The European Environmental Agency has suggested that consumption is the mother of all environmental issues, but the geography of global consumption is highly uneven. On the one hand large numbers of people within the Global North exhibit unsustainable patterns of hyper-consumerism, conversely many living within territories of the Global South face poverty and hunger that result from inadequate or under-consumption. This leaves stark choices for society, for as the 2012 Royal Society report People and Planet stated, “[w]e can choose to rebalance the use of resources to a more egalitarian pattern of consumption, to reframe our economic values to truly reflect what our consumption means for our planetor we can choose to do nothing and to drift into a downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills, leading to a more unequal and inhospitable future.”
Adopting a critical but also solutions-focused approach, the CONSENSUS team from Trinity College Dublin and National University of Galway, along with collaborators from across public, private and civil society, have worked over the past 5 years to explore alternative sustainable consumption practices. The results of this work have recently been published in a new book Challenging Consumption: Pathways to a more sustainable future, launched by Dara Lynott, Director of the EPA at the Centre for Creative Practices in Dublin on 12th June 2014. Challenging Consumption confirms that the global landscape of current consumption is unsustainable, but also identifies spaces of hope where innovators from policy, research, business and civil society are coming together with the express purpose of developing, testing and evaluating different and more sustainable ways of consuming; essentially prototyping new pathways that might lead to a more sustainable future. However, and as the book title suggests, realising more equitable and sustainable use of resources is incredibly challenging not least because consumption does not take place in a vacuum, rather it is intimately intertwined with, and shaped by, wider social norms, rules and understandings. Likewise, what is consumed – be that water, food, energy or even distance – and the manner of that consumption is influenced by a range of complex production and regulatory systems. For example, the reform of the water sector in Ireland and the creation of Irish Water gives significant power to actors within that organisation to shape directions for the collection, treatment and provision of water and Irish Water may indeed exert considerable influence over water use through the proposed mechanisms for water charging, particularly for those on lower incomes. However, it would be simplistic to assume that the activities of Irish Water alone will control how, when and why people wash. From the manifold messages purporting to offer new washing sensations, through washing products or showering devices, to the latest scientific research on hygiene and health, washing is a highly socialised practice.
Structured into four complementary sections, Challenging Consumption travels through the broad terrain of sustainable consumption research, policy and governance, before presenting substantive sections on ‘Moving’, which examines transport, mobility and the consumption of distance and ‘Dwelling’, which looks at the intertwined social practices of washing, heating and eating in the home. The final part of the book, ‘Futures’, consolidates the empirical findings alongside conceptual insights to delineate key requirements for the progression of promising consumption practices from their current niches into the mainstream. Ultimately, the authors, including Dr. Laura Devaney and Dr. Ruth Doyle of the Trinity College Geography Department argue it is only with extended and co-ordinated processes of collaborative co-design – that is public, private and civil society sectors working creatively together with citizens – that innovations explicitly focused on achieving sustainability outcomes will become commonplace. Such co-design will require new forms of transdisciplinary engagement and more innovative systems of governance that provide spaces for interaction between regulators, producers and consumers.
In essence, Challenging Consumption argues for a reframing of how consumption is understood, researched and governed, leaving behind narrowly conceived and often abstracted concerns with the choices of individual consumers and instead focusing on the broader context that underpins people’s everyday lives.