ArticlePDF Available

The international political economy of (un)sustainable consumption and the global financial collapse


Abstract and Figures

Adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit and elaborated at the Johannesburg Conference a decade later, sustainable consumption occupies an increasingly prominent political position. Numerous governmental ministries and supranational organisations have produced sustainable consumption plans. However, actual programmatic initiatives have been limited to modest information and education campaigns as policy proposals are constrained by political contexts. Researchers have documented flows of materials and energy, but have disregarded the political and economic dynamics that animate throughput movements. Inattention to factors that propel the global metabolism, scholarship largely failed to anticipate the ongoing global financial collapse. Work on the household economics and macroeconomics of consumption is reviewed and an international political economy of (un)sustainable consumption is developed. Realignment of the global economic order will require renegotiation of the tacit agreements that the USA strikes with its trading partners and the design of more efficacious systems of production and consumption.
Content may be subject to copyright.
This article was downloaded by:
[Cohen, Maurie]
9 February 2010
Access details:
Access Details: [subscription number 919137163]
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-
41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK
Environmental Politics
Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:
The international political economy of (un)sustainable consumption and
the global financial collapse
Maurie J. Cohen a
a Graduate Program in Environmental Policy Studies, New Jersey Institute of Technology, USA
Online publication date: 08 February 2010
To cite this Article Cohen, Maurie J.(2010) 'The international political economy of (un)sustainable consumption and the
global financial collapse', Environmental Politics, 19: 1, 107 — 126
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/09644010903396135
Full terms and conditions of use:
This article may be used for research, teaching and private study purposes. Any substantial or
systematic reproduction, re-distribution, re-selling, loan or sub-licensing, systematic supply or
distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden.
The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation that the contents
will be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of any instructions, formulae and drug doses
should be independently verified with primary sources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss,
actions, claims, proceedings, demand or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly
or indirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this material.
The international political economy of (un)sustainable consumption
and the global financial collapse
Maurie J. Cohen*
Graduate Program in Environmental Policy Studies, New Jersey Institute of Technology,
Adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit and elaborated at the Johannesburg
Conference a decade later, sustainable consumption occupies an increas-
ingly prominent political position. Numerous governmental ministries and
supranational organisations have produced sustainable consumption plans.
However, actual programmatic initiatives have been limited to modest
information and education campaigns as policy proposals are constrained
by political contexts. Researchers have documented flows of materials and
energy, but have disregarded the political and economic dynamics that
animate throughput movements. Inattention to factors that propel the
global metabolism, scholarship largely failed to anticipate the ongoing
global financial collapse. Work on the household economics and
macroeconomics of consumption is reviewed and an international political
economy of (un)sustainable consumption is developed. Realignment of the
global economic order will require renegotiation of the tacit agreements
that the USA strikes with its trading partners and the design of more
efficacious systems of production and consumption.
Keywords: international trade; debt; deficits; American empire; degrowth
While the prodigious throughput of materials and energy in affluent countries
has featured in environmental debates since the early 1970s, governments never
imposed substantive responsibilities on consumers. Policy makers instead
compelled industrial companies to abide by regulatory controls and subscribed
to the presumption that overall consumption would continue to expand. As the
inadequacy of this approach became apparent, the emphasis shifted towards
strategies based on pollution prevention, ‘clean’ technology and environmental
economics. The most recent wave of policy innovation, largely motivated by
Environmental Politics
Vol. 19, No. 1, February 2010, 107–126
ISSN 0964-4016 print/ISSN 1743-8934 online
Ó2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/09644010903396135
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
the urgent need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, centres on eco-efficiency,
waste minimisation and product stewardship (von Weizsa
¨cker et al. 1997,
Hawken et al. 1999, cf. White 2002, Barry 2007).
Despite the continued centrality of production-led initiatives, sustainable
consumption has come to occupy an increasingly visible political position.
First championed by a consortium of developing countries and nongovern-
mental organisations (NGOs) prior to the United Nations Conference on
Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, the concept has steadily
evolved into an institutionalised fixture of policy discussions. In addition,
various commercial efforts to reshape household consumption have prolifer-
ated, and allied ideas pertaining to ‘ethical shopping’ and ‘green consumerism’
have become infused into marketing practice and popular culture (Brower and
Leon 1999, cf. Hardner and Rice 2002, Pedersen and Neergaard 2006).
