Published 2018-02-27

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Sustainable consumption begins locally

Mistra Sustainable Consumption has started. A 'municipal PhD student' is now attached to the programme, since many of the changes must take place at local level, as well as other levels.

‘We’ve got used to industrial PhD students. Now the City of Gothenburg is inviting applications for a municipal PhD student position, because the shift has to happen at several levels.’

The speaker is researcher Karin Bradley of KTH Royal Institute of Technology, one of Mistra Sustainable Consumption’s two programme directors.

This PhD student will alternate between the City of Gothenburg’s municipal corridors and Chalmers University of Technology, both organisations being part of the consortium behind the programme.

According to the job ad,

‘The main purpose of the municipal PhD student’s research is to contribute knowledge about municipalities’ scope for promoting sustainable consumption patterns among their residents. The research will affect private consumption patterns in a broad sense.’

Mistra Sustainable Consumption is subtitled ‘from niche to mainstream’ — that is, a changeover from peripheral behaviour to what most people do. Sorting rubbish in the 1970s might be described as niche behaviour; today it is ‘mainstream’.

Similarly, the researchers in the newly launched programme are to survey the market and seek more sustainable peripheral behaviours, and thereafter find ways to disseminate them. This may be a matter of deliberate sustainability strategies, such as choosing vegetarian proteins in one’s diet, or of yesteryear’s obsolete habits, such as keeping food in a larder instead of a refrigerator. Shall we jet off to Thailand, or can we have a quality holiday at home (‘staycation’)?

Åsa Svenfelt shares her experience as Programme Director.

‘The first step is a survey. Then it’s a matter of choosing viable practices, testing them in large-scale experiments and facilitating their spread. These may include new business models, policy instruments and citizens’ initiatives.’

The background to the programme is that the UN has listed ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’ as one of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These require member nations to act, and the programme is Mistra’s response to the challenge.

The contract was awarded to a consortium, based at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, that includes a wide range of researchers from various disciplines. Alongside urban planners, economists, consumption sociologists and ecologists, there are also government agencies, municipalities and companies.

The programme’s sights are set not on hardships, but on ways of making our lives better.

‘But also, perhaps,’ Svenfelt adds, ‘on completely different ways of life.’

Karin Bradley takes up the argument: ‘There are many studies showing that consumption doesn’t always make us happier.’

The themes in daily life to be covered in the programme’s research are food, holidays and how we decorate our homes. Of these, food and holidays are the areas where the most obvious improvements can be made, Bradley thinks.

‘Travelling to Berlin by rail instead of air is one example. Today, that’s almost extreme niche behaviour. What would it take in terms of pricing, booking and convenience of rail travel for a family to choose the train instead of holiday flights to Berlin and back?’

The research is to be organised according to themes, in work packages focusing on civil society, industry and policy activities.

In a final work package, the plan is to synthesise the results.

‘After four years, things should have happened,’ Svenfelt says. ‘Then we’ll be able to deliver recommendations on changes that decision-makers can take further and base political decisions on. We should also have issued roadmaps for further work.’

The roadmaps should be flexible and adaptable as the terrain (reality) changes, she explains.

Cooperation is under way with, for example, researchers from the Netherlands. The Dutch have long used flexible future scenarios regarding climate change.

‘In the Netherlands, it’s come to the crunch, especially given uncertainty about rising sea levels. As a result, they’re in the habit of thinking forward in various scenarios,’ Svenfelt says. She is herself an ecologist and futures researcher.

The programme will kick off with a joint residential seminar on 7–8 March, attended by representatives of all seven research centres and 24 other stakeholders.

Text: Thomas Heldmark