Smart consumption: Buying with a view to sustainable benefits

What and how (much) we consume has great consequences for man and the environment. We know that in theory, but in practice there are hurdles to be overcome in choosing sustainable alternatives and in the availability of high-quality products. Consumers and suppliers frequently do not know where negative effects in the life-cycle of a product are particularly large or that there are comparatively simple ways in which these could be reduced. The consumption of households alone produces more than a quarter of Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Impacts of consumption on the environment and the climate

Using analytical tools such as PROSA and GEMIS developed by Oeko-Institut, it is possible to show the impacts of consumption on the environment and the climate. Life-cycle analyses and instruments like the carbon footprint can substantiate and communicate the sustainability of many products.

Oeko-Institut provides support for companies, policy makers, and consumer protection agencies in the application of these methods and in the further development of sustainable products, services and programs. This includes, of course, well-tailored consumer information and the demonstration of options for consuming more sustainably.

Too little coordination on national and EU level

In policy many different activities are brought together under the umbrella term “sustainable consumption”: integrated product policy, clean production, smart consumption, green public procurement, sustainable shopping basket, carbon footprint – an impressive list of instruments and measures that are already available.

What is still lacking – in spite of great efforts being made – is an overarching social goal, an approach geared to achieving to this goal, and the incorporation of strategic actors on the supply and demand side. This applies to both the national and the EU level and, to an even greater extent, on a global scale.

Sustainable consumption in the EU

In the EU joint project „EUPOPP – European Policies to Promote Sustainable Consumption Patterns“, Oeko-Institut is – together with six partners from five different countries – examining ways in which consumer willingness to consume more sustainably in future can be increased. Based on analyses and experiments the project examines which measures could be particularly effective in motivating consumers. With this knowledge new policy strategies are developed for the fields of housing and food.

The EUPOPP project focuses on the following questions:

  • What will consumer/production trends look like in future and what are the potentials of each policy instrument for promoting sustainable consumption?
  • What are the criteria for the success and failure of sustainability indicators?
  • What effects do policy instruments have on sustainable consumption and how can they be improved on EU level? First preliminary results from policy analysis and impact assessment
  • In order to reverse the trend towards significantly more consumption of electricity and growth in greenhouse gas emissions, far-reaching energy-saving measures are needed as regards household appliances and communication technologies.
  • In heating the transition to renewable energy sources requires the introduction of robust regulatory instruments. This is also the case for the essential heat insulation of the EU building stock.
  • If meat and dairy products are to be cut from our diet, there can be large gains for sustainability. More vegetarian food in public canteens and private cafeterias should support this shift in eating habits, together with financial instruments.

Interaction of consumers, the economy and policy

One thing is already becoming clear: there can only be a solution to this sustainability challenge if different instruments and strategies work together. Consumers, the economy, and policy all need to participate simultaneously. Sustainable consumption is not a one-dimensional behaviour manual for consumers (“Do this! Don’t do that!”). Rather it encompasses product development, product design, technological infrastructure and individual, social and policy action Lifestyles, social norms, regulations, and the dynamics of global markets constitute the framework for options for change. As a result the EUPOPP project is closely associated with other national and international projects and topic areas.

Creating consumer acceptance

The majority of the projects address the three actor and decision-making levels – the individual, supply-side and societal levels – with custom-made results and recommendations. However, the consideration of regional and cultural differences is also crucial in these projects.

Only in this way can acceptance for better products, sustainable consumer behaviour and genuine change be promoted and realised. All our projects support the same goal: smarter consumption during the life-cycle. In this vein Oeko-Institut’s own consumer platform, www.ecotopten.de, provides specific recommendations for action.