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Mika Pantzar, Anu Raijas, Eva Eeiskanen


"In 1971 we concluded that the psychical limits to human use of materials and energy were somewhere decades ahead. In 1991, when we looked again at the data, the computer model, and our own experience of the world, we realized that in spite of the world's improved technology, the greater awareness, the stronger environmental policies, many resource and pollution flows had grown beyond their sustainable limits." (Meadows et aL, 1992, p.xiv)

Consumption is the reason why anything gets produced, and consumption and production together are the source of all man-made stress on the natural environment. In a market economy the main responsibility for environmental degradation thus lies with the co nsumer. Realistically, however, ordinary consumers have very little knowledge of the links between their own consumption choices and their consequences, and have very little real power to affect the marketplace. In a highly industrialized society, knowled ge and responsibility are so diffused among economic actors that no-one really feels responsible. The problem is socially irrational products, which easily follow from the narrow rationality of individuals and firms. We are subject to a ‘tyranny of small decisions' when the unintended consequences of micro-decisions give way to irreversibility on a macro scale. After an investment or consumption decision has been made, we become a hostage to the past. For example, once the car has become the dominant mode of transport, then housing, family, work, shopping and recreation pattems are designed aro und it.

Integrating sustainable development with a market- and growth-driven economy is not an easy job. One part of this enormous problem is the search for sustainable consumption. Hou has consumer research responded to this challenge? A review of the literature on onsumption and the environment is not very heartening (Heiskanen and Pantzar, 1993). Many calls are voiced for a new set of values. Economic and informative instruments are advocated. Consumer attitudes, perceptions, price elasticities and information processes are studied to some extent, but mostly in relation to fairly simple issues such as household energy conservation, recycling, and most recently environmental claims and products.

This paper presents one picture of current consumption trends. (We have outlined more general perspectives for sustainably oriented consumer research in another context; see Heislianen and Pantzar, 1993.) It appears that today environmentalism is one of t he fastest growing trends in consumer behavior and marketing (Jowell et al, 1992; Winkler and Voller, 1992). Let us take a look at the values and attitudes concerning the environment, which especially seem to be undergoing a chance


The citizens' awareness of enviroremental issues and their concern for the environment has grown considerably during the past decade. However, there are various reasons why these positive attitudes are not always transmitted into practice. Although knowle dge plays a central role in understanding the need for environmental protection, consumers in real-life situations have hardly any information about the effects of their choices on nature, other people, or future generations (Jowell et aL, 1992). In addti on, environmental concerns almost always have to compete with individual utilitarian aspects. ln the absence of powerful norms, the willingness of individuals to make responsible choices often falters due to feelings of the insignificance of one's own actions as well as distrust of the responsible behavior of other actors (Uusitalo, 1990). Consumers act im a rather 'finished' world of commodities, im which the pos sibilities for rapid and extensive changes are marginal.

In some areas of consumption, however, there are signs that the positive attitude of consumers - or at least of certain groups of consumers - has had a tangible impact on the material flows in consumption. In Finland, for example, the introduction of concentrate washing detergents has resulted in a reduction in the volumes of detergents consumed, which in turn, has had its effect on the energy and material flows in distribution and packaging. The load of phosphates in efiluents caused by household washing detergents has also declined, as phosphate-free detergents have taken over the markets in the past few years. A corresponding phen omenon has occurred with the heavy metal load from used-tip batteries, which has decreased thanks to the emergence of low mercury and mercury-free alkali batteries on the market. Authorities, firms and non-governmental organisations in various countries h ave contributed to these developments, but they would hardly have taken place without a change in the environmental awareness of the consumers (Heiskanen et aL, 1993). Similar changes in behavior can be observed in connection with experiments on sorting of household waste, which seem to be yielding better results year by year (Heiskanen,1992a).

As regards total consumption, these changes in consumer habits can be seen only in a relatively narrow area. In order to penetrate the market, alterations of this kind in consumption and commodities demand wide publicity. The realm of public debate, on th e other hand, is such that it can ‘accommodate’ only a restricted number of topics at a time (see Heiskanen et aL, l99i). On a competitive market information input overload, this will easily lead to conflicting information being disseminated or some speci fic question being over-emphasized, or, in the worst case, to meaningless changes and a short-sighted battle for the souls of environment-conscious consumers (cf Pantzar, 1988, 1992). If the worst comes to the worst, consumers will become frustrated and tire of the whole issue, and fmally lose their confidence in all products and activities that are descibed as environment-conserving (e.g. Heiskanen, l99i). At its best, however, the increase in awareness which evolves this way through confictmg views can, bit by bit, help to create a picture in the minds of consumers, firms and public decision-makers of the energy and material ftows in consumption, and of the choices by which these flows can be influenced (see Heiskanen, 1992b).

Transmitting favorable environmental attitudes into practical consumption behavior on a large scale requires reciprocal changes in the world of commodities. It will also probably require changes in relation to pricing policies, so that the economic system would encourage environment-oriented choices and actions instead of punishing for such behavior, as the case often is today. It will inevitably call for a substantial increase in the amount of information available, as well as new, practicable methods for disseminating this information and ensuring that it travels in both di- rections (feedback inquiries, product labelling, popularization of research results, customer-oriented advisory services, etc.). The social diffusion of information and behavior related to consurnption may work towards a uniformity of attitudes and action s if consumers are offered models of sustainable consumption that are practical plausible and attainable.

