Published 2018-10-09This post is also available in Swedish
Research focus on food, leisure travel and home decoration
Our habits and dreams make consumption a difficult area to research. But over the next few years, the Mistra Sustainable Consumption research programme will explore how our consumption can be made more sustainable. The goal is for this to be feasible without the need to forgo our quality of life.
Over the years, much research progress has been achieved on how production of goods and services could become more environmentally friendly.
‘It’s been important research: without sustainable production, we can never achieve sustainable consumption. But the research hasn’t scrutinised the switch to sustainable consumption with the same thoroughness,’ says Karin Bradley.
She and Åsa Svenfelt are joint Programme Directors of the Sustainable Consumption research programme. Both work at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.
One reason why this is such an intractable area is that consumption concerns our most private sphere — not least, our dreams and desire to live a good life.
‘When we heard about Mistra’s call for proposals for a sustainable consumption programme, we were a group of researchers from KTH, Chalmers University of Technology and Lund University Faculty of Engineering (LTH), who saw an opportunity to do something interesting. We didn’t think that much about what Mistra wanted — more about what we saw as important issues.’
It was a successful way to start, and now Mistra Sustainable Consumption, subtitled ‘From niche to mainstream’, will soon be a year old. The programme currently engages 14 researchers and 7 PhD students, and has 23 public partners. These include several higher education institutions and some government agencies and state-owned enterprises. A few are large; others are small.
‘Our choice of the motto “From niche to mainstream” was prompted by our wish to look at what’s needed to make more sustainable consumption universally accessible. But above all, it’s because our starting point is what’s regarded as niche behaviour today, to see how it could become mainstream tomorrow.’
For example, travelling by train to Berlin is currently both complicated and expensive. This means that only a few rail enthusiasts choose this option. The question is then what it takes to make the journey easy and affordable, and thus something many people opt to do.
According to Karin Bradley, sustainability is not about us becoming ascetics and choosing a life of hardships. Switching to more sustainable consumption patterns could very well mean improving, or at least preserving, our quality of life.
‘In fact, it’s simple. Research has shown repeatedly that there’s an association between material prosperity and happiness. But that’s only up to a certain limit. Above that, the reverse is often true.’
One of the challenges is that the public debate about consumption is frequently about what we should NOT do, and there is relatively little emphasis on creating an attractive image of a sustainable lifestyle.
‘We know that strict environmental arguments only touch a few, while most bail out when they feel questioned. So we’ve broadened our research from a one-sided focus on the environment to being about public health, equality and quality of life as well.’
Another key question is whether the way to bring about sustainability is mainly through greater efficiency, with goods manufactured using fewer resources, or whether we also need to reduce our consumption and talk about sufficiency.
‘It’s important for the products we need to be produced efficiently, but the question is whether that’s enough. We’ve probably also got to reduce our consumption. And at the very moment we start to reason in these terms, we approach an issue that’s politically highly sensitive. But we shouldn’t push policies; rather, our task is to provide politicians with documentation.’
Before the programme started Karin Bradley, and her colleagues who joined in formulating the application, thought a great deal about which groups to include in the programme. One question was whether, within a programme intended to work for niche solutions to become mainstream, a working partnership among various partners can be created. In particular, this relates to companies that operate in a commercial and global marketplace, on the one hand, and to small local firms in the business of recycling objects rejected by others on the other.
‘We decided to collaborate with global as well as small local operators, as long as they have a desire for change. And that’s been successful, not least because many of the major companies that are included, which account for a high proportion of unsustainable consumption at present, often want to reorganise their work to create more sustainable business models. In these companies, there are often also divisions that run their own niche operations.’
This could be a matter of an IKEA department store selling its own goods second-hand, or a grocery retailer restructuring its business to increase sales of sustainable products.
The roadmaps to be developed in the final phase will focus on what Sweden can do. The researchers will also study the rebound effects that steering the economy towards a certain ‘sustainable’ consumption could have. For example, these may involve the side effects a transition to more vegetarian eating habits may have: if people save money and then use it for more air travel, for example, the net impact on the climate may be negative. Finding solutions and combinations of policy instruments that avert unwanted side effects is therefore necessary.
Board members’ thoughts on the programme
Annika Helker Lundström is Chair of the Mistra Sustainable Consumption programme board.
She has served as a special investigator for the Government, chaired the Swedish Recycling Industries’ Association and been CEO of the Swedish Wind Energy Association. She is now also Chair of IVL Swedish Environmental Institute.
‘It was in the late 1990s, when I was chairing the Recycling Industries’ Association, that I started to get seriously interested in sustainable consumption and production. But that was also where I began to see how something that was niche behaviour could become mainstream.’
