Published 2020-05-07

This post is also available in Swedish

‘Rich people need to develop a sense of sufficiency’

When we refer to sustainable consumption, we also need to broach the subject of reduced consumption. This is the opinion of Åsa Callmer, who studied for her PhD in The Seed Box, the Mistra-funded research programme. She studied the concept of ‘sufficiency’ — feeling satisfied with what one has and moving towards just distribution and use of resources within planetary boundaries.

During the spring, Åsa Callmer, a researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, defended her PhD thesis on how the sufficiency concept can guide progress towards a more sustainable society. Her PhD studies took place in The Seed Box, the Mistra-funded programme.

Åsa Callmer, The SeedBox.

‘The idea of ​​sufficiency is based on our need, in consumption and resource use, to stay within planetary boundaries. It also means a strong element of justice — that we have a responsibility to share equally in the environmental space that exists. So rich people and communities, like us here in Sweden, need to take a big step back,’ she explains.

Callmer studied sufficiency at individual level, and investigated challenges and potential for reorienting people towards sufficiency at community level. At individual level, she has interviewed two groups of people — those who have done no shopping for a year and users of the ‘KonMari’ method to declutter their homes by discarding things that do not bring them joy.

While the vast majority of the non-purchasing group already had a strong environmental focus and had actively chosen to cut their consumption, the other group consisted of more traditional consumers.

‘In the no-shopping group, it struck me that they felt it was easy and liberating to stand outside consumer society. It gave many people a kick to realise they could do that, and that it wasn’t especially hard. In the KonMari group, it became clear that reviewing every little item is an arduous process; but here, too, owning less stuff gave many people a sense of liberation. They also felt they’d become more discerning in their purchases and so had stopped impulse buying and cut their consumption,’ Callmer says.

Both groups felt that the social aspect, such as the expectation of presents for party hosts and leaving gifts for dinner guests, was often the most challenging one to deal with.

Goal conflicts regarding growth and consumption

Ensuring that sufficiency and reduced consumption catch on in practice requires the right policy instruments, Callmer thinks. Having studied the policy instruments and policies currently in place at municipal, regional and national levels, she realised that there are contradictions.

‘It’s clear there are several conflicts between the aims of growth and consumption. For municipalities that want to attract businesses, it may be awkward to talk about reduced consumption, and few policies use this concept. Instead, they talk about changed consumption or reduced waste, which are less controversial terms.’

Callmer finds it important to set clear targets for reduced consumption, partly measurable by volume, but also to raise the concept of planetary boundaries and the justice perspective.

‘In the wake of the climate crisis, there’s been growing talk about planetary boundaries, but we need to put them into even clearer words — that they exist and we need to adapt our consumption to them. We also need to define other goals to pursue. Instead of economic growth, perhaps we should guide society towards the greatest possible well-being.’

Callmer points to the City of Gothenburg as exemplary, with a justice perspective in its strategy for sustainable consumption. At municipal level, she sees that many of the initiatives are about increasing opportunities to repair and borrow items, thereby making more of them available. But for sufficiency to have impact, more needs to happen.

‘Policy instruments need to go hand in hand with changed standards. At individual level, we need to get away from the constant quest for new and more stuff. At societal level, we need to abandon the one-sided focus on economic growth and work to build a sustainable society in the long term. Politicians must venture to set targets for reduced consumption to enable companies with circular business models to make a profit.’

Callmer is now working as a researcher in Mistra Sustainable Consumption, where her studies continue to include policy instruments for fostering sufficiency.