This turn away from a resolute preoccupation with production, and the
subsequent forging of complementary demand-side strategies, has necessarily
entailed compromises. In particular, the cautious embrace of a weak con-
ception of sustainable consumption has led to a withering of the novelty that
characterised early expressions of the concept. Pragmatic policy entrepreneurs,
forced to work within political contexts that repudiate heterodox views of
economic growth, have favoured straightforward initiatives to supplement
consumer information and education. Such neutralisation is palpable in the
cascade of sustainability plans that now pour forth from government bureaus
and international organisations (UNEP 2001, UK DEFRA 2003, 2005, EEA
2005, Finnish Ministry of the Environment 2005, UK SCR 2006, German
Federal Environment Agency 2007, CEC 2008).
The insipidness of contemporary policy making on sustainable consump-
tion reflects the hesitancy of affluent countries to forthrightly confront their
wasteful materials and energy usage patterns. Researchers must shoulder some
responsibility for the disarray. Current disorientation is at least partly
attributable to an intellectual posture that eschews the political economy of
resource appropriation and instead privileges the enumeration of metabolic
flows. This fixation has relegated consideration of the engine that propels the
overall metabolism – the global financial system – to the periphery, as
scholarship on the linkages between consumption and sustainability in the
main failed to anticipate the ongoing global financial collapse. The current
process of retrenchment, with much of the world desperately trying to revert to
the status quo ante, provides an auspicious moment for reassessment.
The premise of this article is that the notion of sustainable consumption
needs to incorporate the global financial system into its frame of analysis. To
develop this perspective, the section ‘The emergence of sustainable consump-
tion’ traces the history of sustainable consumption as a policy issue and
highlights both its established and insurgent schools of thought. The section
‘The household economics of sustainable consumption’ approaches the issue
from the standpoint of household economics and reviews relevant work of
economists and sociologists. The section ‘Macroeconomic deficits and
108 M.J. Cohen
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
(un)sustainable consumption’ describes the macroeconomic dimensions of
government budgeting and international trade, as policy decisions in these
spheres are ultimately responsible for driving consumption. The section ‘The
international political economy of (un)sustainable consumption’ integrates and
extends these perspectives by developing the contours of an international
political economy of (un)sustainable consumption that explains how American
foreign policy has secured the acquiescence of other countries in exchange for
access to US markets. The conclusion identifies some directions for future
research on sustainable consumption in light of new economic circumstances
and a more expansive understanding of the factors that animate resource flows.
The emergence of sustainable consumption
The role of consumers in policies for sustainable development is increasingly
appreciated. Much of this dialogue has taken place around the concept of
sustainable consumption that first emerged on the international agenda during
the early 1990s. Early proponents sought to reframe the global environmental
problematique, as well as the challenges of sustainability more generally, in
accordance with a more equitable distribution of obligations between the
developed and developing countries. A critical dimension of this undertaking
involved recognition of the large disparity in per capita resource appropriation
between, for example, India and the USA. After contentious debate, an entire
chapter of Agenda 21, the action plan produced by the UNCED process, was
devoted to the issue, and stated that ‘[a]ll countries should strive to promote
sustainable consumption patterns’. The document proceeds to encourage
developed nations to assume primary responsibility for forging appropriate
strategies (UNDESA 1992). The governments of most affluent countries
greeted this initial call for the public regulation of consumption with a
combination of anger and exasperation: the first President Bush famously
responded with the declaration that ‘the American way of life [was] not up for
negotiation’ (McKibben 2005).
Nonetheless, in the following years, the Organisation for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) and other secondary policy-making
institutions quietly worked to sharpen the focus of discussions (e.g. Nordic
Council of Ministers 1995, OECD 1997), and authoritative scientific societies
and independent researchers embarked on complementary investigations
(Durning 1992, Redclift 1996, Royal Society and US NAS 1997, Stern et al.
1997, Cohen and Murphy 2001, Princen et al. 2002).