The positive relationship between a change in attitudes and behavior may be illustrated by comparing the environmental attitudes and energy consumption of consumers on an intemational scale. There seem to be marked differences in environmental concems between different countries. According to one study covering selected countries in Western Europe (Winkler and Voller, 1990), the environmental awareness of private households was most notable i n the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. At the lower end in this comparison were France, Italy and Great Britain. If wee look at the changes in household energy consumption in different European countries, precisely the same order seems to prevail (Fig. 1). Accident or no, this might indicate that pro-environmental attitudes and values are reflected as a change in consumption patterns.

Fig. 1. Household energy consumption in selected European countries, 1980-88.

It is important to note that, as a role, households do not make decisions about their energy or material consumption. They make decisions about buying different things like soft drinks, hamburgers or tennis rackets. They make decisions about using and dis posing of different things such as a car, a washing machine, or a bathroom. To understand the tendencies in the use of energy and materials we should look for more general trends in consumption patterns, not only at values and attitudes but also at the co ncrete manifestations of these mental states. Let us start by examining the consumption patterns in an industrialized countries. Later on we shall turn to a more global perspective.

Fig 2. Private Consumption in EU countries 1980-1995 (source: the Economist Intelligence Unit, 1993)


3.1 Private consumption in the 20th century

Today, industrial output on a global level is about 20 times higher than it was m the early years of the 20th century. Population during the same period has tripled (Meadows et al, 1992, p. 131). In what ways has private consumption changed? Fig. 2. exemp lies well recent changes in consumption pattems. Growth has been fastest in private transportation, services and leisure. Food consumption has increased in slower pace.

Finland represents a good example of the structural change that has taken place in private consumption in the industrialized world. Let us focus on historical changes of supply and demand in more detail.

As a late-comer in modernization (catching-up effect), Finland has had one of the fastest growth rates of private consumption, especially after the Second World War. Private consumption per capita has grown eightfold in the 1900s. Population during the sa me period has nearly doubled, meaning that total private consumption is, in fact, around 15 times higher than it was at the turn of the century (Fig. 3). Looking at total consumption is especially important in regard to energy and material economy.

The consumption of food (foodstuffs and drinks) has grown fivefold and that of clothes (clothing,footwear and other personal effects) 12-fold during the course of the century (in total). Growth has been more rapid in the field of recreation (entertainment and culture, leisure, books, newspapers, restaurants and hotels), where expenditure is now 61 times higher, and in household furnishings (furniture, carpets, household appliances and equipment, radios and TVs), where expenditure is 68 times higher than a t the beginning of the 1900s. Foreign travel is in the same order of magnitude, showing 50-fold growth.

The most dramatic increase, however, is in private vehicles, where the expenditure in 1991 is 438 times higher, and in sweets, 325 times higher than in 1900. Obviously, the contents of each commodity group and their classification also change in our chang ing world, and therefore the above quantitative figures should be regarded as indicative only.

Fig. 3. Quantitative growth of private consumption in Finland, 1900-1991 (1900 = 1) Fig. 4. Structural change of private consumption in Finland, 1900-1991 (1900 = 1)

Figure 4 shows the change in the structure of private consumption during the course of the this century. The change in each commodity group is given in relation to the change in private consumption. The horizontal line (= 1) illustrates the growth trend i n private consumption.

It appears that the consumption of clothes and food in Finland has largely followed the change in private total consumption. It can also be seen that in the 1950s the relative proportion of food took a downward turn. A similiar change occurred in the clo thing category during the 1960s.

In household fumishings (and appliances), a period of steady growth followed the abolishment of rationing in the 1950s. The deep recession after the First World War, the depression of the 1930s, and the Second World War each caused a collapse in demand, w hile the intervening years show a corresponding revival of growth. The mechanization of the Fisnish home, which started in the 1950s may partly explain the rapid growth of household furnishings expenditure during the past 40 years. In Sweden and the United States, on the other hand, the expansion of private consumption had already begun in the 1920s, mainly in the form of new commodities (refrigerators etc.). Otherwise, long-term development in Finland resembles the international trends.

The share of expenditure in recreation has increased steadily. What is striking is the impact of the war years on this particular category. A distinct growth in the share of entertainment and recreation expenditure took place during the war. At the same t ime, the consumption of goods (such as household furnishings) showed a correspondingly sharp decline.

Expenditure in transport has grown throughout this century in real terms, but there have been wide fluctuations. Sweets as a product group follows much the same trend as private transport expenditures. These categories may, in fact, be good indicators of the change in material welfare and the development of 'optional' consumption (c.f. 'necessities'). However, in both cases this 'optional' growth seems to become a self-evident element of daily life in the course of time, charting from a luxury and feeling of pleasure into a necessity and feeling of comfort. Possible decrease in income level, thus, does not necessarily mean a reduction of expenditure in these categories, ie., they are no longer the most flexible 'downwards'.

It is important to see the historical change that has taken place in the structures that control our daily lives. Still in the 1950s, consumption in Finland - in clothing, for example - was based on the idea of permanence. Instead of buying new underwear, old garments were mended over again. Shopping was based on neighborhood stores, households bought laundry services instead of domestic appliances, and, in addition to the housewife at home, many families employed domestic help. In the 1950s the distances required by the daily chores of the housewife were determined by the location of the cellar, outbuildings and well, whereas now in the 1990s the distances are dictated by factors outside the home, such as the location of the workplace or the shopping cen ter (Heiskanen and Pantzar, 1993).

Consumption may have been somewhat more flexible earlier, when it was based on human labor. A relatively high degree of self-sufficiency was still characteristic of the 1950s household. Instead of buying a commodity, one could purchase repair, cleaning, a nd other services or do the repair work oneself. There was flexibility also in housing standards. In the 1950s, the use of dwelling rooms differed according to the season. Hallways were often left unheated, and part of the rooms that were heated by tiled stoves were unoccupied during the winter. In wintertime it was customary to live huddled together into only a few of the rooms (Heiskanen and Pantzar 1993).

