Institutionalizing Sustainable Consumption

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 30. May 2011 - 17:37
Author
Karlsson, Sylvia
Year
2006
Publication

<p>Sylvia Karlsson. Instititionalizing Sustainable Consumption. in: Dag Tangen and Victoria W. Thoresen (eds.), Catalyzing Change. Proceedings of the Third International Conference of the Consumer Citizenship<br />
Network, Hamar (Norway) 2006. H&amp;oslash;gskolen i Hedmark, Oppdragsrapport nr. 4 - 2007.</p>

Paper presented at the plenary IEF Symposium
Consumer Citizenship Network,Third CCN International Conference
Hedmark University College, Hamar, Norway, 15-16 May 2006

INSTITUTIONALIZING SUSTAINABLE CONSUMPTION

Sylvia I. Karlsson
Tampere, Finland

PRESENTATION


Paper published in: Dag Tangen and Victoria W. Thoresen (eds.), Catalyzing Change. Proceedings of the Third International Conference of the Consumer Citizenship Network, Hamar (Norway) 2006. Høgskolen i Hedmark, Oppdragsrapport nr. 4 - 2007.


ABSTRACT

Two values underpinning the concept and practice of consumer citizenship are concern for the whole planet and humanity today and concern for future generations, but this is not what underlies most actions of individuals and societies. The major challenge for society is to institutionalize such wider concerns so that global and long-term thinking are made more permanent. Institutions are those formal and informal rules that communities, corporations, organizations and governments establish for their own decision-making processes and to influence behaviour. These range from the informal, invisible codes of conduct among people in communities on what is accepted and desired consumer behaviour, to national consumer laws with sanctioning systems, to international free trade agreements. Institutions create incentives for behaviour and, if effective, can greatly influence the actions of both individuals and collectivities. Most institutions today help to entrench spatially narrow and temporal short-term thinking, whether it is free trade rules or three to five year election cycles. We need more creativity in designing institutions that consider seriously both global and long-term concerns. Globally these might include a global trusteeship function for future generations held by permanently appointed councils or ombudsmen, steps towards some form of global citizenship, and finance mechanisms to ensure fair and long-term investments from natural resource revenues so that money flows are not only going towards unsustainable consumption. We also need to identify and strengthen the types of institutions which consumers and non-governmental organizations create themselves to support sustainable consumer options.


INSTITUTIONS FOR COMMITMENT AND CONSISTENCY

OUTLINE
The role of institutions
Institutions and consumer citizenship
Designing and changing institutions
Conclusions

The role of institutions

Are knowledge and values enough to transform our consumption patterns in more sustainable directions and make us remain committed to act as responsible consumer citizens, to act consistently indifferent situations and over time?

No, for at least five reasons linked to institutions.

Institutions are “systems of rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that give rise to social practices, assign roles to the participants in those practices, and guide interactions among the occupants of the relevant roles” (Young 1999)

Do we explain the behavior of individuals by the institutions that surround them or do individual action explain the design of institutions?

Institutions and consumer citizenship

Are knowledge and values enough to transform our consumption patterns in more sustainable directions and make us remain committed to act as responsible consumer citizens, to act consistently in different situations and over time?

No, because...

1. Our decisions not only influenced by the knowledge and values we have, but they are also influenced institutions of what is considered desired, acceptable or allowed consumer behavior in our families,communities or countries.

2. It is very difficult for individual consumers to acquire sufficient and appropriate information.

3. For consumers to be able to consume sustainably there needs to be options to do so, alternative products. And these options are made available (or not) depending on the institutions and structures in society.

4. Even if there are alternatives, how attractive and available those alternatives are also depends institutions.

5. Many of the sustainability challenges require consistent incremental decisions and policy over many years, even decades to affect change and this can be difficult to accomplish through consumer pressure only.

Changing institutions

Institutions have a certain robustness within them, making them slow to change. If we manage to create stable institutions which are effective in influencing behavior, they may thus encourage certain patterns of behavior which could facilitate consistency over time.

What do institutions look like which take our societies in the right direction towards sustainability and what can we base them on?

Which institutions are most important to change, and which ones would be easiest and fastest to change?

Institution type Examples  Proneness to change
Constitutional Favoured type of agricultural system (including system of pest management) Very difficult to change, requiring significant political will at global and national level involving multiple sectors and actors, or widespread changes in consumer preferences
Collective-choice National, regional or international laws and regulations banning or restricting certain pesticides. Moderately difficult to change with large variation in time and resources required
Relatively easy to implement as it involves few sectors and actors.
Operational Global (or national) guidelines for safe use such as codes of conduct, label instructions or safety sheets. Relatively easy to change with few resources and within a short time span.
Difficult and costly to implement/enforce at local level, particularly at global scale. 

Conclusions

Institutions create incentives for behavior and, if effective, can influence the commitment of and consistency of individual and collective actors.

The major challenge is for society is to institutionalize concerns for inter- and intra-generational equity so that global and long-term thinking are made more permanent.

The crunch-point is of course that in order to change the institutions to encourage these kind of values, we need to change the values in society.

For discussion

What type of institutions are needed for consumer citizenship to be more than a passing buzzword/trend/fashion that ends with the funding of the network?

Which of the three types of institutions can the network itself focus on changing?


Last updated 23 May 2006