At the 2002 Johannesburg Summit, sustainable consumption (and produc-
tion) was again a major theme and a key pronouncement called upon UNEP, in
conjunction with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social
Affairs (UNDESA), to formulate a 10-year international framework of
programmes to support this objective. After consultation with government
representatives, academics and NGOs, UNEP convened an experts meeting in
2003 to launch the Marrakech Process. The aim of these deliberations has been
Environmental Politics 109
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
to develop a comprehensive plan for submission to the United Nations
Commission for Sustainable Development (UNCSD) for the 2010/2011 cycle
to guide initiatives to encourage sustainable consumption (and production) over
the next decade. Concomitantly, UNEP convened a series of stakeholder
dialogues in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, North America
and the Asia-Pacific area to develop regional perspectives.
Separate from the Marrakech Process, a number of national governments
and supranational bodies have created new forums to consider the social and
environmental implications of contemporary lifestyles. The European Com-
mission’s action plan (CEC 2008) in particular generated considerable
expectancy in the months prior to its release. Early indications were that the
report would move the policy discussion in innovative new directions and
embrace several ambitious ideas. After numerous delays, the document
unveiled during summer 2008 proved to be more reactionary than revolu-
tionary (ENDS Europe Report 2008). Commentary at the time suggested that
competing interests had overwhelmed the drafting process and realigned the
document with established commitments favouring economic competitiveness.
The highly charged internal debates that characterised the European action
plan on sustainable consumption are indicative of extensive cleavages over how
to organise the overall political agenda. Policy makers have tended to prefer
individualised models of consumer behaviour predicated upon paradigms from
social psychology and behavioural economics (Thøgerson and O
¨lander 2002,
van den Bergh 2008) that privilege environmentally conscious consumer
purchasing, eco-labelling and long-term capital investments in household-energy
efficiency. Other prevalent strategies merge with approaches from the realm of
sustainable production and encourage complementary initiatives grounded in
product policy, life-cycle engineering, waste and material minimisation and eco-
efficiency (Thomas and Graedel 2003, Sinclair et al. 2005).
It has become common to challenge mainstream interventions based on these
circumscribed models of consumer motivation because they ignore the social
dimensions of consumption and the likelihood of perverse rebound effects
(Herring and Roy 2002, Hertwich 2005). Another basis for criticism has been
that the modest anticipated gains are incompatible with the bold targets
endorsed by scientific experts (Seyfang 2004, Spangenberg 2004). This mismatch
appears to be especially prominent with respect to global climate change, where
influential analyses of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
(2007) and the Stern Review (2007) assert a need to reduce greenhouse-gas
emissions by 80%. Moreover, by emphasising only notionally rational
consumers and narrow technological solutions, policy makers marginalise the
essential politics of any meaningful programme to elicit changes in consumption.
Separate from the established discourse on sustainable consumption, a
diverse community comprised of academics, think-tanks, policy advocates and
social experimentalists has been assembling a more ambitious agenda. Yet to
cohere into a single strategic vision, this array of alternative approaches focuses
on fostering transformational changes in both the quantity and the quality of
110 M.J. Cohen
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
resource use. Instead of consumer rationality and engineering redesign, a broad
conception of ethical responsibility is at the heart of this insurgent view of
sustainable consumption (Paavola 2001, Hobson 2002, Schrader 2007, Cohen
2006b, Hobson 2004). Some scholars situate household provisioning within the
everyday social practices of consumers (and citizens) (Spaargaren 2003,
Hargreaves et al. 2008, Quitzau and Røpke 2008); others seek to develop
sustainable consumption as a means by which to encourage ecological
citizenship, democratic engagement, innovative governance and alternative
systems of economic organisation (Hobson 2004, Fuchs and Lorek 2005,
Cohen 2006a, b, NEF 2008). There are also attempts to understand the
complex dynamics of global supply chains and international trading regimes
with an eye to identifying strategic points where pressure for change can be
maximally applied (O’Rourke 2005) and where household provisioning can
effectively be relocalised (Seyfang 2006).
These treatments are motivated by implicit social critiques of consumption
(and consumerism) and clearly distinguish themselves from more established
metabolic analyses that disregard the political dynamics behind material and
energy flows. Some of this scholarship and experimentation has drawn on the
burgeoning body of literature on ‘happiness’ and sought to uncover linkages
between material abundance and lifestyle satisfaction (Jackson 2005, 2008, NEF
2006, Offer 2007, UK SDC 2009) suggesting that beyond a certain threshold level
of consumption (and income) consumers do not realise significant improvements
in subjective wellbeing. Paradoxically, the proportion of people in developed
countries that claims to be ‘very happy’ has not changed over recent decades
despite manifold growth in material throughput. These findings suggest that
contentment is more a function of interpersonal comparison than a matter of
absolute accumulation. If it is true that happiness is predicated upon relative
standing, consumers could conceivably reduce expenditures and cut back
proportionately on the amount of time they devote to paid employment without
experiencing any diminution in perceived quality of life.