At the same time as Finnish households were starting to purchase lino carpets, kitchen sinks and electric stoves, another large-scale change was underway. Work at home was replaced by wage work and home products by market commodities. This process can be seen in the way the valuation of housework has changed in relation to GNP. In the 1860s, the share of housework value of GNP in Finland was around 65 percent, wheras today it accounts for only some 14 percent. Also as the self-sufficiency of households ha s decreased, the product supply, on the market has become more and more diversified.

It is, of course, a matter of taste whether consumption is regarded as being more flexible in the superabundance of today or in the fairly meager conditions ofthe 1950s. Household mechanization and the high proportion of women (and men) working outside th e home place certain restrictions on the possibilities of consnmers to change their consumption patterns towards self-production, as financial resources grow scantier. It seems obvious, however, that luxury commodities often develop into necessities (e.g., the WC), but it is rare for necessities to turn into luxuries (e.g., the work input of a servant). Consumption yields flexibly upwards, but not downwards. When a new commodity is bought, a network of activities, habit s and other objects begins to develop around it. It is then impossible to remove the original commodity from this network of interdependencies without the entire network collapsing.

One of the outstanding changes in this century is the democratization of consumption which has taken place: households today do not differ much from one another as to their basic equipment. It is paradoxical that as supply has diversified, demand has bec ome more homogeneous, for example concerning domestic appliances or food habits. Alongside the diversification of supply, differences between the social classes have almost disappeared (Pantzar, 1988).

We shall now examine the qualitative diversification of supply, which is one of the principal trends of consumption, but has remained too much in the background in the environmental debate criticizing quantitative growth.

3.2 Diversification of supply

According to Adam Smith, the underlying cause for the development of a division of labor in the economy is the expansion of the markets. The major manifestation of this expansion as regards a sharper division of labor is the diversification of supply and a higher degree of processing. Marx asked the question why we needed 500 different kinds of hammers. We could well ask whether we have any need for, say, 2000 different types of sweets.

In examining the energy and material intensity of consumption, is important to distinguish between quantitative and qualitative growth. If the growth of consumption were purely quantitative, ie. 'multiplication', technological developments could result mo re directly in dematerialization and energy conservation. The qualitative change in consumption, however, makes the question much more conplex. The requirements set for distribution systems, for example, are quite different depending upon whether we are t alking about doubled (or halved) consumption volumes or about a doubled (or halved) product assortment.

In 1966, the normal product selection of a medium-sized Finnish supermarket selling daily consumer goods comprised 2600 articles. Today the figure is around 6100, and according to some estimates the number of articles in the product mix will reach 10,000 by the year 2000. This would correspond to an annual net growth of approximately 4 percent. Taking into account that certain articles are withdrawn from sales each year, it may be assumed that the flow of new products is in the order of 6-7 percent annual ly. This means that one new product appears on the shelf every day, and that one product is removed from the mix every three days (Pantzar, 1992). For the sake of comparison, the corresponding numbers of articles in the product assortment of a normal-sized supemarket in Germany is 1: 000 and in the United States 25 000. The commodity groups in which product variety has increased most in the past few decades incl ude preserved foods, sweets and cookies, frozen foods, fresh food products and animal food.

From the point of view of the individual consumer, the product assortment may grow for a variety of reasons: the consumer's purchasing resources (time, money, mobility, etc.) are better, new types of sales outlets are springing up on the market, and existing commercial outlets are expanding their selection of products. Paradoxical1y, product variety on a global scale may become narrower as the mobility of consumers and goods increases. The co ncentration of production and ownership - for instance, in the food industry sector - will cause products to be transported for longer distances, which, in turn, will restrict the prospects of local suppliers.

Focusing merely on the quantitative aspects of product variety does an injustice to the qualitative change that is taking place inthe products offered for sale. One very distinct change of this kind is the shift from the sales of 'raw materials and food ingredients' to the sales of end products.

This can be clearly illustrated by examining the nearly 100 000 products listed in the catalogues of American mail-order companies from the latter part of the 19th century, or the product catalogues of a Finnish department store, Stockmann, from the early 1900s (Pantzar, 1992).

An outstanding feature of the early phases of the mail-order business and department stores are the various kinds of'intermediate' products related to clothing and cooking - for example, textile fabrics and equipment for food preparation and preservation. Stockmann's price list for bicycle equipment in 1926 included a total of 1500 items, although there were only a few bicycle models available. The bicycle was a long-term investment, and repairs and spare parts were a matter of course in a way far differe nt from nowadays, when the lifetime of a bicycle is only a couple of years. Today there is a wide variety of models available, and spare parts are hardly sold any longer.

Future changes in consumption will be essentially influenced, not only by the change in supply and technology, but also by the change in consumers and their constantly changing needs.

3.3 Changes in household structure

Many of the development trends in consumption are contradictory, creating the tensions that will influence the energy and material flows related to consumption in the near future (Heiskanen and Pantzar, 1993) (see Table 1). The development trend which probably has the most pronounced impact on the energy and material intensiveness of consumption in the Westem world is the rise in the number of households and concurrent reduction in their average size. In 1950, for example, there were 1.23 million households in Finland, but by 1990 their number had risen to 2.18 miIlion.

