Sustainable consumer choices

Consumption of goods and services is a major cause of environmental problems. As Earth's resources cannot sustain the current levels of consumption, a rapid change towards more sustainable consumption patterns is called for. While protecting the environment, sustainable consumption will also benefit the economy and society.

Consumption habits must change – Earth's resources are not enough

By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions should be cut by 50% globally and by 80–90% in the western societies. In addition, the dwindling resources should be spread more equally: currently a fifth of the world's population consumes four-fifths of its resources. According to the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2010 report [1], the resources of 1.3 Earths are required to maintain the current level of consumption. In 2009, all renewable natural resources produced by Earth that year were consumed by 25 September. In the United States, this Earth Overshoot Day takes place by the end of March, around the same time as in Finland [2]. Rapid population growth represents another problem: by 2050 the world population will rise to a minimum of 9 billion, while the spread of Western lifestyles is further increasing consumption.

Consumption of goods and services is a major cause of environmental problems, such as climate change. According to the Finnish Environment Institute, "environmental problems are mainly caused by consumption and the production of goods and services. Harmful emissions, pressures on land use and waste volumes must be reduced and the use of natural resources made more eco-efficient – less must be consumed to produce more" [3]. Increased eco-efficiency is important but will not suffice alone, since rising consumption is eating up the resources released by new material and ecological efficiencies. Consumption must be reduced a great deal and consumers will have to adopt significantly more sustainable habits.

What is sustainable consumption?

While protecting the environment, sustainable consumption will also benefit the economy and society. Other important factors include the recycling of natural resources, minimal use of raw materials and ethical production of goods. Sustainable consumption can be measured by a number of methods. The ecological footprint represents the amount of land or water area necessary to supply the energy, nutrients or materials a person or human population consumes and requires to process the associated waste. The carbon footprint measures the greenhouse gas emissions caused by a product, service or activity during its lifecycle. Eco-efficiency of goods and production can be measured, for example, with the help of the ecological backpack (amount of materials (kg) consumed by the production, use and waste processing of a product) and by the MIPS method (material input per unit of service required to produce goods). Calculators based on these methods can be used by consumers to measure their personal environmental load. For a list of calculators, see "External Links".

Growth has limits – a fact to remember in all societal activities

As far back as in 1972, a book commissioned by the Club of Rome, the Limits to Growth, stated that perpetual material growth is impossible because Earth has finite resources [4]. According to the State of the World 2010 report [1], the social model based on consumerism is completely unsustainable and must be replaced by a new kind of lifestyle. The report maintains that a sustainable culture will help increase well-being in the world, and the quality of life will improve when it does not revolve around money and consumption [5]. The UN biodiversity report [6] also calls for a transformation of international economy and business as well as consumer attitudes and lifestyles. According to the report, our current actions destroy the environment to a degree that can cost the humankind even more than climate change. The economic value of ecosystem services (such as food, clean air and water) is anything from 10- to 100-fold higher than the cost of maintaining them. The report suggests that the value of ecosystem services and goods should be included in the annual reporting of companies, and strict quotas should be imposed on exploiting the environment with sanctions for exceeding them.

Solutions devised to combat the current recession and climate change include the Green New Deal [7] [8]. It proposes that green investment, such as renewable energy, both creates jobs and helps the efforts to mitigate climate change. The long term objective of the Green New Deal is to activate economic structure transformation throughout society to create a more sustainable future.

From consumerism to a sustainable lifestyle

In the Western culture, meaning, contentment and acceptance are often sought through the consumption of goods and services. The perpetual growth of the gross domestic product, maintained by the use of large amounts of natural resources, is considered as a sign of economic welfare. However, economic growth negatively affects both the environment and people's spiritual well-being. For example, continuous economic growth increases workloads, endangering relationships and health [9]. In order to maintain this growth, we are sold products that we do not even need.

