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Conceptual Innovation in Environmental Policy$
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James Meadowcroft and Daniel J. Fiorino

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780262036580

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262036580.001.0001

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Sustainable Consumption: An Important but Ambiguous Concept

Sustainable Consumption: An Important but Ambiguous Concept

(p.307) 13 Sustainable Consumption: An Important but Ambiguous Concept
Conceptual Innovation in Environmental Policy

Philip J. Vergragt

The MIT Press

This chapter explores the origins of the concept of sustainable consumption in global policy circles in the 1990s and its subsequent evolution in academia, business, civil society, and policy. It describes how academic research increasingly critiqued the understanding of consumption as an individual act and instead conceptualized it as a systemic issue deeply embedded in the economy, culture, and infrastructure, and how it is structured by life-event decisions like buying a house. It describes how the ecologically-inspired critique of consumption merged with the much older social critique of consumerism going back to Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, and the Frankfurt, School and discusses the emergence of alternatives and possible pathways to systemic change. The concept of sustainable consumption has influenced policies in the European Union, on the level of cities, and organizations like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Since the Great Recession of 2008, the concept has acquired new meanings spurred by the economic crisis and, in the US, the demise of the “American Dream”. The chapter concludes by discussing the concept’s ambiguities and possible futures.

Keywords:   sustainable consumption, Agenda 21, needs, wellbeing, weak and strong sustainable consumption, symbolic meaning of products, sufficiency, systemic change, degrowth, Sustainable Development Goals

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