Nurmela's research (1989,1993) on the direct and indirect energy consumption of households shows that the reduction in the size of the household means losing the economies of scale resulting from several persons living together. A household of two adults consumed about 50 percent more energy, both directly and by way of purchased commodities, than a household of one adult, and the energy consumption of a household of four adults was just slightly higher than that of two one-person households together. Eco nomies of scale are not only related to the energy consumption of housing, which in the cited research included all household electricity consumption as welt but also involves the energy of the foodstuffs procured for the household, as well as the direct and indirect energy consumption related to mobility. It is justified to assume that corresponding economies of scale are also connected to material fl ows: fewer commodities are needed in collective use, and losses should likewise be smaller.

It is difficult to estimate the influence of the ageing of the population on energy, and material intensiveness. Up till now the older age classes have consumed the least, and particularly their transport costs and use of a car as well as their purchase o f commodities have been modest compared with the rest ofthe population (see, e.g. Nurmela, 1989). It would be interesting to know whether this has to do with age or with generation. It may be that as people grow older, they tend tc be more interested in other things than consumption, and it may also be that the future generations of senior citizens will be different from the earlier generations that were accustomed to an economizing lifestyle. In any case, the ageing of the popul ation will increase the demand for different kinds of care services - and possibly leisure services as well - in residential areas, whereas the need for daycare facilities and schools will diminish.

The structural variation in demand would thus require a flexible production system of services and commodities, which would not necessitate the production of something completely new at all times, but would facilitate changes in already existing structures.

3.4 Changing consumer needs and modern consumption

Human needs can be roughly divided into needs related to comfort ('survival') and those related to variety ('excitement') (c.f Scitovsky, 1976). The need for comfort aims at obtaining the desired end-services at the right time and in a form that is physio logically, socially and culturally ‘orthodox.’ The need for variety is more difficult to define, but it evidently lies in the backgound of the adoption of many changes. In traditional society, variety was offered by the changng of the seasons, the fluctu ation of 'fat and lean years', the varying work duties, and numerous dramatic events. Several of these changes, however, were inconvenient and could be dangerous, so that the freedom brought about by technological development was welcomed with pleasure. At the same time the demand for ‘convenient’ and harmless variety started to grow. It is paradoxical that many of the novelties which are adopted for the sake of variety, i n time evolve into conveniences, so that variety has to be sought constantly from new sources, new products (Pantzar, 1993). This poses a great structural challenge for the development of a sustainable consumption system.

Another problematic issue is the role of consumption as a means for acquiring social status and as a means of communication. The changes that have taken place in consumption during this century show a move towards uniformity and democratization as well as a shift in consumption styles, from an entertainment of the rich towards an everyday necessity of the whole population. The energy intensity of the consumption patterns of the rich in relation to the amount of money spent may, however, be lower than that of the poor or middle classes, because part of the consumption concerns commodities whose value depends on other things than energy or material inputs - for example, objects of art, high-qualit y handicrafts and concerts. This is a phenomenon which is un-likely to 'flow downwards' in the same way as the adoption of technical or food innovations, since the social valuation of these commodities is specifically linked to their uniqueness or rarenes s. Let us not forget that those who are well-off and highly educated consume more energy in absolute terms than low-income people (Nurmela, 1989, 1993). On the other hand, it is also the well-off and highly educated who set down the models for consumption and lifestyle which the others have to strive for.

The changes in consumption patterns that most clearly influence the energy and material intensity of consumption have to do with changes in residing and mobility. These are also the sectors in which energy consumption grew most between 1985 and 1990 (Nurm ela, 1993). Moreover, the aspirations of consumers concerning living density and housing location (Nurmela, 1993) appear to add growth pressure in these areas. Modern society emphasizes communication and mobility, and, in spite of the major improvements in data links, passenger traffic volumes show steady long-term growth. Apparently the meaning of traveling has grown in various respects, and one of the challenges of sustainable consumption is to develop ways of sa tisfying the needs which induce people to travel without increasing the energy and material flow caused by tourism

It can hardly be claimed that modern consumption is merely a result of alienated needs, and that consumers really do not want any of the commodities that are marketed to them. It is equally useless to pretend that the commodities on the market today are e xactly uhat the consumers desire. To understand and foresee the influence of changing consumption patterns on enviroment the perspective should be lifted from industrialized countries toward global scale.


4.1 Converging consumption

Ihe need to find sustainable consumption patterns is accentuated by the role that consumption plays in global environmental policies. In the previous section, consumption trends were approached from the perspective of the industrial world. Consumption pat terns and values within and between industrialized countries appear to be converging (c.f Connors, 1994). The 'catching-up' effect ('trickle-down' effect, 'democratization' effect) is even more obvious on a global level.

Many third-world politicians are reluctant to discuss population growth as long as consumers in industrialized countries consume most ofthe world's resources. On the other hand billions of people around the world are striving to attain a Western standard of living. If current consumption patterns in industrialized countries are replicated as such all over the world, catastrophe will ensue. For example, in the United States today there is one car per two persons. On a global scale this ratio would imply an increase from the present 600 million cars (Hohn, 1992) up to 2.5 billion.

Environmentalists summarize the causes of environmental deterioration by means ofthe following formula:

Impact = Population X Consumption X Technology

The impact of any population on the planet's resources and waste load is the product of the population times its level of affluence times the damage done by the particular technologies that support that affluence (Meadows et aL, 1992, p. 100). We would L ike to add to this formula a fourth essential factor, that is, the convergence of consumption patterns. According to one international comparison, as income rises, the "consumption of ecologically less damaging products such as grains rises slowly. In con trast, purchase of cars, gasoline, iron, steel, coat and electricity, all ecologically more damaging to produce, multiply rapidly". (see Durning, 1992, p. 52).