Some researchers have sought to subject these contentions to personal tests
by, for example, modifying their lifestyles in accordance with the principles of
voluntary simplicity (Elgin 1993, James 2007). Other social experimentalists
have been variously motivated to drastically reduce their individual environ-
mental impacts (Levine 2007). Related efforts have picked up pace with the
formation of carbon reduction action groups and the diffusion of the
‘transition towns’ movement (Hopkins and Heinberg 2008).
Despite its inchoate form, this alternative thinking about sustainable
consumption takes quite seriously the assertions of prominent environmental
scientists who call for multifactor improvements – ranging from factors of 4 to
20 – in the efficiency of materials and energy use (von Weizsa
¨cker et al. 1997,
Hinterberger and Schmidt-Bleek 1999). These ambitious targets derive from
the recognition that it will be necessary to accommodate a worldwide
population of 10 billion people by 2050 (along with concomitant growth in
resource utilisation) and simultaneously control the most dangerous impacts of
Environmental Politics 111
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
global climate change. Such circumstances call for large-scale reductions in the
volume of resources appropriated by developed countries and for endowing
developing countries with ‘leap-frogging’ capacity (Ko
¨hler 2006, Tukker et al.
2008, cf. Perrels 2008). This awareness has led to consideration of so-called
transition pathways and the radical transformation of entire socio-technical
systems (Rohracher 2001, Elzen et al. 2004).
The household economics of sustainable consumption
Sustainable consumption has emerged politically as national governments and
international organisations have begun to adopt elements of this policy agenda.
For instance, sustainable consumption (and production) is one of the four
priority areas in the UK government’s national sustainability strategy, and the
Marrakech Process is an important component of UNEP’s activities. Even so,
these developments retain a certain quixotic quality, in part because of a sense
that proponents are furtively intent on undermining consumer sovereignty and
weakening prevailing prerogatives favouring economic growth.
The point of departure for the current discussion, however, is the dominant
tendency to conceptualise sustainable consumption in overly narrow terms as
the management of metabolic flows. Most scholarship in the field disregards
the fact that the movement of materials and energy is contingent upon
dynamics in the international economy. This section begins to widen the frame
of customary analysis by highlighting how economists and sociologists have
approached the financial dimensions of (un)sustainable consumption from the
standpoint of household savings.
The amassing of savings by households provides both a source of domestic
security and a societal pool of investment capital. With respect to the
sustainability of affluent countries, financial accumulation also has the
advantage of diverting money from current consumption and redirecting it
towards capital assets and other activities with prospects for long-term benefit.
The following overview uses OECD data and focuses on savings behaviour
in 17 member countries over a 15-year timeframe.
More than half of these
nations (the so-called Anglo-Saxon group plus Denmark, Finland, Japan,
Korea and the Netherlands) experienced declining household savings rates
during the period 1990–2005 (Table 1). The savings rates for a number of these
countries, turned negative in the latter part of this interval, suggesting that
consumers were depleting previously accumulated funds to maintain current
consumption. In contrast, the Germanophone and Francophone nations
maintained comparatively stable savings rates while the Norwegians and
Swedes evinced a generally increasing propensity to save.
Economists have advanced numerous reasons for this generally declining
pattern of household savings (Marquis 2002, de Serres and Pelgrin 2003,
Guidolin and La Jeunesse 2007).
The explanations include a ‘wealth effect’
(suggesting that as people raise their net worth they will increase their
consumption propensity), a ‘labour productivity effect’ (contending that
112 M.J. Cohen
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
improvements in workplace efficiency prompt people to revise upward their
expectations of future income and to cut back their current savings rate), and a
‘financial security effect’ (averring that government-transfer programmes have
reduced dependency on familial resources to fund retirement, disability, and
major medical expenses).
Others emphasise the role that demographics play in influencing national
savings rates: countries with younger age profiles will evince higher
propensities to save and this rate will decline as people reach retirement age.
Some historically minded economists reach back to the nineteenth century and
revivify the notion of Ricardian equivalence that asserts people are indifferent
to whether governments fund their activities through tax increases or debt.
