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Consumption, climate protection and social justice
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If the targets for global climate protection are to be met, current patterns of production and consumption must change dramatically. There is therefore an expectation that private consumers will play their part by behaving in a more climate-friendly way.


The reduction of greenhouse gases linked to consumption is central here; and this needs to be linked to the idea of sustainability and questions of social justice, for these are a core part of sustainable development.




  • A significant distinction relevant to social justice concerns the difference between “consuming differently” and “consuming less”

  • It is level of income, and not so much environmental awareness, that determines how the use of resources is influenced by patterns of consumption

  • The presumption that climate protection is something practised only by those with higher incomes, or can be, is untenable

Everyday consumption linked to housing and energy-using products, mobility and food, is resource-intensive, and so becomes especially relevant to climate protection.


Here the various recommended measures include domestic insulation, energy-efficient heating, a shift to green electricity, energy-efficient cars, avoidance of air travel, together with a reduction in meat consumption and the purchase of organic foods and regional products.


A significant distinction relevant to social justice concerns the difference, in sustainable consumption, between “consuming differently” and “consuming less”.


For the first, demand for and purchases of more climate-friendly products is most important. By contrast, the imperative to “consume less” relates more to the way in which products or energy are dealt with, and to the question of an appropriate level of consumption. Both approaches are needed to achieve the ecological goals of sustainable consumption, and should be seen as complementary.


If we then go back and consider the recommendations for a greater degree of climate-awareness in everyday consumption, it becomes apparent that the emphasis falls on “consuming differently” rather than “consuming less”.


Everyday climate protection seems to mainly mean the purchase of climate-friendly products and technologies. Debate over sustainable consumption often implicitly reduces behavioural options to purchasing decisions, even if more recently there has been an increasing emphasis upon sufficiency and “less is more”.


The focus upon the purchase of (possibly more expensive) sustainable or climate-friendly goods is rendered problematic by the lack of public emphasis upon “consuming less”.


In addition to this, there is a danger that this limited perspective will be thought of as an option open only to wealthier households. Consequently, such households can engage in increased expenditures in “all good conscience”, a point of view criticised by the cultural theorist Wolfgang Ullrich in connection with the market for organic produce.


The connection between economising resources and questions of social justice has also been reinforced by new insights regarding environmental awareness and income. It was long supposed that individuals’ attitudes had a major influence upon consumer behaviour. But this view has become discredited. It is now recognised that it is level of income, and not so much environmental awareness, that determines how the use of resources is influenced by patterns of consumption.


It can be shown, both at national and international levels, that an increase of income is positively related to a marked increase in the use of resources; and that, therefore, carbon dioxide emissions increase with income. And so, at least with regard to the average consumer, there is a clear correlation: the higher the income, the higher the consumption of resources.


This also downgrades the influence of attitudes to the environment; and when we take into account different social groups and the two dimensions of sustainable consumption – consuming less and consuming differently – the picture becomes more complex.


Empirical studies in Germany have shown that environmental awareness and a readiness to “consume differently” are typical among those with a high level of formal education and above-average income.


While environmental attitudes among social groups like this may lead to an increase in the demand for energy-efficient, climate-friendly technologies and products, it can equally be anticipated that, given the comparatively higher incomes of these groups, their consumption of resources will be above average.


By contrast, we might assume that groups with below-average incomes consume a smaller proportion of resources, since the inverse relation holds: the smaller the income, the smaller the impact upon environment and resources.


There is therefore a contrast between those with high incomes and who are sensitive to the environment, and those with low incomes who, solely on account of their lower income, consume less, but also in many cases for ecological motives.


The presumption that climate protection is something practised only by those with higher incomes, or can be, is therefore untenable. This distorts our perspective on the question of how we might promote both the important option of “consuming less” together with its reciprocal relationships to “consuming differently”.


The points made above shift our attention to questions of the just distribution of gains and losses, of the risks and opportunities involved in different conceptions of a positive everyday orientation to climate issues. At the same time, they emphasise the need to develop policies and strategies that make environmentally-friendly products and technologies accessible for lower income groups.


If we are to achieve ambitious climate targets and combine this with social justice, we need a broad public discussion of consumption needs and goods, of lifestyles and cultural change.


Further readings:


Gerd Scholl, “Klimafreundlicher Konsum. Eine Frage des Lebensstils?”, in: Michael Zschiesche (ed.) Klimaschutz im Kontext. Die Rolle von Bildung und Partizipation auf dem Weg in eine klimafreundliche Gesellschaft, Munich, Oekom 2013, 15–26.


Wolfgang Ullrich, Alles nur Konsum. Kritik der warenästhetischen Erziehung, Berlin, Klaus Wagenbach 2013.



Translated by Keith Tribe

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