The myths of sustainable consumption and sustainable growth

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Across the globe the concept of sustainable consumption is being touted as the way of the future, a change in lifestyle and values that promises “green growth”– economic growth that doesn’t hurt the environment.

The term itself is, however, an oxymoron for it also keeps relying on the other oxymoron, that of sustainable growth.

Permanent consumerism and consumption is not sustainable and there simply is no such thing as sustainable growth. With a finite Planet there cannot be growth, sustainable or otherwise. We have to begin living within the parameters of the Planet and that means the use of renewable resources and their careful management.

Though not without obstacles and controversy, the concept of sustainable consumption has been embraced by policymakers, consumers, and industry alike.

The idea is that, by providing consumers with a choice of products reflecting their new environmental values, the market will self-regulate its way towards a more sustainable future, one in which supermarket shelves are lined with ecologically friendly products, and workers in developing countries are receiving fair wages for their labor. Eco-labeling, taxes on water and energy consumption, recycling incentives, education and communication campaigns, and advertising are examples of methods to promote sustainable consumption, all of which are endorsed by the OECD.

However, sustainable consumption fails to address the root problem: that unfettered economic growth – no matter how ecologically-minded – is still unsustainable, as I have already indicated. On a planet with limited finite non-renewable resources, that we consume at a rate of knots, ever increasing consumption, however sustainable it is claimed, cannot be sustained and thus it is not sustainable. If we believe otherwise we just kid ourselves.

The focus on sustainable consumption distracts us from identifying and demanding change from the real drivers of environmental decline.

Consumption for the sake of it, and we are seeing that coming into the “green” sector as well, is not sustainable however sweet it is being coated in words and terms. By now we have arrived at “greensumption” and the recyclability of products also is beginning to lead to further over-consumption as people believe that just because the product can be recycled it is fine to toss, say the old smartphone after six months or so and replace it with a new one.

We need a new system, a resource based economy, as other systems will not work with finite resources, bar the few renewable ones that we have, and this new economic system would also, by virtue of necessity, bring back repairability of goods.

While the actions of each and every one of us make a difference we need more than just voting with our wallet and choosing green alternatives and hoping that industry catches up with our demand and thus things will change. It just does not and will not work that way alone.

We, plain and simple, need a new system that takes account of the very fact that our non-renewable resources, be this oil, gas, coal, minerals, etc., are finite and many of them are running out or have, basically, run out already.

Growth is not sustainable and neither is an economic model based on continuous growth and there is no such thing as sustainable consumption either, at least not in the unfettered way that consumption and consumerism has been going.

We need a new system, economic and political...

© 2013