Critical sustainable consumption: a research agenda

Abstract

Sustainability scholarship is increasingly focused on individual behavior change and sustainable consumption as crucial components of engendering more sustainable societies. Practices like bicycling to work, recycling and reusing goods, and eating organic food are heralded as both integral to and generative of larger societal transformations. Scholars have begun to identify the individual and societal conditions that can help enable such practices while also examining social, cultural, and systemic dynamics driving over-consumption, particularly in the developed world. Additionally, questions of social and cultural identity have been interrogated, as the cultural politics of sustainable consumption emerges as a key sub-field in its own right. While more recent work has begun to focus on linking individual environmentalisms with the collective processes of changing social systems, sustainable consumption as an analytical concept has largely lacked any deep engagement with questions of power or politics. Questions of power, legitimacy, authority, and consequently justice remain largely unexamined in this field of research. In this paper, I draw on research examining sustainable consumption in India to present an argument for a new direction in sustainable consumption research that prioritizes a critical perspective and is grounded in critical social theory. I argue that sustainable consumption researchers need to look at relational and structural power within sustainable consumption efforts to see how these efforts challenge or reinforce existing patterns of oppression and marginalization and outline a “critical sustainable consumption” disposition to permeate sustainable consumption study and practice.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This portal which is called I Got Garbage was developed by Mindtree, a technology company in Bangalore, in collaboration with other companies, NGOs and Hasirudala. For more details see: http://www.igotgarbage.com/cms/Article/id/102/41af71c1-e26d-41da-ac97-6c8fdb5dac6d/0 (Last accessed 5/12/2015)

  2. 2.

    The diverse/community economies perspective has been critiqued by several Marxist-oriented scholars as representing a false solution to the problems produced by capitalism. For instance, Michael Watts (Watts 2003) has questioned whether community economies are truly outside the ambit of capitalism. To this critique I argue that, as engaged scholars, we need to be on the lookout for alternatives that emerge from local everyday experiences, just as we generate overarching critiques of social systems and devise alternative models from the top-down. We also have a responsibility to look at these alternatives with a critical eye and to acknowledge both their oppressive and transformative potential. To not do this would be to renege on our responsibilities as engaged scholars committed to social justice and social change.

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Correspondence to Manisha Anantharaman.

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Anantharaman, M. Critical sustainable consumption: a research agenda. J Environ Stud Sci 8, 553–561 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-018-0487-4

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Keywords

  • Sustainable consumption
  • Power
  • Critical theory
  • Research justice