Maurie J. Cohen
Sustainable Consumption Research
as Democratic Expertise
ABSTRACT. Academic proponents of sustainable consumption have marshaled con-
siderable evidence over the past decade to support calls for more eﬃcacious lifeways
among residents of the world’s developed countries. Policymakers continue, however, to
resist these recommendations because sustainable consumption runs counter to domi-
nant tenets of neo-liberal economics and conventional political objectives. Unless
investigators in the ﬁeld can identify a cadre of clients that is interested in forming tacit
partnerships, the concept of sustainable consumption is likely to remain little more than
a prospective pursuit. This article suggests that there are some nascent indications that
these kinds of alliances are developing. For sustainable consumption to take root in the
policy sphere, it will be necessary to more actively foster these relationships and to cast
this form of knowledge as a form of democratic counterexpertise that challenges elite
economic and political institutions that regularly appropriate and deploy consumer
science to advance their own interests.
It has been nearly 15 years since the international community gathered
at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and ﬁrst pledged to work
toward more sustainable patterns of consumption. This commitment
was subsequently renewed in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustain-
able Development in Johannesburg when delegates called upon
the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to formulate a
10-year framework to foster sustainable consumption. While these
expressions of resolve have spurred the formation of some new aca-
demic alliances, catalyzed a few national initiatives, and mobilized
novel forms of social and political activism, it is decidedly diﬃcult to
identify much tangible evidence of genuine and unambiguous progress
advancing this particular agenda (Fuchs & Lorek, 2005).
The political ambivalence that characterizes sustainable consump-
tion can be attributed to ﬁve paradoxes inherent in the co ncept. First,
the notion runs counter to prevailing neo-liberal ideals and challenges
the pervasive illusion of consumer sovereignty that exists in most
developed countries. Second, eﬀorts to create autonomous analytic
space for sustainable consumption have been repeatedly thwarted by
Journal of Consumer Policy (2006) 29:67–77 Ó Springer 2006
competing pressure to subsume it under the more aﬀable rubric
aﬀorded by its sister concept – sustainable production. Third, en-
hanced consumpt ion eﬃciency and the growth of nominally ‘‘green’’
consumer preferences both tend to give rise to perverse rebound ef-
fects. Fourth, consumer policymaking in most advanced countries is
an extremely disorganized pursuit with regulatory responsibilities
generally fragmented across numerous administrative entities. Finally,
common interpretations of ‘‘the consumers’ interest’’ do not normally
endorse policy programs with the purposeful intent of reducing the
volume of consumption or the range of choices.
These obstacles pose formidable barriers to the formulation of
policy program s to encourage more sustainable consumption. There is
nevertheless a somewhat separable dilemma at the heart of this situ-
ation and eﬀorts to get to grips with it could create some momentum
for moving beyond the current impasse. More speciﬁcally, it is nec-
essary to span the chasm between academicians researching sustain-
able consumption and policymakers in national and transnational
The last decade has seen considerable progres s in the development
of an expansive technical repertoire with which to diagnosis currently
unsustainable consumption practices. Investigators employ increas-
ingly sophisticated methodologies such as input–output analysis, life-
cycle assessment, material-ﬂow accounting, environmental-space cal-
culations, ecological-footprint analysis, and food-miles/kilometers
Environmental social scientists have concomitantly
sought to link the biophysical burdens of consumption with the
ways that consumerism permeates contempor ary culture (Cohen &
Murphy, 2001; Princen, Maniates, & Conca, 2002; Shove, 2003;
Southerton, Chappels, & van Vliet, 2005).
however, have not been matched by commensurate progress devising
actual policy initiatives to foster more socially and ecologically benign
provisioning pr actices.
SUSTAINABLE CONSUMPTION AND DEMOCRATIC EXPERTISE
Let us take a somewhat stylized look at how knowledge production is
typically conceived. The popular myth is that disinterested researchers
go about their scientiﬁc business and, at an appropriate time, the
larger society will discover and appropriate the fruits of this labor.
Maurie J. Cohen
Moreover, overly assertive eﬀorts by research workers to project their
insights beyond their own academic circle are taken to be unseemly
abrogations of inviolable codes of conduct.
