Sustainable consumption – how does it work? Our research assistant Felix Behrens has often been asked that question by his friends since joining the Oeko-Institut. Together with his colleagues, he has defined 10 key principles that support sustainable consumer choices.
On the face of it, the two words – “sustainable” and “consumption” – appear to contradict each other; like “firewood for hire”, they express a seemingly impossible idea. Consumption, by its very nature, always consumes resources, even when the aim is simply to satisfy basic needs such as food, clothing or housing.
So we might be tempted to stick our heads in the sand and go along with the prevailing consumer logic. But we can make a difference. Less material prosperity, with a focus on needs and functionality rather than on status and quantity, can be compatible with planetary boundaries. The following principles can help. The list is not intended to be exhaustive: it is meant to encourage people to take initial steps towards a more sustainable and equitable lifestyle.
1. Only buy what you really need.
Buy a product that does not perform more functions than you need. Don’t be swayed by fashion – and never buy something just because it’s cheap!
2. Owning is not always the best option. Share, borrow and lend as often as possible.
Use non-profit community sites, repair cafés, neighbourhood support schemes, swap shops, urban gardening projects – or set up your own! Find out more at transition-initiativen.org.
3. Choose plant-based foods. Eat consciously.
Be brave: take a closer look at what you eat, how you shop and the items you depend on. Share the cooking and eat with other people – and enjoy!
4. Switch to plane- and car-free mobility. Use an (e-)bike or your own two feet, take the bus or train, try car-or ride-sharing or call a taxi.
In this way, you’ll be making a contribution to global and social justice, because climate change hits the countries of the Global South hardest. People on low incomes are more exposed to noise and particulate emissions even though they drive and fly much less often and make shorter journeys. You will also be rejecting the idea of the car as a status symbol and staying away from the free-for-all on public roads. Use and support the alternatives – everyone benefits!
5. Downsize your living space and make sure it is well-insulated. Switch to renewable energies.
Tell your housemates about the comforts of a well-insulated home, and let your landlord know how this can save them money. If you rent, get involved in your tenants’ association. If you’re a homeowner, carry out energy upgrading of your home and install a heat pump and solar panels or a solar thermal system. Take advice on energy-efficient living. You can even become your own green energy supplier by joining a local citizens’ energy project. Make opportunities to share space with others and let others use rooms you don’t need yourself. Choose modular designs for newbuilds, with flexible use of partition walls and mobile annexes, for example.
6. Use products that consume no energy – such as clothing, furniture and bikes – for as long as possible. Longevity is the goal here.
Choose the most durable, repairable and reusable products. Buy pre-owned goods, use them for longer and give the items a second life. More expensive products perform the same function but tend to last longer, so they work out cheaper over their lifetime.
7. Use energy-consuming products until they reach their optimum lifespan. The optimum lifespan achieves a balance between the resource inputs involved in the item’s production and the increased efficiency of a new product. With a laptop, for example, it is 30 years.
When buying products with a highly complex manufacturing process, check that the individual components – like the battery or processor – can be removed and replaced. From an environmental perspective, most energy-consuming products are worth repairing.
8. Be aware of human rights and environmental impacts in the supply chain.
Don’t buy products that are obviously too cheap. Rock-bottom prices are often associated with worker exploitation or non-compliance with environmental standards. Always choose sustainable and ethical investment schemes. Stay informed. Labels such as Blue Angel, Green Button, Fair Trade, Bio-Siegel, GOTS, FSC and MSC help you identify the most sustainable products. You can find more at www.siegelklarheit.de.
9. Think about recycling when you buy.
When you’re buying a new product, ask questions about the materials used, any hazardous substances and whether the components can be separated for recycling. Find out about local collection points and take-back schemes.
10. Help others to consume sustainably.
Be an advocate for change and discuss how to actively promote a social and ecological transformation with other people. Join an interest group, association or political party.
Felix Behrens is a research assistant in the Oeko-Institut’s Sustainable Products and Material Flows Division in Berlin. As part of his work, he develops indicators and policy instruments to identify and mitigate the environmental impacts of information and communications technology and software.