Sustainable Consumption and Behaviour Change

Sustainable Consumption and Behaviour Change

Alan Warde, University of Manchester                          [pdf]

Sustainability is the most pressing political problem of the 21st century, a consequence of climate change, environmental degradation and depletion, and exacerbated by a predicted massive expansion of the world’s population. Patterns of personal and household consumption are also major sources of pressure. The preferred response of incumbent political elites is economic growth and technological innovation; ie business as usual with salvation achieved through ‘cleaner’ or ‘greener’ technologies whose development will return acceptable of profit to capitalist corporations.

Although natural sciences and their technological applications have demonstrated remarkable Promethean powers in the past, one doesn’t have to be a chronic pessimist to anticipate that they will be insufficient. Indeed, governments implicitly admit as much by deeming it necessary to address sustainability as a problem of changing personal and collective behaviour.

The term, ‘sustainable consumption’, which reached politicians’ lips about ten years ago, presents grave political problems. First, no party can propose that material standards of living, whatever their consequence for earth’s natural resources, should fall. Second, similar standards may be demanded, and morally will have to be permitted, everywhere. As economies like those of India, China, Brazil and Russia expand they will incorporate imperatives from global consumer culture so that popular aspirations converge on western levels. Third, national governments do not have the powers, and nor probably the political will, to intervene authoritatively to determine exactly what items can and cannot be consumed. What to do?

Governments have responded ponderously both internationally and nationally. The current political fashion, at least in the UK and USA, is for ‘behavioural change’ initiatives which encourage citizens to assume greater ‘personal responsibility’ for their lifestyles and their ‘choices’ in the market-place. Strategies are typically directed towards influencing consumers to make different choices when out shopping. Perhaps most prominent are social marketing and information campaigns (McKenzie-Mohr, 2000) which hope that individuals will adopt rational behaviour by recognising how sensible it would be to modify their ways of life and help save the planet.

Where this strategy does not seem to work recourse is had to trying to increase people’s commitment to the tenets of ethical consumption (Vermier and Verbeke, 2006), whether though ‘bottom-up’ political mobilization (Micheletti, 2003) or through an appeal to the societal responsibilities of ‘citizen-consumers’ (Spaargaren, 2003). If people held green values tenaciously and deeply enough, they might be more assiduous in turning their general sympathy for the environment into new behavioural commitments. Environmental policy has consequently been largely restricted to forms of intervention depending either on economic incentives or on the presentation of information designed to persuade individuals to behave better.

Such solutions are appealing to governments for at least two reasons. First, governments are relieved of responsibility, which is transferred from politicians to citizens. Governments do not need to articulate or mobilise concerted political will, nor are they required to develop policies which challenge vested interests or upset powerful corporations or organizations. Second, appeal is made to a common-sense western understanding of consumption, in terms of consumer sovereignty.

The dominant template of consumption presents the process as one where the individual engages in very many discrete events characterised by personal deliberation which precedes personal, independent decisions made with a view to the satisfaction of preferences. Political ‘solutions’ are strongly rooted in a perception that the figure to be dealt with (arguably an ideological and imaginary figure) is the ‘sovereign consumer’, who, relatively autonomously, reflects on his/her lifestyle, in light of available money and time, and selects goods and services entirely voluntarily to match preferences and values.

Most would say that these policy approaches have been ineffective. Arguably that is because of a basic failure to see consumption as a form of social and practical activity. The puzzle is that, if asked, almost everyone is in favour of protecting and preserving the environment and slowing climate change. However, people do not act consistently on the basis of their declared values and best intentions. For example, DEFRA (2008) demonstrates that pro-environmental attitudes and values are consistently higher than the percentage of people who take measures to change their behaviour. The so-called ‘value – action gap’ reveals a critical lacuna in behaviour change policies. Therefore, better look for explanations which presume neither that individuals are reflective in consciously choosing, in the light of their values and attitudes, what they want and what they wish to do. Social sciences offer alternative models; Behavioural Economics offers one increasingly influential account, Practice Theory another.