Industrial countries, with one fourth of the globe's population, consume between 40 and 86 percent of the earth's various natural resources. For most metals, the average consumption rate of a person in the industrialized world is about ten times that of people in the non-industrialized countries (Meadows et al, 1992, p. 80). In aluminum, the consumption gap (ie., the ratio of per capita consumption rates) is 19, in paper the gap is 14, in iron and steel 13, and in meat it is six. Even in freshwater and grains the ratio of per capita consumption is three (Duming, 1992, p. 50).

Convergence in consumer behavior is a major trend all around the world. This tendency could also be called a democratization process. Who dare to oppose democratization? How much de-materialization or service efficiency is needed in the industrialized cou ntries to compensate for this convergence in the form of, say, diffusion of meat eating patterns or transfer of cars from the rich to the poor countries? Let us make some simple schematic calculations on the basis of Duming's global ‘class structure’.

Table 2. World consumption classes(Durning, 1992J
World Consumption Classes
DIETMeat, packaged foods, soft drinksGrain, clean waterInsufficient grain, unsafe water
TRANSPORTPrivate CarsBicycles, busWalking
MATERIALSThrowawaysDurablesLocal biomass

Let us assume that each day each person belonging to the class of 'consumers' in the industrialized world uses an amount of energy needed to feed about 100 slaves and consumes natural resources equivalent to about 100 kg (30-100kg depending on the estimat ion procedure). These are, in fact, very rough estimates derived from an average Finnish consumer's daily life (Heiskanen and Pantzar, 199;). It would mean that already today, around 1.1 billion people (consumers) satisfy their needs at a very high level of energy and material flows.

Further, assume that the middle class (3.3 billion) consumes one third (33.3 units) and the class of the poor (1.1 billion) only one tenth (10 units) of the energy and material flows ofthe industrialized countries. On the basis of existing empincal data, such figures appear to represent reality (magnitudes) well enough.

Let us now focus 20 years ahead. Hou much dematerialization would be needed in order that the current flows of energy and materials would not be exceeded in the year 2014? Today, in 1994, the energy (or material) flow on a global scale is calculated to be around 230 billion units:

100 x 1.1 billion + 33.3 x 3.3 billion + 1O X 1.1 billion = 230 billion (units)

Now let us compare this figure with the net effects of four different alternatives:

  1. A radical change in the Western way of life: energy and material flows drop in 20 years to the level of 50 units (down by 50 percent), given no population growth, a fixed level of consumption, and fixed global distribution.

  2. Population growth follows its historical trend of 1.7 percent per annum (other conditions as given).

  3. Growth of industrial production follows its trend of 3.3 percent as in 1960-90 (other conditions as given).

  4. Global consumption patterns converge: half of the people of the middle-class countries (e.g. Russia, India, China) move towards a westernized way of life (other conditions as given).

The net effect of radical changes in the Western way of Iife would lead to savings of 55 billion units (50 x 1.1 billion), ie., almost 25 percent savings in the flows of energy and materials on a global level In 20 years the net effect of population growt h would be roughly 40 percent in energy and material flows. The net effect of increased production would be +90 percent, and, finally, the net effect of converging consumption pattems would amount to +50 percent.

But the world is not so simple. Nevertheless, these estimates do indicate convincingly that extremely drastic changes in the Western way of life should take place to balance the forces of population and economic growth It is a very demanding task to try t o match the effects of converging global consumption patterns with even the most radical changes in the westernized way of life. Estimates have shown that Western-style infrastructures, goods and services would need to be dematerialized by an average factor of roughly 10 (compared with present conditions) on a cradle-to-grave basis, in order to reach a sustainable path (Schmidt-Bleak, 1994, p. 487). What is, actually, the savings potential of dematerialization?

4.2 Dematerialization and energy efficiency

The development of dematerialization has been seen in recent years, e.g., in cars, machines and equipment, and packaging. Thanks to improvements in production technology and lighter rnaterials it has been possible to manufacture smaller and more light-wei ght products, which has resulted in less energy and materials needed to produce one unit. Dematerialization may also be used to refer to the decrease in the amount of energy used in product manufacture, that is, a decrease in the energy accumulated in products (Bernardim, Galli, 199;; Herman et aL, 1989). Up till recent years, the motives for reducing the material content and energy accumulation in individual products have been connected to production costs or other reasons . Environmental aspects have not played a central role.

From the perspective of sustainable consumption, dematerialization is a positive phenomenon if indeed it encourages the production of end-services with less energy and material consumption. Dematerialization, however, is not unambiguous as a phenomenon a nd, therefore, it does not necessarily warrant high hopes. Capacity requirements and the physical characteristics of the users set certain limits to how far dematerialization can go (e.g., cars, pocket calculators laptop Pcs). Moreover, the lighter weight of products may have an adverse effect on durability and, thereby, lead to units to be worn out in a shorter time. Making lighter and smaller units may also make their reparation and utilization as waste more difficult. Moreover, if dematerialization means that some materials are replaced by others, the replacement material may, in fact, be more harmfull than the replaced, either in the production phase or when discarded (Herman et al, 1989). There is not much proof of any reduction in absolute terms concerning energy and material flows in consumption in any sector due to dematerialization.

Dematerialization may also mean that the same end-service is produced by a completely new method that consumes less energy or materials. The case often seems to be, however, that the new commodity which is designed to replace the old one actually only complements it, and thus leads mainly to increased or improved output. One notorious example of this is the idea of the 'paper- less office' expected to be born along with information technology, but what has happened in reality that word processors have caused a greater - although technically better - yield of printouts. This phenomenon seems to repeat itselfm the case of microwave ovens and probably other smaller household appliances as well, which do not replace the traditional equipment but rather appear to complement them.

