Shopping Illusions
Why Sustainable Consumption Will Not Save the World

Flowers | Photo (detail): ©

The pressure on the private consumer is great to orient his buying decisions to the principles of sustainable consumption. Bound up with this is the hope that huge changes in consumer demand will not only improve the quality of products and supply, but could also solve worldwide problems of environment and justice. The consumer should set it right. Slowly, however, we are beginning to realize that the consumer is thus being hopelessly overburdened. Armin Grunwald has now written a timely book on this theme.

People buy things every day. More and more they take care not to satisfy their own needs at the expense of others or to the disadvantage of the environment. In a word, they practice sustainable consumption – or at least they try to. Because they want to save the world? Unlikely. Because they want their buying decisions to make a small contribution towards greater justice and environmental protection? More likely. Many are motivated by socio-ecological reasons and want to do the right thing; many, in view of climate change, waste of resources and species extinction, simply have a bad conscience – and soothe it by reaching for organic food or the jute bag.

The shopping revolution

Armin Grunwald Armin Grunwald | © Oekom The economy adjusted to the new consumer class long ago: new, environmentally and social responsible producers have arisen, while old companies have shifted their production or incorporated “green” products in their assortment. Today the sustainability industry already covers (almost) all demands: those who want to, and are willing to spend a little more money, can choose from an enormous range of products. An infrastructure has grown up along with this development: you can now find organic grocery shops in nearly every neighborhood and organic products in every supermarket, while special mail-order houses supply the most remote corner of the country with ecological household goods, beds, furniture and textiles.

A success story, no doubt, and certainly one important reason that more and more people believe that the private consumer, rather than, for example, corporations or politicians, should initiate the transformation of capitalism towards an ecological economy with a human face. What sounds overconfident seems simple and obvious in theory: since the share of consumption in worldwide economic output is currently about 75 percent, and between 50 and 60 percent of that is accounted for by private consumption, this sector has an economic significance that makes it exploitable as a political resource. The only prerequisite and necessary condition of the ecological transformation is the “shopping revolution”. In other words, the consumer must discover his power (of demand) and deploy it as a means of political pressure. If large numbers of consumers shop more consciously, more economically and with more social responsibility, they can compel trade and industry to produce and offer more socially responsible and environmentally friendly products – and so ensure an eco-social turnaround.

The moral pressure on the individual has been mounting

A nice idea, with a small hitch: obviously the whole thing can work only if enough people participate. If the ecological reconstruction, the turn to a sustainable society, is to succeed, a niche phenomenon must become a mass phenomenon, ecological consumption must become mainstream. But since there are still too few people that draw the practical consequences from their knowledge and insight – according to European polls, at present only five to ten percent – the moral pressure on the individual to behave with ecological correctness has been mounting for some years: appeals to individual (co-) responsibility alternate with paternalistic educational campaigns and religiously charged admonitions (“environmental sinners”).

For the physicist and philosopher Armin Grunwald, this is the wrong path. In his view, moralizing the discourse on sustainability cannot succeed in moralizing the economy. And this by no means only because people usually respond to pressure with rejection or counter pressure – who after all likes others to tell or dictate to him what he can and cannot do? The problem, according to Grunwald, is the theory itself: its focus on the individual, of whom it is unreasonably expected that he should succeed where politics and civil society, not to mention the economy, have failed – namely, in saving the world. The individual is thus hopelessly overtaxed, and politics irresponsibly absolved of all obligations.

Sustainability is not a private affair

Cover of the book “Ende einer Illusion” Cover of the book “Ende einer Illusion” | © Oekom Grunwald speaks here of “collective self-deception” and adduces three arguments to support this view. First, despite all positive developments, it is highly unlikely that a majority in prosperity-oriented societies will opt for a sustainable way of life, however much they may realize the necessity and urgency for action. Secondly, those that would so act would generally not have the knowledge necessary to judge the sustainability of products or services. Reaching for an organic apple may be a tempting demonstration, but it does not automatically guarantee a better eco-balance than the purchase of a conventional fruit. Thirdly, even if a majority were to behave with environmental awareness, this would not necessarily help the environment, because a complex technological-economic system mediates between the good deed and its consequences. For example, those who reduce their energy consumption in a system that operates with energy certificates contribute to allowing steel and aluminum plants to emit more CO2.

For Grunwald, it is therefore clear that the concern for sustainability should not be shunted off into the private sphere. Sustainability is not a private affair, but a public responsibility – because it concerns the whole, the “polis”, and because it is about a fundamental change of course that requires a change in the prevailing political conditions. Such a change can be brought about only by democratic means; only democratic procedures can ensure the necessary legitimacy and commitment, and so the stability and permanence, of an eco-social transformation of the system. Decisive is not private behavior towards the environment, but commitment in civil society; not the consumer but the citizen. Needless to say, this does not make sustainable consumption superfluous.

Armin Grunwald: Ende einer Illusion. Warum ökologisch korrekter Konsum die Umwelt nicht retten kann, 128 pages, Oekom, Munich, 2012 ISBN: 978-3-86581-309-1