“The moralist in me says yes, individuals can make a real difference and consumers can play a major role in this,” says Eefje de Gelder, an Economics and Marketing PhD student.
Opinion: Is reducing consumption the ultimate solution?
Radical solutions are needed in order to combat further climate change — this is nothing new. But who should make the first move and how remains unclear. Governments are increasingly calling on consumers to make sustainable choices, which begs the question: is reducing consumption the ultimate way to stop climate change? Two young economists discuss.
As part of her doctoral research, she is examining the role of consumers in the fair trade movement. “Research has shown that when you make a moral appeal, people tend to dig in their heels and resist. This is understandable, of course. We all consider ourselves to be inherently good and when someone questions our moral character, we feel bad and get defensive. Another thing is, low prices are far more motivating than a strong moral compass. Just look at the energy crisis: prices have to really skyrocket before people will take action. So as long as consumers have access to affordable yet climate-unfriendly goods, not much will change. In the end, changing their behaviour is extremely difficult for consumers, which means steps will have to be taken in the production chain or by companies or governments instead.”
“You can’t choose options you don’t have”
Charan van Krevel, a PhD candidate and Economics lecturer, agrees. “Consumers can’t choose options they don’t have.” He is researching how natural resources can be used for sustainable and far-reaching prosperity. “Suppose you want to travel to Kazakhstan. You could go by train, which would take weeks, or you could book a quick but highly polluting flight. There’s no alternative that is both appealing and sustainable.”
Eefje adds: “There’s a cultural aspect as well. People still attach too much importance to climate-unfriendly things. An exotic holiday by plane is way cooler than a camping holiday at home. A cultural shift is needed to get the masses on board.”
“We still think of everything as limitless”
“We need to embrace the idea that there are limits within which we can operate,” says Charan. “As painful and uncomfortable as that thought may be, it’s also inevitable. For many people, pain has to be visible before they’re willing to change themselves or encourage others to change. At a certain point, people will have to really feel the effects; for example, not being able to buy meat anymore or having to pay twenty euros instead of two euros for it. People only realise that their actions have consequences once they’re personally affected. Only then are they willing to take steps to make a change,” Charan concludes.
“The way we live now — with everything at our fingertips at all times — is historically absurd,” says Eefje. “We’ve come to believe we’re entitled to everything. A more interesting question is: what meaning do we give to life? Do we live to consume or do we consume to live?”
Charan adds: “Everything in supermarkets today has been flown in from around the world. If we start asking ourselves what we can consume, I think we can create a society that can support ‘unlimited’ consumption. In this scenario, we would produce more locally, according to the limits set by nature.”
“If everyone were to get on board, we could set up a new system tomorrow. Unfortunately, this kind of wishful thinking is unrealistic. There are still too many factors that hold us back as consumers, not to mention a lack of motivation. But serious change is needed and not just in terms of our own consumer behaviour — we need to encourage others to change as well in an attempt to change the system,” concludes Charan.
“Start by looking at your own consumption patterns,” adds Eefje. “How do they stack up?” What small steps can you take? Don’t try to do change everything at once. Start small and go from there.”
Text: Annette Zonnenberg
- About person
- E. de Gelder (Eefje)