Several studies suggest that there is no clear link between economic growth and individual well-being [10] [11]. According to the Politics of Happiness - A Manifesto, published by Demos Helsinki, "for several decades, the growth in material well-being has not made the citizens of any Western country any happier." Despite the rises seen in national economy and individual wealth, happiness among Finns has not increased since the 1980s [12]. After a basic standard of living is reached, increases in income and material possessions will not improve the quality of life. While economic growth is not harmful as such, it must remain within sustainable limits.

Living and consuming more moderately would help the environment. Resources could be spread more evenly and they would last for the future generations to enjoy. In practice, such changes call for a transformation in the way of life so that the priority is no longer given to the pursuit of material abundance.

Recently, changes that allow a more tranquil and simple lifestyle have been a subject of much discussion. This phenomenon has many names, such as slow life, downshifting and simple living. Their purpose is to slow down the pace of life and reduce both the time used for work and the level of consumption – and consequently one's ecological footprint. The motives for downshifting can stem from the desire to enjoy a better life and health, save money or adopt an ecological lifestyle [13]. Many wish to shorten their workday, change their career or live more frugally. While they have less money to spend, downshifters feel that their quality of life has improved because they can spend their increased leisure time by interacting with people or engaging in simple activities that interest them.

The degrowth movement campaigns for the downscaling of economy by the means of reducing consumption and production. Degrowth (in French: décroissance) is an international political, economic and social movement that has its roots in France. The movement advocates sharing work and consuming less, while devoting time to family, community and culture. [14] [15]

Which activities are the most detrimental to the environment and climate?

In 2005, the total carbon footprint of Finnish household consumption, public consumption and investments was 12.8 tonnes per citizen. Out of this, household consumption accounted for 9 tonnes per person [16]. The greatest environmental impacts caused by consumers include transport, housing (construction and energy use) and food (Figure 1) [16]. Housing with associated equipment, food and transport respectively accounted for 30%, just under 20% and about 15% of the household carbon footprint in 2005. In Finland and elsewhere in Europe, consumption patterns are undergoing a rapid change: as long as investment on housing and transport is considered ever more important, the environmental impacts of consumption are further exacerbated [17]. The respective proportions of communication, leisure, travel and health are also on the increase, while the share of food is decreasing. The EEA, the European Environment Agency, maintains that, in order to lower the environmental pressures of consumption, more efficient ways of production and use must be found or demand must be channelled to consumption with less environmental impact.

Greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts of consumption © SYKE

Figure 1. The total picture of the environmental pressures caused by consumption [16].

Consumer choices may reduce the carbon footprint by up to 40%

Changes in everyday consumption habits can help consumers shift towards a more sustainable lifestyle and lower their carbon footprint. According to a report published by Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, consumers can reduce their carbon footprint by 25%–40% by giving up car use, foreign holidays and a few square metres of their accommodation. However, the easiest method to decrease the carbon footprint is to shift to using electricity and heating from renewable sources of energy [18]. The carbon footprint caused by people living in cities is easier to manage due to population density and lesser need for car use [18].

Mapping the most significant sources of household emissions and concentrating on them is the most efficient means of curbing consumption emissions. The key measure is to reduce household energy consumption, while opting for eco-labelled goods and services is also important. According to an often-repeated opinion, favouring services instead of goods would better help the environment. However, changing from product to service purchases will not necessarily result in lower emissions because, even when the environmental impact per each paid service is low, the number of services used is high (see Figure 1 e.g. for health and education). The carbon intensity of services varies a great deal but is usually about 15% lower than that of goods. Carbon-efficient services include leisure and culture and, to a certain extent, nutritional services [16] [18]. The environmental impact of goods is relatively low: for example, clothes and furniture do not feature significantly in the carbon footprint of an average consumer (Figure 1) [16]. However, it pays to consider the options available when making new product purchases. For a checklist of sustainable purchases, see the end of the article.