According to Helker Lundström, much is known about our consumption but extremely little of it is useful now that we need to foster a more sustainable lifestyle.
‘We need to know more about what commerce, manufacturing industry and we as individuals can contribute.’
The programme has now started in earnest, says Helker Lundström. And all the parties involved are ambitious and have a desire to listen and learn from one another.
‘The consensus about what we have to do is good, but the results we’ll get may require major adjustments for many people. And then we can probably expect some controversies. Not that we fear that — rather, the fact that we’ve managed to gather stakeholders from so many different areas is a strength.’
Another challenge Helker Lundström anticipates is how they will communicate the knowledge generated by the programme.
‘Lots of people want to live more sustainably, but if we’re too authoritarian the effect could be the opposite.’
Jan Bertoft, Secretary General of the Swedish Consumers’ Association and member of the Mistra Sustainable Consumption board, tells us how he views the programme.
Blaming consumers solves no problems, in his opinion.
‘We consumers can’t take responsibility for the whole shift to more sustainable consumption. Companies and politicians, too, have to act.’
According to him, Sweden’s consumers have chosen to get involved in the programme because sustainable consumption and development have become increasingly important for consumers, both in Sweden and globally.
‘It’s therefore important for us to get all the facts on the table, not least to debunk all the existing myths in the area today. One of these is that everything we sort and recycle then gets mixed up again. Another is that if we just inform consumers properly, they’ll start to behave differently.’
Bertoft is careful to point out that consumers, companies and politicians all have important roles in achieving more sustainable development.
‘We can take advantage of our consumer power, but we can’t be responsible for the entire solution. Politicians and companies must also contribute — the politicians by presenting measures, which may be both tax changes and legislation, that help to create more sustainable development. And their solutions must be broad and long-term.’
He believes that companies have a responsibility to offer goods and services that make it easier for us consumers. In some industries, such as the grocery trade, the trend in this direction has gained momentum. The consumer electronics sector, on the other hand, is part of the problem rather than of the solution.
Although as private individuals we cannot be expected to come up with the whole solution, according to Bertoft we must understand that we bear some responsibility.
‘But we shouldn’t blame consumers. If we do, we create more dejection than dynamism. So it’s a delicate question, and one we should try to answer: how much responsibility can we assign to consumers?
However, Bertoft believes that the Swedish Consumers’ Association, as an organisation, has an important role to play in the programme.
‘Research can contribute knowledge, but it can rarely pursue its conclusions politically. We can thus contributing to a real change. So I’d hoped that, by now, we would have gained a more policy-making role in the programme. But that may come when we’ve made a bit more progress.’
By the end of the programme’s first stage in 2021, Bertoft hopes we will have taken significant steps towards the goal. First, consumers should have begun to change their behaviour. Second, politicians should have made appropriate political decisions. At the same time, these steps will make it easier for consumers and businesses to act more sustainably.
Facts: Mistra Sustainable Consumption’s three pillars
To make the programme more manageable, it will focus on three areas: food, holidays and home decoration.
Food is an area where society has steered trends less, but where we stand to make major gains in both environmental and health terms. At the same time, it is a difficult subject for researchers and politicians alike to tackle. This is not least because what we eat is a matter of culture, tradition and fundamental habits.
There are several approaches here. We can address the food we eat, how it is grown and transported, and how it is cooked. However, food can also be a way to strengthen the local economy, while we can simultaneously become less vulnerable if we learn more about a range of topics, from how to grow potatoes to the best ways of pickling vegetables.
In contrast to our daily travel, politicians have not wanted to meddle with holiday travel to any great extent. But with rising prosperity, both short and long-term leisure trips have become more numerous.
This, too, is a sensitive subject since leisure travel is one of the ways in which we reward ourselves. It is also about something as important as our need to recharge our batteries to cope with everyday life.
The question is therefore how we can go on holiday in a more sustainable way.
To date, the furniture, fixtures and fittings we have in our homes have had long cycles. But now our consumption patterns are changing and our kitchens, sofas and the rest are being replaced at an ever-faster rate. The same goes for cushions and other small items in our homes.
One question that arises is what consequences this has. Another is what results new business models can bring. An example is if we hire a sofa: the money we (at least for the time being) no longer need to spend on buying that item may well come to be spent on a trip abroad instead.
The first task in the programme is to survey the three areas.
After that, changes among consumers, civil society and industry are to be studied. At the same time, various types of policy instrument will be explored.
The final stage before the research programme ends in 2021 is to develop some roadmaps with action proposals.