While this naı
ve view is widely propagated an d formalized in
innumerable ways, proponents of novel scientiﬁc ideas are themselves
likely to recognize that their success is, in actual fact, conting ent on an
ability to nurture clients who are inclined to champion the expertise
they have to proﬀer. Cohen and Howard (2006) express this require-
ment in the following terms:
[F]or a new form of knowledge production to achieve institutional standing, it must
cultivate a viable clientele. Physics has achieved prominence during the past century in
large part because its nuclear and ballistics expertise guaranteed a durable relationship
with military planners and other politically influential patrons. Similarly, economics
owes its stature to an ability to provide entrepreneurs and political actors with tools
to track, interpret, and extrapolate changes in trade and industrial organization; and
geology has provided knowledge that helped satisfy a technological society’s appetite
for natural resources such as coal, oil, and precious minerals.
This important factor has to date been largely overlooked in discussions
about sustainable consumption. There is presently an awkward incon-
sistency between the acknowledged problems engendered by dominant
provisioning practices and actual eﬀorts to ameliorate their adverse
impacts. Under current circumstances, sustainable consumption is at
risk of becoming a parlor game played by a handful of well-meaning, but
ultimately ineﬀectual, researchers rather than a discourse capable of
moving developed countries toward more eﬃcacious lifeways.
This untoward situation is the result of a deeply seated scholarly
predisposition that favors technical analysis over the articulation of
pragmatic strategy and the recruitment of supportive allies. Informal
systems of professional socialization impart upon aspiring scientists a
palpable anxiety about taking too keen an interest in worldly aﬀairs
and, upon embarking on their careers, most of them shrink from such
engagement. Individuals who do demonstrate a penchant for public
undertakings risk being censured by disciplinary gatekeepers, institu-
tional superiors, and professional peers. An optimal approach would
arguably entail a balance between abstruse methods and prudent
praxis, but reiﬁed distinctions between science and engineering on one
hand and politics on the other remain diﬃcult impediments to this
synthesis (Fisc her, 1990; Sarewitz, 1996).
It is by fostering a clie ntele that nascent academic pursuits grow
into venerated disciplines. Sustainable consumption is quite clearly at
Sustainable Consumption Research
a very early stage of this process (and there is no certainty that it will
successfully mature). The ﬁeld enjoys none of the perquisites – dis-
tinguished professorships, degree-granting programs, esteemed jour-
nals, secure funding streams – of more establis hed areas of inquir y. At
the same time, these signiﬁers are likely to remain elusive unless the
cadre of active scholars is able to identify clients who value the
knowledge they have to impart an d are prepared to form tacit part-
Fortunately, there are suitable models that can provide some
guidance on how to pro ceed. The discipline of ecology, at least as it
was practiced during the 1960s and 1970s, oﬀers one prominent
exemplar. It is instructive to recall that the term ‘‘ecologist’’ at one
time simultaneously connoted both a scientiﬁc endeavor and a means
of political expression (Golley, 1993; Hagen, 1992). For one to identify
herself as an ecologist during this earlier era was not only to convey
command over a speciﬁc set of scientiﬁc skills, but also to express
allegiance to certain political ideals. Government oﬃcials were strug-
gling at the same time to make sense of a growing number of emergent
environmental challenges and they came to place a high value on
ecological knowledge (Bocking, 1997; Worster, 1994). Under such
circumstances, a symbiotic and mutually reinforcing relationship
developed between ecologists and policymakers and this codependence
contributed to the ﬁeld’s growing prestige.
While ecology may have represented at one time an instructive
model of how to blend science and politics, institutionalization ulti-
mately left this scientiﬁc pursuit estranged from the wider world. The
rift has grown suﬃciently wide in the eyes of some inﬂuential observers
that philanthropic foundations have begun to seed projects to recul-
tivate ecologists’ aﬃnity for public engagement.
A corresponding phenomenon is discernible within the consumer
sciences. While the study of consumer behavior never achieved the
same public stature that ecology once enjoyed, scholarship in this area
coalesced similarly around a hybridized combination of rigorous
inquiry and social critique (Furlough & Strikwerda, 1999; Hilton,
2003; Mayer, 1989). By the 1980s, however, a familiar process of civic
withdrawal had become manifest and consumer researchers indulged
in increasingly recondite topics that had little relevance to the lives
of ordinary people. Moreover, during this period, many ‘‘consumer
experts’’ found themselves working for large corporations and this
employment pattern inevitably led to the adoption of a particular set
Maurie J. Cohen
of political and economic values.