There are several reasons, from the pomt of view of the end consumer, for why an increase in the energy, efficiency and reduction in the material intensity do not necessarily result in any decline in the total consumption of energy, and materials.

  1. The amount of consumed commodities increases, and this increase cancels out the effectiveness achieved by product development. The reduction im the specific consumption of domestic appliances, for instance, has not led to a decrease in household elect ricity consumption. In Finland the consumption of electricity in the 1980s grew in all household groups which increased the standard of their equipment, and a reduction in the specific consumption of domestic appliances was apparent only in the rare cases where the standard of equipment had remained the same (Nurmela, 1993). A similar example can be seen in the reduction in the material intensity of packing materials, which has occurred during the 1980s in certain packages. Due to the increase in overall consumption and the rising popularity of unit packaging, the total consumption of packaging materials has, nevertheless, remained the same (Pakkaustyoryhrna, 1993). Neither can the efficiency of the fuel consumption of automobiles reduce total cons~ption, if consumers prefer larger cars and if mileages keep increasing (e.g. Lepisto, 1992).

  2. Although there is efficient technology available, the economic and other incentives for its adoption are weak, or alternatively, there are substantial economic, mental or structural bamers against using such technology. For instance, the solutions av ailable for reducing the consumption of heating energy have not been adopted as widely in Finland as had been expected (Melasnierni-Uutela, 1994). There is refrigeration equipment on the market today that consumes considerably less energy than the convent ional equipment but consumers are unaware ofthem, and besides, they are so much more expensive than the conventional models that the price of the energy saved is smaller than the extra investment (Kasanen and Moisander, 1993).

  3. The technical sophistication of equipment - for instance, low specific consumption - is not always a crucial factor m view of final consumption. The role of the user is decisive for the lifespan of many products. During the past few years, for example , the specific consumption of household heating energy has taken an upward turn. Marked fluctuations have been observed in the consumption of heating energy in one-family houses of the same size and equipped similary. These variations were found to be due to great differences and changes in the usage patterns and living habits of the inhabitants (Melasniemi-Uutela, 1993). Perhaps the most effective source of dematerialization would be an extension of the lifetime of commodities.

As regards total energy and material flows, lifetime is problematic with products whose use also consumes energy. The durability and the energy efficiency of a product are often in a trade-off relationship to one another. As the energy efficiency of vario us products increases, it would seem that a certain replacement frequency would be in place, but estimating the optimal frequency is difficult. The problem is particularly conspicuous, for example, in household appliances, buildings and cars. In any case, it seems that durability is worth striving for in the case of many products. What is most important in assessing the possibilities and need for replacing a commodity is to view the question from a wider perspective, from the perspective of the functions and services provided by the commodity. Then, instead of examining individual commodities, we are looking at whole systems composed of commodities and at their relationship to our needs.


5.1 The 'metabolic' approach

The growing concem for the environment creates many challenges for consmer research, product development, and marketing strategies. Firstly, the demand for envirornmentally less harmfull products is on the increase. Still, it is unclear how much uncertain ty and what trade-offs, consumers are willing to accept in environmental sounder products (e.g. Heiskanen et aL, 1993;Dichtl, 1991). Secondly, stricter legislation is, putting pressure on business. Product stewardship and producer responsibility, for recycling are already forcing manufacturers in Europe to redesign their products. However, long-term planning cannot be soley based on reacting to each upcropping issue at a time, and producers are searching for a pro-acti ve approach. The interest in evaluatmg products for their environmental impact and launching environmental labelling schemes has given a considerable boost to the development of various assessment methods (life-cycle assessment, LCA, and its variants).

During recent years, the predominant line of thinking in environmental product development has undergone a number of phases. First, it was individual issues such as waste, energy, or effluents, which were in the foreground. Processes and products were vie wed - and developed - separately. In the second stage - and this was closely linked to various controversies and conflicts of interest - the LCA (or cradle-to-grave) approach was adopted and strongly advocated. This is the kind of thinking which is most widespread at the moment. Life-cycle imventories and assessments are being utilized in risk and improvement assessments of products and processes alike (Finnveden and Lindfors, 1992).

As life-cycle assessment is gaining popularity, the seeds of a reconceptualization of the issue are already sprouting. More emphasis is beig required to be focused on the actual end-service that products provide (e.g SETAC, 1992). A shift from individual products to a metabolic systems approach can be discerned.

What we call the metabolic approach is actually an amalgam of a number of related approaches re-emerging under the titles of ‘industrial ecology’, ‘metabolism of the anthroposphere’ and ‘material intensity per service’ (MIPS). The roots of these approache s are in general systems human ecology (see Odum, 1993). Another important precursor is ecological economics, from natural resource economics to economic thermodynamics (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971, Daly, 1980). The idea of material balance economics has been developed and applied since the 1960s by several economists and engineering scientists (Allenby and Richards, 1994; Ayres, 1978, 1989, 1994; Karlsson et aL, 1994; Kneese et aL, 1970). As these approaches concentrate mainly on macro-econornic issues and materials, energy and natural systems, instead of people, they are far removed from the usual scope of consumer research - but not as far as th ey seem to be.

