Consuming Values and Contested Cultures: A Critical Analysis of the UK Strategy for Sustainable Consumption and Production

By Seyfang, Gill | Review of Social Economy, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Consuming Values and Contested Cultures: A Critical Analysis of the UK Strategy for Sustainable Consumption and Production


Seyfang, Gill, Review of Social Economy


Abstract The term "sustainable consumption" is subject to many interpretations, from Agenda 21's hopeful assertion that governments should encourage less materialistic lifestyles based on new definitions of "wealth" and "prosperity", to the view prevalent in international policy discourse that green and ethical consumerism will be sufficient to transform markets to produce continual and "clean" economic growth. These different perspectives are examined using a conceptual framework derived from Cultural Theory, to illustrate their fundamentally competing beliefs about the nature of the environment and society, and the meanings attached to consumption. Cultural Theory argues that societies should develop pluralistic policies to include all perspectives. Using this framework, the paper examines the UK strategy for sustainable consumption, and identifies a number of failings in current policy. These are that the UK strategy is strongly biased towards individualistic, market-based and neo-liberal policies, so it can only respond to a small part of the problem of unsustainable consumption. Policy recommendations include measures to strengthen the input from competing cultures, to realize the potential for more collective, egalitarian and significantly less materialistic consumption patterns.

Keywords: consumption, Cultural Theory, sustainable development, green consumerism, economic growth, institutions

INTRODUCTION

Over the last 15 years, "sustainable consumption" has become a core issue on the international environmental agenda, and the definition which has become widely adopted in international policy arenas is that originally set out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD):

   sustainable consumption is the use of goods and related products
   which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life,
   while minimising the use of natural resources and toxic materials as
   well as the emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle,
   so as not to jeopardise the needs of future generations.

   (Norwegian Ministry of Environment (1994), in OECD (2002): 9).

The U.K. strategy for sustainable consumption (DEFRA 2003) builds on this definition, and promotes the consumption of "greener" products produced in a "cleaner" manner. However, this apparent consensus about the meaning of sustainable consumption masks underlying debates and ideological battles over what might constitute sustainable consumption in practice. The UK strategy, for example, stands in marked contrast to other, more radical critiques of current consumption patterns that incorporate social sustainability and equity, and favor a downscaling of material consumption rather than continued economic growth. What are the scope, objective and rationale of these two main definitions and the perspectives that they represent? This paper applies Cultural Theory in a critical analysis of U.K. sustainable consumption policy, to assess its potential effectiveness, and produce policy recommendations.

COMPETING CULTURES OF CONSUMPTION

Mary Douglas's Cultural Theory originated in her work on the anthropology of consumption and public attitudes to risk. Cultural Theory is one of many social theories of consumption and environmental decision-making which seeks to understand patterns of behavior using explanatory tools outside the conventional economic paradigm. Consumption decisions made in the household and the supermarket about consumption cannot be viewed as technically neutral events they are inextricably linked with values and social meaning, and are signifiers of cultural allegiance and social relationships. Preferences are formed, not within individuals or as endowments, but rather between people in a dynamic manner. Consumption is therefore a moral activity, one that supports and strengthens particular forms of social solidarity, and which is symbolic of collective values and interrelationships (Douglas and Isherwood 1996/1979). …

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