The indomitability of prominent
consumer organizations in Europe tempered this trend to some extent,
while in the United States institutional capacity to protect consumer
interests was seriously disabled over the course of the last few decades.
Accordingly, when popular concerns regarding, for example, the
implications of industrial agriculture on human well-being and the
privatization of public services on social welfare came to the fore
during the 1990s, European consumer advocates were able to marshal
technical and political resources in support of consumer interests.
It is still unclear though how we might envisage the relationship
between sustainable consumption researchers and their putative clients.
The nature of this collaboration actually speaks to a larger question of
how technical knowledge can be used most eﬀectively to inform poli-
cymaking. A small group of scholars working at the conﬂuence of
science studies, technology policy, and political science has begun in
recent years to grapple with this problem and to develop the concept of
‘‘democratic expertise’’ (Fischer, 1990; Hoppe, 2005; Woodhouse &
Nieusma, 2001). These scholars identify a need to level the playing ﬁeld
among diﬀerent constituencies and to redeploy expert ise to support
broader civic objectives. More speciﬁcally, democratic expertise is
viewed as progressive counterexpertise that explicitly seeks to assist
disadvantaged, underfunded, or underempowered lay organizations
participate eﬀectively in public controversies, especially by helping
them to overcome the vastly disproportionate ability of elite groups to
Who then might be ﬁtting collaborators in the production and uti-
lization of democratic expertise with respect to sustainable consump-
tion? First, there are indications that enterprising oﬃcials in national
and European-level governing bodies are now furtively reaching out to
researchers for data and insights to help advance innovative environ-
mental and consumer policy initiatives (e.g., Sustainable Development
Commission, 2004; see also Spangenberg, 2004). These relationships
should be actively encouraged. Second, sustainable consumption
research would likely beneﬁt from closer alliance with the growing
number of advocacy organizations forming to represent a new gener-
ation of critical consumers (Cohen, Comrov, & Hoﬀner, 2005; Kozinets
& Handelman, 2004; Littler, 2005; Maniates, 2002; Micheletti, 2003;
Micheletti, Follesdal, & Stolle, 2004; Rumbo, 2002; Stolle, Hooghe, &
Finally, researchers shou ld take notice of adjacent
policy areas where overlapping issues are undergoing processes of social
Sustainable Consumption Research
problematization since such avenues are likely to oﬀer fertile oppor-
tunities to launch discussions about alternative provisioning practices.
These strategic windows will necessarily vary across diﬀerent national
contexts and evolve over time; in the United States, obesity, automobile
dependency, and personal bankruptcy currently represent such possi-
bilities (Cohen, 2005a, b, 2006).
To engage eﬀectively with its incipient clients, the ambit of sus-
tainable consumption research will likely need to be expanded. Because
of its salience and high degree of politicization as a consumption do-
main, it would likely be prudent to give food a priority position as a
topic for future investigation. There are also indications of a new
willingness in some places to acknowledge the dysfunctional condition
of the current surface transportation system. A resurgence of interest in
car-sharing schemes and vehicle-free urban zones, as well as purposive
campaigns to impede the movement of traﬃc in central-city districts,
may mark the beginning of a newly invigorated politics of automobility
(Vigar, 2002; see also Blickstein & Hanson, 2001). The pernicious ef-
fects of advertising is an other area in which sustainable consumption
scholarship presumably has something valuable to say, but has to date
been relatively quiet.
A ﬁnal recommendation, consistent with the
view that household provisioning is necessarily embedded in a broader
array of social practices, would be to analytically link sustainable
consumption with current public discussions regarding working hours,
leisure, and quality of life (Gatersleben, 2001; Jackson, 2005; Martens
& Spaargaren, 2005; Reisch, 2001; Sanches, 2005; Sanne, 2005; Schor,
2005; Spaargaren & van Vliet , 2000).
Though the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in the United State s
issued two reports that touched on the role of consumpt ion as a driver
of global environmental degradation during the lead up to the 1992
Earth Summit, scholarly work more generally did not play a promi-
nent role in these initiatives.