Declining government deficits should encourage people to save less (because of
expectations of lower taxes in the future) while increasing government deficits
should induce them to save more (because of expectations of higher taxes in the
future). A final noteworthy explanation draws attention to the shift away
(largely in the USA) from stockholder dividends to stock repurchase plans,
claiming that this trend has reduced savings rates because dividends are
included in the calculation whereas share repurchases are not.
Though the reasons are varied, none of these explanations holds up
especially well to empirical analysis (Guidolin and La Jenunesse 2007). The
Table 1. Household net savings rates for selected OECD countries, 1990–2005
(percentage of disposable household income).
1990 1995 2000 2005
Declining savings countries
Australia 6.6 6.7 2.4 73.7
Canada 13.3 9.4 4.8 1.2
Denmark 2.0 1.3 72.0 1.1
Finland 1.8 3.9 70.1 70.1
Japan 8.5 3.2
Korea 22.5 17.5 10.7 4.4
The Netherlands 15.7 7.5 7.1
UK 4.2 6.7 0.5 70.1
USA 7.2 5.1 2.4 70.4
Stable savings countries
Austria – 11.0 8.5 9.1
Belgium 14.2 15.7 9.7 10.4
France 9.3 12.7 11.8 11.5
Germany 11.1 9.3 10.7
Switzerland 10.8 12.9 13.2 9.1
Increasing savings countries
Norway 2.2 4.6 5.2 10.1
Sweden 9.1 3.2 8.7
Source: OECD (available at,3407,en_21571361_34374092_1_1_1_1_1,
Data are for 2004.
Data are for 2003.
Environmental Politics 113
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
standing of the presumed ‘wealth effect’ is undermined by the finding that
during the past decade the periods of greatest consumption growth did not
coincide with the most robust phases of asset appreciation. The ‘labour
productivity’ interpretation fails because it accounts for only a very small
portion of the change in savings, and the ‘financial security effect’ is not
especially robust because of the paradox that countries with the most expansive
social welfare systems also have the highest household savings rates.
A further economic explanation that withstands careful scrutiny centres on
the development and diffusion of financial innovations. In particular, new
credit products made it easier (until mid-2008) for consumers to borrow money
on convenient terms. The wide diffusion of credit cards, as well as the
popularisation of home-equity loans, has altered conceptions of debt. Indeed,
savings behaviour declined most sharply in the OECD countries that most
enthusiastically embraced bank deregulation and the liberalisation of personal
credit (Sullivan and Worden 1989, Leyshon and Thrift 1993). Assessment of
why there was such relentless uptake of these new financial products requires
moving beyond econometric analyses and turning to sociological studies
grounded in the lived experiences of actual consumers. Schor (1998) and
Warren and Warren Tyagi (2003) have been most prominent in developing this
perspective with respect to the USA.
Schor analyses changes in the American labour market and highlights the
expanding participation of women in paid employment. This trend evolved in a
context of increasing workplace stratification that brought people with vastly
different earning capacities into close social proximity. In the earlier eras, when
the assembly line was the paradigmatic mode of economic organisation, there
was little integration across income classes and workers took their consump-
tion cues from colleagues earning roughly similar incomes (hence the famous
aphorism about ‘keeping up with the Joneses’). By contrast, the heterogeneity
of contemporary workplaces encourages individuals of relatively modest
earning potential to emulate the purchasing practices of better-off colleagues,
inducing a steady ratcheting up of consumption standards – what Schor refers
to as the ‘new consumerism.’ This pressure has been exacerbated by the
pervasive influence of television and its tendency to showcase products that
exceed the budgets of most viewers, leading to the upward spiralling of
expectations, continuous upgrading of what constitutes ‘normal’ levels of
comfort and convenience, and the accumulation of outsized debt.
Warren takes a different tack, grounded in the rising tide of personal
bankruptcies in the USA and the budgetary challenges of maintaining a con-
temporary household. She notes the curious irony that recruitment of women
into paid labour tended to increase rather than decrease financial strain. The
addition of a second paycheck added to income, but the supplementary
resources stimulated new, largely unavoidable expenditures and reduced overall
familial flexibility. In contrast, during earlier eras, non-working wives and
mothers would seek temporary employment in the event of financial
emergencies and thus inject a new source of income into their households.
