Sustainable Consumption and the Law

By Salzman, James | Environmental Law, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Sustainable Consumption and the Law

Salzman, James, Environmental Law


Over a quarter century has passed since the Clean Air Act of 1970(1) ushered in the era of modern environmental law, establishing for the first time tough, nationally uniform command-and-control requirements.(2) From today's vantage point, the major environmental statutes passed in the 1970s such as the Clean Water Act.(3) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act(4) have been largely successful. Overall, the air is purer, the water is cleaner.(5) Despite this progress, however, public opinion polls consistently show a general perception that the threats facing the environment are more serious today than in 1970.6 The question is why? Where have our environmental laws fallen short?

Clearly, one problem is the inadequacy of domestic laws in the face of international environmental threats. The local identification of our environmental problems in 1970 was, in retrospect, parochial. An equally important problem, however, is that our vision of environmental law has been constricted. By narrowly focusing on basic pollution issues such as the production and disposal of waste, our laws have largely ignored other significant contributors to environmental harms. Chief among these contributors, and the focus of this article, is consumption.

With few exceptions, our modern environmental laws have been pollution control laws. As a result, our factories are now cleaner and more efficient, producing less pollution per unit of production.(7) This is surely an important achievement, but its significance is diminished by the fact that we are all consuming more, resulting in accelerated use of natural resources and associated impacts both at home and abroad.(8) Indeed, more goods and services have been consumed since 1950 than by all previous generations combined.(9) The manufacture of cars, for example, produces less pollution than twenty years ago, but the far greater number of cars on the road has led to major increases in resource consumption.(10) Put simply, in concentrating our laws on the reduction of waste from pipes and smokestacks, we have largely neglected to address the reason we produce the waste in the first place.

This is a serious failing, for stringent regulation of polluting industries will not ensure environmental protection if current trends of consumption continue over the longer term.(11) As Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and chair of the commission that produced the seminal work, Our Common Future, has stated:

It is simply impossible for the world as a whole to sustain a Western level

of consumption for all. In fact, if seven billion people were to

consume as much energy and resources as we do in the West today we

would need ten worlds, not one to satisfy all our needs.(12)

The international community has recognized the importance of consumption in environmental protection, declaring at the 1992 Earth Summit that, "[t]he major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environmental degradation is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in the industrialized countries, which is a matter of grave concern, aggravating poverty and imbalances .... Developed countries should take the lead in achieving sustainable consumption patterns . . . ."(13)

The clear implication of this statement, endorsed by 178 countries and repeated in subsequent international declarations, is that over the longer term we in the developed world must consume less, consume better, or both. This general goal has been described as "Sustainable Consumption." The key challenge is how to translate this goal into effective practice. Indeed, what level of consumption is sustainable? What does consuming better actually mean? And, the focus of this Article, what role does and should the taw play in influencing our patterns and levels of consumption?

The term, "sustainable consumption," as used in this Article, refers to a level of consumption which causes a level of environmental impact over time that does not degrade basic ecosystem services, such as the provision of fresh water, fertile soil, and a protective ozone layer. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Sustainable Consumption and the Law


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.