Can consumption become sustainable?

Why sustainable consumption doesn't work: 14 theses

by Peter Carstens
The idea of ​​helping the environment with resource and energy-saving products is a good 25 years old. It has never worked, says editor Peter Carstens

+++ Column "Everything in the green area" +++

Energy-saving refrigerators, recycled paper, economical cars, fair-trade organic coffee: since the early 1990s, sustainable consumption has haunted the final declarations of international climate and sustainability conferences. The idea: If everyone bought more economical and environmentally friendly products, we could conserve resources, the environment and the atmosphere. A quarter of a century later it becomes clear that sustainable products are booming - but the problems of the consumer society cannot be solved even with the greenest consumption. "The bad news is that this market success is not reflected in decreasing environmental pollution, namely in decreasing consumption-related CO2 emissions in the various areas of consumption," writes the Federal Environment Agency in a market analysis.

There are several reasons for the failure of sustainable consumption:

1. The potential of sustainable consumption is overestimated.

There is an enormous range of private issues. Those who live frugally may only produce five tons a year, others easily three times as much or more. Much would be gained if these heavyweights could be induced to slim down in the most important areas - heat, electricity, mobility. Only: nobody will do that voluntarily. And certainly not in all relevant areas. The greater part of the enormous potential will simply not be realizable. In the vast majority of cases it will remain with symbolic acts. The classic: shopping in the organic farm shop with the SUV.

2. Those who buy energy-saving devices use more electricity.

The paradox is known from rebound research that savings lead to waste: If you equip your household with economical LED lamps, you can easily succumb to the temptation to leave the light on longer. Doesn't use anything. Even those who are more disciplined can invest the money saved on electricity bills in a new car, a vacation flight or fossil stocks. And so destroy the environmental advantage of the more economical lighting.

3. Increasing demands nullify efficiency gains.

Green products could help save energy and resources. But they don't - because we need more and more of everything: "The demands of consumers in terms of living space, furnishings, individual mobility and nutrition have been increasing for years. Per capita living space is increasing continuously, electronic devices are being purchased more and more frequently , Long distances are covered and meat consumption is consistently high, "writes the Federal Environment Agency. Apparently, it is not just consumption that is the problem. But also our demands.

4. Environmental awareness or not: Those who earn a lot harm the environment more.

An evaluation by the Federal Environment Agency shows that those who earn a lot live all the more at the expense of the environment. Because no matter what we do with our salary increase, whether buying a house or a car, whether it's a flight or electronics: every conversion of money into things or services will have a negative impact on the climate and the environment. Conversely, this means that if the Germans had less money on average, the environment would be more helpful than all of the federal government's sustainability strategies and climate commitments combined. A survey of Greens voters provided sobering evidence of the connection between income and environmentally harmful behavior: of all party supporters, they fly the most. Because they earn an above-average amount of money.

5. Compensation systems make environmentally harmful behavior morally affordable.

Flying was once frowned upon - as the behavior with which we can cause the most damage to the climate in the shortest possible time. Since we at atmosfair and Co. can allegedly make up for the mess, flying has become morally affordable again - and only slightly more expensive: cheap jetting with a good feeling. This does not limit air traffic. On the contrary: According to calculations by experts, air traffic in Europe - and emissions from it - could double by 2035.

6. Real green products are getting harder to spot.

Ever since it became known that our consumption harms the environment, manufacturers have been trying to boost sales of their products with green promises. While organic seals and other labels guarantee at least tangible minimum standards, the validity of sloppy sustainability promises like "We do something for the environment" is usually not transparent to the consumer. An example: Anyone who purchases "green electricity" from one of the major suppliers is not necessarily doing something for the energy transition. Because many providers are only shifting the portion of cheap hydropower that they already purchase to the eco-customer account. This means that other customers receive proportionally more nuclear and coal electricity. Nothing is gained for the environment.

Shopping consciously has become very complicated. And overwhelmed many. One episode:

7. There are more environmentally conscious consumers. The others too.

There are more and more enlightened consumers who really want to do something for the environment. At the same time there are more and more indifferent and most importantly cheap consumers. The bottom line is that the environment is losing out. There are more and more cyclists, more and more driver-license refusers, people without cars and carsharers - but also more and more heavy cars on more and more roads, more and more single-family houses on green fields and air travel to distant countries.

8. The sustainable product world is becoming more and more supermarket.

Today, organic shops look like normal supermarkets: shelves full of superfluous cleaning agents and detergents, of course all super biodegradable, potatoes from Egypt, avocado from Peru, shelves of coffee and chocolate from South America or Africa. This is how organic is fun, it is wonderfully carefree shopping. Just like in the past. It's just stupid that a growing part of this range no longer comes from Germany, that we are using more and more space and water in poorer countries for our products.

9. Friendly invitations to try things out work just as little as moral sermons.

In the past, the raised index finger was annoying. Today they say: "Just start and enjoy and Save the world ". Sounds chilled. But this slogan is not a real incentive to change anything either. It's just no longer annoying. So everyone has their peace of mind: the sustainability preachers, who can no longer be insulted as moral apostles, and their flocks, who only receive low-threshold offers, which they can safely ignore, which they then do.

10. Sustainability, yes - but only if it doesn't hurt.

On average, every German is responsible for twelve tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. Globally responsible would be: at most one. We can't quite get there with a new A +++ fridge, an electric car, a hip solar flashlight and a bio-fair coffee in a reusable cup. If you are serious about sustainability, you have to be ready to change your life. Instead of making low-threshold "just get started!" Offers to notorious heavy consumers, politicians, environmentalists and media people should talk nonsense: a ton that is possible. But it will really hurt!

11. False comparisons are supposed to stimulate "sustainable" consumption.

To make things look attractive, one only needs to choose a clever comparison. For example, old and new cars: Recently it has even been said to be sustainable to buy a new, fuel-efficient car. Because after just a few years, the energy balance is better than that of the old car. May be. There is no rule of thumb for this. Other alternatives are guaranteed to be advantageous: simply use your old car less often. Or abolish it altogether. Old or new, fossil or electric: there is no such thing as environmentally friendly driving.

12. As long as prices do not tell the truth, production will remain harmful to the environment.

In the end it is always the price that decides. Even if many consumers resist the temptation to choose cheaper and environmentally harmful products: Politicians have to intervene here. It is their job to ensure that the real (environmental) costs of cheap production flow into the sales price in the interests of sustainability and animal welfare. If all climate and environmental damage were included in the price of meat (not to mention animal suffering), a huge portion of our diet-related emissions would be eliminated in one fell swoop.

13. Consumers consume. Politicians have to make politics.

The debate about whether and to what extent consumption is also political is as old as the idea of ​​sustainable consumption. But it doesn't help: we won't use the receipt to bring about any drastic speed limits, no road construction moratorium, no CO2 tax or even emissions budgets for everyone. The Renewable Energy Sources Act, which made wind and solar power a breakthrough, is not the result of a consumer petition with the invoice. But rather a political framework.

14. The idea of ​​sustainable consumption fails to recognize the essence of the consumer society.

Their drive is: More and more in less and less time. In order to realize this claim, new needs must be constantly awakened - in order to maintain the demand for new products. Just the opposite would be sustainable: do not consume. Rather, things are cared for, repaired, exchanged and used for a long time. Anyone who wants sustainability should be able to do without economic growth. Post-growth economists have been telling us for years how we can live well without growth. Just somehow nobody listens.