Behavioural Economics thrives on showing that the formal axioms of neo-classical Economics about market behaviour and the operation of markets make little empirical sense. People in market situations (and by analogy other situations of ‘choice’ and decision) do not calculate rationally on the basis of perfect knowledge and in the light of fixed intransitive preferences. The gist of the relevant argument can be gleaned from Thaler and Sunstein’s (2009) much acclaimed book Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. They re-iterate claims of cognitive science to the effect that the brain has two systems generating behaviour, one ‘automatic’, which is uncontrolled, effortless, associative, fast, unconscious and skilled, the other, ‘reflective’, controlled, effortful, deductive, slow, self-aware and rule-following. The first is far more important. A great deal of behaviour is governed by mental processes which are automatic, intuitive, emotion-driven, and which therefore involve little deliberation or rational thought. The result is said to be biased judgments, difficulties in resisting temptation and a strong tendency to social conformity. In this account, consumers certainly are not rational, calculating, self-aware, independently-minded agents.

If the mind works as Thaler and Sunstein say it does, action does not proceed from consulting our values and attitudes about our personal probity or the greater common good, but are instead rapid responses to cues provided in the external environment, conjured up from habits and intuitions about the nature of the situation in which we find ourselves. This implies that to alter behaviour requires changing the environment of action rather than changing people’s minds. This represents an important shift in focus away from solutions based upon changing individuals. Hence the advocacy of better ‘Choice Architecture’ – default settings, infrastructural design, feedback on the outcomes of actions, and purposefully aligned economic incentives – which will steer people away from the detrimental consequences of their naturally rash behaviour.

Although the arguments of Nudge have now entered high up in the policy chain (Dolan et al., 2010), they are wanting in several regards (eg, Food Ethics, 2011). First, it seems very doubtful whether the necessary range of impact would be achieved. I would wager, if radical change in the organisation of consumption is required, it will take more time than climate science says we have available if we rely on nudging billions of individuals into minor beneficial modifications to their everyday habits to save the planet. It is the rich (rich countries as well as affluent individuals) who pose the greatest threat to sustainability; and it is agencies with substantial power (governments, corporations, institutions) which have the greatest capacity to make big differences to the environmental accounts. Focusing on changing individual behaviour seems to me like moving deckchairs around on the Titanic. Second, it does not lead to a sufficiently fundamental reappraisal of the model of the consumer. That much behaviour bears no relation to the rational action expected in models of the sovereign consumer is of major significance, but Behavioural Economics seems loathe to extrapolate from its findings to mount a broader challenge to neo-classical axioms and theories (Rabin, 2002).

The facts of automatic, repetitive and mindless conduct might generate more radical approaches to policy. Recent developments in theories of practice (e.g. McMeekin and Southerton, 2012; Shove et al, 2012) suggest alternatives to analyses based on consumer choice. As individuals we often have limited control over what things we use and how we use them. Convention, infrastructure and shared goals constrain everyone. Types and levels of consumption tend to be determined socially and collectively. A practice-theoretical approach acknowledges this, proposing that consumption is less a matter of individual expression and choice, and more a corollary of the conventions of the range of the specific, socially-organized practices felt to be necessary to live a good life (Warde, 2005). For much of the time participation in a practice means nothing more than the requisitioning of familiar items and their routine application to well understood activities. Performances recognised as competent – for example in the environmentally sensitive fields of eating, heating and cooling, and transport – are orientated by and towards collectively accredited and locally situated conventions associated with such practices. Hence behaviour change targeted at influencing individual choice at the point of purchase will never suffice. New modes of intervention are required, with less emphasis on personal education or ethical conversion and more on reviewing the social organization and infrastructures of particular practices.

Practice theory too has now just begun to enter the frame of reference of policy after having been engineered as a potential tool for engendering behavioural change (Darnton et al., 2011). Emphasis on changing the social and material environment of action rather than the beliefs or intentions of individuals should be welcomed precisely because policies aimed at getting individuals to change their own behaviour are so rarely successful and because the scale and urgency of the problem of sustainable consumption is unprecedented.


Alan Warde is Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester. Between 2010-2012, he was the Jane and Aatos Erkko Visiting Research Professorship for Studies in Contemporary Society, at the University of Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, Finland. With Tony Bennett, Mike Savage, Elisabeth Silva, E., Modesto Gayo-Cal, and David Wright, he is author of Culture, Class, Distinction (Routledge, 2009) and editor of Consumption (4 volumes). (Benchmarks in Culture and Society: Sage, 2010)