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Sustainable/green consumption encompasses those disciplines, discourses, policy initiatives and practices that involve the design, implementation, and promotion of consumption practices and production technologies that seek to remedy any negative effects of human economic activity. This implies that current patterns of resource extraction, production, and consumption levels are unsustainable, and if left unchecked, will lead to environmental and social crises. Proponents of sustainable/green consumption attempt to raise consumer awareness of the obscured costs of pursuing a consumer lifestyle by demystifying the upstream (extraction and production) and downstream (disposal) consequences of consumption. They also assert that each individual consumer can help to reduce the adverse global effects of overconsumption by changing how they produce, obtain, use, and view resources.
While the meaning of the concept sustainable/ green consumption is generally agreed upon, there is less agreement as to what its goals should be and how public policy should be used to achieve them. While some merely aspire to maintain existing economic systems, more hard line advocates aim to reign in harmful consumption practices and promote practices that can best sustain ecosystems. Still others seek to develop and implement consumption practices and production technologies to redress accrued environmental degradation and restore the Earth’s ecosystems.
For policy-driven ecological economists and environmental scientists, sustainable/green consumption has become aligned with ”sustainable development. These researchers aim to discover how developing nations can modernize their economies in ways that minimize environmental harm. For developed nations, sustainable development relies on regulatory incentives and ”social marketing campaigns to develop more sustainable production and distribution technologies and stimulate consumer awareness and implementation of environmentally friendly consumption practices. However, because individual consumer rights are so integral to modern democratic socioeconomic systems, the proper role of policymakers in regulating sustainable consumption has been widely disputed on the basis of overestimating the potential to change consumers behaviors through regulation.
The ”ecological modernization approach also holds that economic growth and resolutions to ecological problems need not be mutually exclusive (Spaargaren and van Vliet 2000). However, it differs from sustainable development by reconceptualizing the consumer as an active — albeit highly rational — chooser. Ecological modernization seeks to reconcile the gap between policy and practice through a range of consciousness-raising strategies to influence consumer choices and promote sustainable/green consumption as a rational and ethical solution to the damage wrought by wasteful consumption.
The issue of how to promote environmentally beneficial consumption practices has thus become pivotal. Although some have framed sustainable/ green consumption as an individualistic ”cultural politics rather than as a movement connected to larger social and environmental justice issues, others contend that this underestimates the breadth and depth of consumer objections to altering their lifestyles.
However, despite the obstacles posed by the individualistic orientation of consumers and consumerism, there is mounting evidence of greater participation in sustainable/green consumption; much of which has emerged from the margins of consumer societies. However, there is a need for more — and more systematic — studies of alternative consumer movements and the factors that give rise to them. Similarly, across the social and natural sciences, there is a lack of applied study into the implementation, effectiveness, and modification of policies designed to encourage sustainable/green consumption practices. For sustainable/green consumption to be better understood, these practices and policies must be examined in greater detail from a wide range of disciplines and methods.
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (1997) Sustainable Consumption and Production. OECD Publications, Paris.
- Spaargaren, G. and van Vliet, B. (2000) Lifestyles, consumption and the environment: the ecological modernisation of domestic consumption. Environmental Politics 10 (1): 50—76.