A central concept in material balance economics is service efflciency. Service efflciency may be deemed as the provision of a maximum of usefull end-services to consumers by using a minimum of materials and energy, and implying minimal environmental disru ption. Lehmann and Schmidt-Bleek (1993) have formalized the concept with the term MIPS, material intensity per service. End-services may be characterized in a number of ways: as related to needs, as activities (Baccni and Brunner, 1989) or functional unit s (SETAC, 1993), or as related to the standard of living (Schmnidt-Bleek, 1994). The main point is that it is not the products as such that invoke consumer satisfaction, but rather it is services such as warm living space, meals, information, recreation. etc. Goods and services obtained in the market by the consumer are only the means for producing this service - they are, in simpliIied terms, 'service-producing machines' (Tischner and Schmidt-Bleek, 1993). There are numerous different ways of producing t hese end-services using different combrnations of market goods and services.

Service efficiency forms the basis for pro-active consumer research in environmental issues. Thus we have to look at the metabolism of the modern consumer society from the cradle to the grave, starting from raw materials extraction and finishing at the en d-services and their by-products, wastes. To fmd a measure of service efficiency, we need to describe or operationalize the concept of end-service, and also the materials and energy required to produce the service. In attempting to do this, a number of varying but convergent perspectives have been applied.

Baccini and Brunner (1989) have analyzed the material flows and stocks related to the anthropogenic activities 'to nourish', 'to clean', 'to reside', and 'to transport' in their book, Metabolism of the Anthroposphere. Stocks are the accumulation of materi als in to the economy. They are made up of durable goods (investment goods, infrastructure goods, buildings, and consumer goods) and are increased by exploiting natural resources. The analysis gives a vivid demonstration of how the material stocks of the economy are continuously growing at a rate which cannot continue. The amount of materials passing through the economy at a given time are depicted by means of flows. Flows are of two kinds: the flow of goods which are considered nondurable (food, newspare rs, etc.) and the flow of so-called durable or infrastructure goods (cars, roads, etc.). Each product that the consumer obtains is bound to turn into waste sooner or later. The amount of waste produced in raw materials extraction and processing is usually manifold compared to the amount of post-consumer waste generated. In addinon, many wastes are conveyed into nature as emissions or through dissipative use (e.g. paint, tires, solvents, asphalt).

Another, very similar line of research has been initiated by the originators of the MIPS concept at the Wuppertal Institute in Germany. They have started to analyze the major material flows related to commodities. The first practical applications include an analysis of the material flows in orange juice consumption in Germany, which revealed that 25 kg of materials and 12 m2 of land, mostly in Brazil were required to produce 1 liter of juice, not counting the infrastructure needed to produce the raw mater ials (Kranendonk and Bringez, 1993). They also observed that the material flows related to Californian orange juice were considerably greater. As another application, Liedtke (1993) compiled data on the material intensity of paper manufacture, concluding that producing the 216 kg of paper and board consumed annually per person in Germany required 2 tons of man-moved primary materials.

Energy and materials, of course, are not mutually exclusive (e.g., fuels are materials, and are treated in that category in some analyses; c.f. Kranendonk and Bringeza, 1993; Liedtke, 1993). From an end-user's point of view, it sometimes makes sense to look at energy separately. Energy consumption, as the consumer sees it, can be classified either as direct consumption - ie., the use of fuel or electricity by households such as gasoline for d riving, electricity for cooking or refrigeration - or as indirect consumption - ie., the energy used to produced the goods and services that households obtain (Nurmela, 1989). Paymg attention to indirect energy in addition to direct energy stresses the co nsequences of the continuously growing material stocks (cars, roads, appliances, buildings, etc.) and increasing material flows, the production of which requires energy. These tendencies easily counteract the advances in the energy-effectiveness of indivi dual products or processes.

Describing stocks or flows by adding up kilograms or tons of various materials gives an extremely rough estimate. Self-evidently, the impact of different substances in diverse environments varies drastically. Our examples only provide a general framework for more detailed analyses, including different categories of environmental impact (see, e.g. Osnowski and Rubik7 1987). Baccini and Brunner have complemented their analysis by studying the anthropogenic flows of a number of indicator substances (nitrogen , phosphorus, cadron, water).

In spite of the varying level of damage caused by different materials, a major problem today is that our economy, ie. the industrial system, has grown too large in relation to the natural environment that supports it. According to Tibbs (1992), the indus trial flows of nitrogen and sulphur are equivalent or greater than their natural flows. For metals such as lead, cadmium, zinc, arsenic, mercury, nickel and vanadium, the industrial flouws are as much as double their natural ftows and in the case of lead, 18 times greater. Baccini and Brunner (1989, p. 132) conclude:

"On the basis of today’s scientific, knowledge, it is hardly possible to prove the long-term compatibility of a substance on the basis of short-term experiments ....Nevertheless, it is necessary to make political decisions on banning, limiting or tolerati ng certain anthropogenic material flows...It is certainly a political decision to allow, for example, only an increase of 10 to 20% in the geogenic fluxes by anthropogenic activities ... it could be called a very prudent procedure, based on and admitting honestly the current state of ignorance."

We wil1 illustrate the use of the metabolic approach with our preliminary fndings on one end-service: meals. The data are based on Finnish and Western European statistics and earlier studies (e.g. Baccini and Brunner, 1989; Nurmela, 1989; for more references, see Heiskanen and Pantzar, 1993) and are very approximate. We feel, however, that they provide some valuable insights and a sound point of departure for pro-active research and developme nt.

5.2 Meals: an example of energy and material flows - and consumer choices

Primitive man, without the use of fire, consumed roughly the amount of energy demanded by human physiology, about 8 MT/day, derived from solar energy (Cook, 1971). Today, modern idustrial man, in addition to utilizing about five times as much solar energy embodied in his food (Cook 1971), consumes around; 5 times the amount of the physiologically necessarry energy in the form of fuels, and hydroelectric and nuclear power, in order to meet the diverse needs of residing, mobility, clothing, cleanliness, recreation, etc. Of this, about one fifth goes into growmg, transport, processing and storage required to produce the end-service meals.