114 M.J. Cohen
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
Warren identifies five tightly interlinked factors as responsible for putting
American households into a financial straightjacket and contributing to the
demise of savings and the rising tide of national indebtedness: the quest for
decent public schools, the necessity of maintaining a second car, the expenses
incurred for childcare, the cost of medical treatment and the need to finance
higher education. Changes in this array of expenditures, she claims, tipped
middle-class households into the ‘two-income trap.’
We have here two quite different sociological explanations for the declining
savings rate in the USA. Schor contends that the failure to save is the result of
novel consumer aspirations driven by an unyielding desire for status and a
relentless quest for positional goods. Warren attributes the low savings rate to
a barrage of competing pressures that make it difficult for families to break
even. How might we reconcile these two views? One approach begins by
highlighting the divergent life circumstances of the upper and lower tiers of the
contemporary American middle class. Schor, primarily concerned with
‘middle-class and upper-middle-class consumers’, writes that
[S]pending patterns are strongly differentiated by class, and the system of
competitive spending I describe is driven by those with discretionary income . . . I
focus on more affluent consumers not because I believe that inequalities of
consuming power are unimportant. Far from it. They are the heart of the
problem. But I believe that achieving an equitable standard of living for all
Americans will require that those of us with comfortable material lives transform
our relationship to spending. (Schor 1998:xiv–xv)
Warren does not qualify which facet of the American middle class her
analysis is capturing, but she does not appear to focus on the same consumers
that animate Schor’s discussion of lawyers, accountants and other profes-
sionals with considerable discretionary income. The evocative personal profiles
that Warren intersperses throughout her account are instead based on the
experiences of police officers, schoolteachers and dental hygienists – members
of a middle class who face a decidedly different set of financial challenges.
It is not only American consumers and their counterparts in other countries
that have had trouble setting aside savings from current income. National
governments have displayed similar tendencies, especially with respect to fiscal
policy and international trade.
Macroeconomic deficits and (un)sustainable consumption
Nobel laureate Paul Krugman (2003) observes that ‘[t]he basic rule of fiscal
responsibility for a national government is pretty much the same as the rule for
a family. Pay off your debts and build up financial reserves when things are
good, so that you can draw on those reserves later.’ For most of the past
decade, this advice seemed quaint and was in many circles regarded as unduly
cautious for failing to appreciate the benefits of leverage. However, fiscal
moderation is a precondition for sustainable consumption. In the absence of
Environmental Politics 115
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
financial prudence, efforts to successfully shift consumer choices in more
sustainable directions are likely to prove elusive. Two instructive macro-
economic indicators of (un)sustainable consumption are the government
budget balance and the current account balance (essentially the trade balance).
To provide for public consumption – as opposed to the private con-
sumption paid for directly by households – it is common for governments to
borrow money on both a short- and long-term basis through the issuance of
treasury bonds. Of the 27 OECD nations for which there are comparable data,
15 (55%) reported budget deficits in 2005 (Figure 1).
Hungary, Portugal,
Japan, Greece and Italy (in declining order) were the most heavily indebted
countries relative to their respective gross domestic products (GDP); all had
annual revenue shortfalls in excess of 4% of GDP. Aggregate borrowing to
compensate for these deficits totalled more than $1 trillion, the USA
accounting for 45% of this amount and Japan a further 20%.
Government budget deficits occur when the treasury expends more money
than it collects in revenue. During periods when tax increases or spending
reductions are not politically viable, financial markets provide a convenient
way to raise additional funds, particularly if interest rates are relatively low.
Countries have used this strategy throughout modern history to pay for wars
and other exigencies, but it can become dangerous if borrowing fails to decline
once the emergency is over or if altered conditions make it difficult to refinance
the debt.
A second issue is the extensive degree of economic interconnectivity that
has become a feature of the present era of globalisation. We can usefully divide
Figure 1. Net government lending/borrowing for selected OECD countries, 2005.
116 M.J. Cohen
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
countries into two categories: net importers and net exporters. Of the sample of
27 OECD countries, 15 (55%) had current account deficits (imports exceeded
exports) in 2005 (Figure 2). Iceland, Portugal and New Zealand had the largest
shortfalls relative to their respective GDPs, but these amounts were dwarfed in
absolute terms by the massive deficit ($793 billion or 71% of the total for this
group of counties) accrued by the USA.
