies that are motivated by sufficiency are described by Reisch as “new models of wealth” and, as such, they connect directly with the ‘quality of life’ concept that is so familiar to greens (p.231).

Sufficiency strategies also offer a radical challenge to the expectations of consumer sovereignty. Reorienting individual behaviour along the lines of sufficiency may require a critical campaign to help “de-mask and resist the lures of the powerful socialisation agents, advertising and global media” (p.231). This proposal also connects with suggestions for taxes and legal restrictions on advertising for material and energy intensive goods and services.

Other policy strategies suggested in order to modify consumption patterns include:

  • tax reforms to change relative prices to promote labour intensive rather than material intensive consumption;
  • increased government support for informal work in the form of subsistence and self production; and
  • higher taxes on income and wealth to curb the demand for luxury goods.

For Reisch, an important part of such sustainable consumption policies must be a reduction in working time, in order to prevent unemployment arising for some in the face of overemployment for others. By enlarging the amount of leisure time available to all of us, the possibility of gaining real income by self-provisioning and barter will allow us to see the ways in which we really can ‘live better with less.’


Lucia A. Reisch (2003) Consumption. In Edward A. Page and John Proops (eds), Environmental thought (pp.217-242). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.


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