The initial impetus instead came from
several non-governmental organizations an d a small group of sec-
ondary policy institutions – the Nordic Council and the Organization
for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – maintained
It was against this background that the NAS and the
Royal Society of London published their 1997 joint statement entitled
Maurie J. Cohen
Toward Sustainabl e Consumption. While this document propelled the
issue forward, sustainable consumption did not really begin to coa-
lesce as a legitimate area of scientiﬁc inquiry until after Science pub-
lished a short report later that year.
During the same timeframe, the
European Science Foundation launched its ﬁrst funding scheme in this
area and several national entities such as the UK’s Economic and
Social Research Council initiated their own programs.
This sponsorship was essential in getting sustainable consumption
oﬀ the ground as a focus for intellectual inquiry and complementing
developments in the policy sphere. However, the passage of time ero-
ded a good deal of the preexisting institutional resolve and, by the end
of the decade, the OECD and others had largely disbanded their pro-
grams. UNEP inherited the role of championing sustainable con-
sumption on the international stage, but the organization’s equivocal
commitment and chronic ﬁnancial diﬃculties have made it diﬃcult to
develop a coherent and visible campaign. The European Union, along
with a few of its co nstituent countries, has evinced cautious interest in
the issue. Part of the appeal of sustainable consumption in these con-
texts though arguably stems from the fact that it provides a discursive
means to challenge American economic and cultural hegemony.
The academic community will be unable to move sustainable con-
sumption from the peripheral reaches of the global policy agenda on
its own. Without competent allies in government and civil society that
support a holistic understanding of consumer interests the concept is
likely to whither in the face of competing objectives and remain little
more than a quixotic pursuit.
See Schwartz (2004) for an interesting counterargument to the customary view.
The Winter/Spring issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology published in 2005
contains a comprehensive survey of these tools and techniques used in the study of
A much larger group of social scientists has of course explored the social and cul-
tural signiﬁcance of consumption without any particular regard for the biophysical
implications of these practices.
In addressing this particular dilemma, Woodhouse and Nieusma (1997) contend
that ‘‘[M]ost professional experts must earn a living by working for business execu-
tives or government oﬃcials allied with business, who often wish to use expertise for
tasks not designed to promote the goals of workers, consumers, taxpayers, or those
who seek to preserve the environment.’’
I am indebted to Jeﬀ Howard for this deﬁnition of democratic expertise.
Sustainable Consumption Research
There is also evidence that some of the more established consumer organizations
are beginning to embrace sustainable consumption (see, e.g., Arkenstette, 2005;
ller, 2005; Reisch, 2004).
For noteworthy exceptions to this general characterization, see Bordwell, 2002,
Rumbo, 2002, and Schor, 2004.
The NAS issued a report in 1986 entitled Population Growth and Economic Develop-
ment: Policy Questions that provided cursory treatment of the role of consumption as a
source of global environmental degradation (National Research Council, 1986). A sub-
sequent document, released in collaboration with the Royal Society of London in the
months immediately preceding the Rio Earth Summit under the title of Population
Growth, Resource Consumption, and a Sustainable World (Royal Society and National
Academy of Sciences, 1992) described the need for ‘‘more environmentally benign
patterns of human activity.’’
The International Institute for Sustainable Development was one of the nongov-
ernmental organizations that played an especially prominent role in initially formulat-
ing the concept of sustainable consumption.
See Myers (1997). Interestingly, this brief paper was published alongside a dissent-
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Maurie J. Cohen
Maurie J. Cohen is Assistant Professor of environmental policy and sustainability at the
New Jersey Institute of Technology, University Heights, Newark, NJ 07102, USA. Fax
+1-973-596-3586; E-mail: email@example.com. He also serves as editor of the
ejournal Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy (http://ejournal.nbii.org).
This article is a revised version of a paper presented at the Sixth Open Meeting of the
Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Research Community at the
University of Bonn, 9–13 October, 2005. Special thanks to Lucia Reisch and Joachim
Spangenberg for organizing the session ‘‘The Politics of Sustainable Consumption within
an Era of Global Environmental Change.’’ The author has beneﬁted greatly from
exchanges on this general topic with Jeﬀ Howard, Jerry Ravetz, and Edward Wood-
Sustainable Consumption Research