The size of accommodation is the key contributor to greenhouse gas emissions from housing

Choosing the size of accommodation makes a difference to the greenhouse gas emissions from housing: smaller accommodation causes less greenhouse gas emissions. The size of accommodation affects both the level of natural resources and greenhouse gases during construction and the household energy consumption. Size matters because heating is the key contributor to environmental pressures of housing (Figure 2) [19]. In addition, equipment, furniture and lighting requirements increase with a larger house, adding to the consumption and greenhouse gas emissions [18]. Living in a densely-populated city centre is twice as carbon-efficient as living in the suburbs spread over larger distances [18]. New buildings should be designed according to the low-energy or passive house standards [20], while also keeping their size moderate.

The climate and environmental pressures of housing can be reduced efficiently and permanently by energy-efficient refurbishments and opting for renewable energy sources: for example, good results are achieved through improvements in heat insulation and ventilation systems [19]. Residents can also reduce their impact by about 20% by taking some simple measures, such as lowering the room temperature, adjusting the ventilation and reducing hot water consumption (Figure 2) [19]. Energy rating should be considered when choosing household appliances, and the instructions for their eco-efficient use should also be followed.

Impacts of household consumption choices © SYKE

Figure 2. Impact of housing on climate (kg CO2 equivalent per day) and difference made by improvements (a sample family with three members in a detached house (120 m2)) [19]

Measures to reduce heating consumption [19]:

Reducing drafts

  • Insulate windows
  • Map out and block other heating leaks
  • Draw curtains

Lowering the room temperature

  • Lower room temperature (also during unoccupied hours)
  • Wear enough clothes to keep warm

Using heating appliances correctly

  • Operate and adjust heating appliances correctly
  • Reduce the use of electrical floor heating
  • Place the thermostate valves correctly

Using and adjusting ventilation and air conditioning correctly

  • Use air conditioning only when required
  • Air the rooms correctly
  • Capture heat from exhaust air

In blocks of flats

  • Balance the heating distribution between flats
  • Adjust ventilation
  • Adjust heating in areas for common use
  • Educate residents

Measures to reduce electricity consumption

Using lighting and electrical appliances energy-efficiently

  • Switch off unnecessary lights
  • Buy energy-efficient light bulbs
  • Wash laundry in lower temperatures
  • Avoid heating the sauna unnecessarily and use lower temperatures

Using energy-efficient methods in food preparation and storage

  • Adjust the heat in the hob
  • Use the oven for cooking large quantities, do not leave a hot oven empty, make use of residual heat
  • Ensure sufficient ventilation and correct temperature of refrigeration appliances, avoid keeping the appliance doors open

Saving electricity in blocks of flats

  • Adjust ventilation
  • Use energy-efficient light bulbs
  • Adjust the timing of car heater plugs (max. 2 hours) and ban car indoor heaters (based on environmental reasons, only motor heaters are allowed)

Emissions from mobility are increasing rapidly

Transport is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. Cars account for about 15% of the consumer carbon footprint [16]. Consequently, choosing cycling, walking and collective transport, and opting for a place to live where car is not required, all make a difference. Low emissions and durability are good criteria when choosing a car. In order to mitigate climate change, a high-emission car should be swapped for a low-emission one as soon as possible, especially if the car is used a lot. A transformation of mobility patterns can also produce economic benefits: according to Sitra, if a person living in the South of Finland gives up car use and air travel, he will have about 2,000 euros more to spend each year compared to the average city-dweller [18].

Checklist for private purchases

Think before you buy a product or service:

  • Do you really need it?
  • Could you borrow it or buy it together with somebody else?
  • Is the old one worth repairing?

When you buy, make an informed choice:

  • If you decide to buy, consider which of the available options has the least environmental load in terms of manufacture, use and disposal?
  • Where is the product made and where did the raw materials come from? Are the raw materials renewable? Are you sure no harmful chemicals were used in the manufacturing process?
  • Could you buy it second-hand?
  • Buy high-quality and durable goods. Check the warranty period.
  • How durable is the product? Can you repair it? Are spare parts available?
  • Is the manufacturing process socially responsible?
  • Choose eco-labelled and local products.
  • How much electricity does the product's operation take?
  • Avoid disposable products.

Repair or recycle:

  • When the product has come to the end of its life, see if it could be repaired.
  • If not, can the materials be re-used?
  • If not, how can you safely dispose of the product?


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