Published 2019-05-21

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Fear of downsides driving Åsa Svenfelt

‘The point of this research is that the future is unpredictable. It is more a matter of planning. If plan properly, it will improve our prospects of ending up where we want to go.
‘How far that gets us on the road to sustainable consumption remains to be seen,’ says Åsa Svenfelt, Programme Director of Mistra Sustainable Consumption.

‘My work’s driven by a fear of the downsides — all the negative stuff. I don’t want to see the trends that could result if society doesn’t change,’ says Åsa Svenfelt, docent at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

Åsa Svenfelt

For nearly 15 years, she has researched various aspects of sustainable consumption and development. Initially, we talk about the enormous task of influencing our consumption, which is both a lifestyle and a growth engine for the whole of society. We also talk about signs of more sustainable consumption patterns. Svenfelt highlights the declining meat consumption in Sweden in the past few years — ‘and that didn’t happen as a result of any powerful policy instruments.’ The fact that more and more people are questioning air travel and the resurgence in interest in rail travel are also positive, she says.

Since the 1950s — a period researchers call the Great Acceleration’ —the world’s total resource use and emissions of greenhouse gases and other environmentally hazardous substances have increased exponentially. Most graphs show steeper increases, still without clear breaks in the trends. From this perspective, neither ‘shame of flying’ nor reduced meat consumption has yet had any great impact on the statistics.

‘No, overall, the trends are still going in the wrong direction. But my vision is that this can be changed. I always see chinks of light in the darkness — that capacity for change exists.’

A similar positive and constructive approach characterises the Mistra Sustainable Consumption research programme, which Svenfelt leads jointly with her KTH colleague Karin Bradley. The programme, which has been running since 2018, will stimulate a transition to sustainable consumption.

‘How can we support ongoing positive initiatives? How do you get what exists on a small scale to become the norm? That’s the point of our research programme.’

The need for our consumption patterns to become more sustainable requires no further research to support it. On the other hand, more knowledge is needed on how this adaptation should be achieved in practice. The programme must therefore develop knowledge on how sustainable consumption practices could be scaled up, and then create roadmaps for more sustainable future scenarios.

‘Assuming that 90 per cent of Swedes should act in a certain way, what steps do we need to take to achieve it?’

Despite her strong commitment, Svenfelt does not identify herself as an environmental activist: ‘I’ve never been a field biologist or anything like that.’ In fact, she had completely different plans in her youth. The Restaurant Management and Food Programme at upper secondary school led to jobs as a waitress and restaurant manager. But her big dream was then to become an airline pilot.

‘I was going to follow my father’s footsteps and become a pilot. That’s so far from where I am today… It’s quite funny. I don’t think even my colleagues know about that,’ she says, smiling.

To qualify for pilot training, she needed to study natural science subjects. But in municipal adult education she changed her mind.

‘My biology teacher opened my eyes to human environmental impact. After that, I started studying all the subjects I needed to be able to read biology at university.’

For a while after her graduation, she organised upper secondary school conferences on peace, democracy and the environment, before being tempted back into academia to take up a doctoral studentship. While working on her thesis, which was partly on prospects for increased local self-sufficiency in Gotland, she moved her base from Stockholm University to KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Here she has, for example, been involved in developing an environmental classification system for buildings that has been widely adopted in the industry — a small but concrete step towards greater sustainability, she says proudly.

‘I think it’s a clear example that things can happen. We developed it here at KTH, jointly with IVL and the industry. That’s how we work in the Mistra programme too, jointly with various stakeholders.’

Much responsibility for more sustainable consumption rests on politicians and the business sector, which can influence how we consume through policy instruments and new business models. But this does not mean that individuals can’t act and consume more sustainably already, Svenfelt says.

‘There are already many initiatives and examples of that, so if you have knowledge and opportunities there’s no reason to wait. But a lot of people I talk to are unsure of what’s right, and that may also mean higher costs that not everyone can afford, and then society must support the development.’

As a person with both knowledge and opportunities, Svenfelt thinks she has a special responsibility to try to act sustainably. She too is tempted to travel and consume. But she tries to move furniture and gadgets around at home, and not throw away what she thinks others can use; does her furniture shopping primarily at flea markets and on online auctions; and is trying to minimise her air travel — both privately and as a researcher.

‘I prefer travelling by train, and I avoid conferences I have to fly to.’

At home the family has, for example, cut down on meat and begun to eat more vegetarian and vegan food. The most difficult product for her to drop is cheese, which has a relatively large carbon footprint.

‘I’m trying to change it gradually. I cut down on cheese during the week and eat it at weekends instead.’

Shopping and acting more sustainably in daily life is an important way forward. But Svenfelt also wants us to reflect and ask questions. Why do we need to be consumers at all?

‘For a good life we must eat, we need accommodation and we have to solve some basic functions. But our general image as ‘consumers’ sounds like we’re passive beings who just go around consuming things… It doesn’t have to be like that. We might as well be co-creators and do things ourselves and together.’

In March this year, Mistra Sustainable Consumption’s first three reports were published. In the reports, the researchers surveyed hundreds of examples of what could be sustainable consumption — from repairing old furniture and reducing food wastage to having virtual holidays and preserving one’s own food. These examples should now form the basis of further analyses of environmental and health impacts.

‘Is it good from a sustainability point of view to scale up this kind of thing? Is that something we should switch to?’

Svenfelt and her colleagues will then provide recommendations on how the most interesting initiatives can be favoured — politically through various types of policy instruments, in the business sector with new business models, and from the public’s point of view.

The programme will culminate in roadmaps. Svenfelt is reluctant to set clear goals for this journey. She is focused on identifying examples of best practice and getting them to grow. How far this takes us on the road to sustainable consumption remains to be seen.

‘My whole research idea is that it’s never possible to predict any particular future. It’s all about planning. If we do that, there’s a much greater chance of ending up where we want to go.’