Can consumers save the planet by just buying green?

A doctoral dissertation from the University of Helsinki states that awareness-raising for consumers and eco-labels for products are important, but they are not enough. Government- and market-promoted green consumerism operates as a peripheral activity that is only a safeguard against the most visible, damaging and immediate environmental and social problems.

Buying green is getting more and more popular, but is it enough to solve the sustainability problem? Lewis Akenji from the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Helsinki puts it bluntly:

"No. The magnitude of the problem, and the urgency with which it must be addressed, overwhelms the capacity of consumers to solve this problem."

He states in his doctoral dissertation that in the light of the magnitude and urgency of the unsustainability problem, green consumerism could even be dangerous as it delays the deployment of effective solutions.

Lewis Akenji has termed it consumer scapegoatism. "Consumer scapegoatism occurs when ecological imbalance is examined primarily through an economic growth lens, and the critical role of addressing these systemic flaws is ascribed to the consumer without proper regard for whether he or she has the power to influence other more important actors in the system,” says Akenji.

So why does awareness-raising for consumers and eco-labels for products remain so popular? One of the main reasons is that continuous economic growth is central to government legitimacy.

"On the one hand, sustainable living needs people to consume less in order to reduce the environmental burden of materialism and to allow for equal distribution of limited resources. On the other, market economy systems need to constantly increase consumption in order to sustain the economy, because consumption drives economic growth, and government legitimacy rests on that."

Akenji explains that government- and market-promoted green consumerism is carefully calibrated to not slow down the growth of the economy and the gross domestic product. It operates as a peripheral activity that only protects against the most visible, damaging and immediate environmental and social problems.

Consumption and lifestyles are influenced by a gradation of factors. Some of these are within the influence of individuals and households, while some of them are beyond their control.

"If we want to ensure sustainable living, it is important to address the broader context such as cultures, the economy, and the media, as well as the social and physical infrastructure that dictates modes of consumption."

The In-Power framework shows who really has the power to change things

If the consumer is not king, then who is? The dissertation introduces the In-Power framework for analysing power dynamics within a system. The framework can be used to analyse a product supply chain or an issue of heterogenous interest in order to reveal the “nexus of influence” and the “lead actor”.

The four “Ins” of the framework by Lewis Akenji include institutions, which set the “rules of the game”; interests that various actors in society have in sustainability objectives; instruments of power and tools used by actors to influence others in society; and influence, or the agency that actors have and the activities they undertake to either undermine or promote sustainability.

Lewis Akenji is co-lead of the United Nations 10-Year Programme on Sustainable Lifestyles and Education. He is also coordinator of the 1.5-Degree Lifestyles project. He is author of multiple publications and regularly gives public talks on the topic of sustainable consumption and production.

Lewis Akenji, DSc defended his doctoral dissertation entitled "Avoiding Consumer Scapegoatism – Towards a Political Economy of Sustainable Living" at the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Helsinki, on 16 August 2019.

The dissertation is also available in electronic form through the E-thesis service.