Meals as an end-service consist, firstly, of the nutrients and energy necessary for human health and activity. Furthermore, to make-up a meal, food needs to be served in the form and at the places and times demanded by our cultural expectations. The conce pt of a meal changes with history, and we wil not attempt to cover its varying forms in diffierent cultures. Obviously, available resources have affected the way in which local and national culinary cultures have evolved. We started by defining the end se rvice, 'meals, indicatively as the kind offood that Finnish, people normally eat, and then proceeded to stretch the concept a little.

Figure 5 shows the main material Dows related to the meals of one person during one year. It leaves out many important flows, ia.:

Fig. 5. Main material flows related to one person's meals per annum.

Most of the flows in the food chain remain within the chain (e.g. according to Finnish statistics 1 ton of agricultureal waste per capita per annum). However, nutrient chains which used to be completely closed have now been opened up by urbanization, tak ing up nutrients from the soil and placing them in urban landfill (Berg, 1993). Better management of agricultural waste would also result in better fertilizing, value and less pollution. Last but not least, many foodstuffs which could provide food for hum ans are used as fodder in meat and dairy farming, thus multiplying the environmental impact of providing food for people.

In industrialized societies, food production also uses up a considerable amount of energy. Figure 6 depicts the energy consumption in the food production chain in Finland in 1990, which, though high, is nonetheless considerably lower than the equivalent in the United States (c.œ Pimentel, l984).

Fig. 6. Energy consumpnon in the Finnish food production chain, 1990.

About half of the energy consumed in the food chain is used by 'food production': in agriculture as direct fuel input and as indirect input through fodder and fertilizers, and industrial food processing and packagin. Thus the choices made within agricultu re and the food industry have a considerable impact on the amount of energy used for meals. However, the consumers' choice of diet also has a considerable effect on the total energy requirement of meals. According to Pimen- tel ( 1984), the standard diet in the United States, with two thirds of the nutritional energy obtained from animnl products, demands an energy input of 51 GJ per person per year. A lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet requires a corresponding input of 29 GJ, and a pure vegetarian diet 15 GJ of energy. Other food sources relevant to the energy intensity of meals include fresh, greenhouse-grown or flown-in fruits and vegetables in winter, as well as highly-processed, packaged or frozen foods.

Currently m Finland, transport from the farm through the food industry to retail outlets (including storage) takes up about 20 percent of the energy input of meals. It has been estimated that a 25 percent increase in food imports would raise the total energy input by about 0.7 GJ per capita per annum (Kasanen and Savolainen, 1992). In addition, the prevalence of self-service in food distribution together with the continuously increasing product var iety have led to a growmg energy in put in food packaging and refigeration.

The transport of food by the consumer is also growmg as the number of retail outlets diminishes and those remaining are located farther and farther away from the consumers' homes. In Finland today, shopping by car makes up 10 percent of the energy input in meals. Product variety, food transport and the retail structure are all affected by consumers' choices. But it would be simplistic to explain these trends merely, by 'demand'. The rising co st of labor (especially in relation to other production factors), the concentration and globalization of the food industries and of retailing, as well as agricultural, transport and urban planning policies all have had their impact on these developments ( see also Durning, 1992).

Finally cold storage, food preparation and washing up account for about 15 percent of the energy input of meals. Energy consumption between households varies a great deal, owing to the number of members in the household, to the equipment used and the type of meals prepared. According to a Finnish study (SLY, 1992), food refrigeration (including freezers) took up about 1-6 GJ per household a year, food preparation about 1 GJ and u arm water also about 1 GJ. In spite of the fact that half of all households in Finland have a microwave oven, which is energy-effective in comparison to conventional ovens, this does not seem to have affected the amount of energy used for cooking. It appears that the microwave oven complements the electric oven but does not replace it in cooking (Johansson, 1986). On the other hand, the study found that there were clear returns to scale in large households, where the energy used for meal preparation and storage was much less per person than in small households (c.œ Nurrnela, 1989, 199~). The trend towards households of one or two members is an obvious cause of increasing energy intensity, and acts, at least in part, counter to advances in product energy effectiveness.

6. CONCLUDING WORDS: Low motivation, inadequate understanding or insufficient opportunity?

The estimates presented above suggest that the many pre-purchase decisions related to consumers' daily infrastructure possibly have more influence on energy and material inputs than pro-environment motivation or understanding. Moreover, decisions concerni ng the environment are highly dispersed. A rule of thumb in all goods, according to Meadows et al. (1992), is that every ton of garbage at the consumer end of the stream means the production of 5 tons of waste at the manufacturing stage and 20 additional tons of waste at the site of initial resource extraction. "The best way to reduce these flows of waste are to increase the useful time lifetimes of products and to reduce the material flows at the source." (Meadows et al, 1992 p. 83).

Thus, we feel that the next stage in analyzing the environmental consequences of products should be not to look only at individual products and activities, but to attempt to understand the systems made up of the individual products and activities and their relations to each other. The physical psychological and cultural aspects of consumption need to be linked together, and the temporal stage ofthe evolution of the system must be taken into account (c.f Basalla, 1987. Douglas, Isherwood. 1978; Hughes 1983; Kopytoff, 1986; Petrovski, 1993). Products and processes should not be studied (or acted on) in isolation, since individual products and processes are (at some stage of becoming) part of a larger network of everyday practices and products.

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