Before proceeding, a few clarifying points. First, a negative current account
balance is generally the result of weak export capacity relative to strong desire
for imports. Second, the prevailing market price and consumer demand for
petroleum are both important components of the trade picture (especially for
net oil-importing countries like the USA). When national petroleum
expenditures increase, the current account balance will decline in the absence
of offsetting changes in exports or non-oil imports. Finally, a protracted
current account deficit will, ceterus paribus, tend to weaken the value of a
country’s currency. The USA has encouraged such a situation for two decades,
but the American current account balance has still been consistently negative
since 1982. The country has been able to buffer the adverse effects of its chronic
trade deficit because the dollar serves as the primary international reserve
A further measure of macroeconomic wellbeing is the ‘twin deficit’ (or
surplus) and it is calculated by summing the government budget balance and
the current account balance. As depicted in Table 2, 10 OECD countries from
the sample of 27 nations (43%) have been experiencing twin deficits. Italy, the
UK and France have evinced modest twin deficits (with combined government
budget and current account deficits amounting to approximately 5–6% of their
Figure 2. Net current account balances for selected OECD countries, 2005.
Environmental Politics 117
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
respective GDPs). This scale of imbalance puts these countries into somewhat
precarious positions, but most economists do not regard a twin deficit of this
magnitude as inherently problematic. It is moreover essential to put these
amounts into perspective by comparing them to the USA, which had a twin
deficit for 2005 of $1.4 trillion (10.1% of GDP).
In the wake of the global financial collapse, the American government
budget deficit was expected to rise in 2009 to an unprecedented $1.75. In a
more fortunate development, the current account deficit shrank to $738 billion
in 2007 and then to $677 billion in 2008 due to lower oil prices and contraction
of consumer demand. Nonetheless, because of the general magnitude of its
government budget and current account deficits, the USA faces an
unprecedented twin deficit of nearly $2.5 trillion (approximately 18% of
GDP) for at least several years.
The international political economy of (un)sustainable consumption
While household economics and the macroeconomics of government budgeting
and international trade help to highlight the scale of recent patterns of
(un)sustainable consumption, consideration of the motivations behind this
situation requires an approach grounded in international political economy. It
is the pivotal role of the USA as a ‘debtor empire’ (Ferguson 2005, Bonner and
Wiggin 2006) that helps to explain why the contemporary global system has
come to rely on immense materials and energy flows.
While history provides no shortage of examples of countries that have
amassed large debts (ancient re
´gime France is perhaps the most infamous case),
this financial strategy has typically been limited to the sale of bonds during
periods when the survival of the state was under threat (as with Britain during
World War II) (Thompson 2007, Ferguson 2008). Stiglitz and Bilmes (2008)
Table 2. Twin deficits for selected OECD countries, 2005.
Country Current account deficit Budget deficit Total twin deficit
Low deficit
Slovak Republic 1.5 2.1 3.5
Hungary 2.8 5.1 7.9
Czech Republic 4.6 7.2 11.8
Greece 5.3 14.1 19.4
Portugal 11.1 19.1 30.2
Poland 33.9 19.6 53.6
Medium deficit
Italy 141.4 51.0 192.4
UK 124.7 100.9 225.6
France 129.1 123.4 252.4
High deficit
USA 1,140.6 743.9 1,884.5
All figures in billions of current dollars. Source: author’s calculations based on data from OECD.
118 M.J. Cohen
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
estimate the cost of American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan at
more than $3 trillion. Although it is a huge amount of money, a significant
portion comprises future expenses associated with caring for injured soldiers
and needs to be compared with the vast size of the country’s economy
(approximately $14 trillion in 2008). As strategically challenging as these
conflicts have been, they have never constituted an existential threat to the
USA. The larger point is that there are few precedents of a great power relying
on debt to maintain current consumption to the extent that the American
government (as well as its citizens) has been doing.
After a decade of amassing huge deficits, the USA now finds itself
borrowing still larger sums to stave off further bank failures and to fund a large
economic stimulus programme. The present situation is also only the tip of a
vast financial iceberg. The American treasury has yet to feel the crashing wave
of claims that will come as the generation of approximately 77 million ‘baby
boomers’ becomes eligible for public health insurance and other expensive
entitlements. According to credible estimates, these implicit liabilities amount
to a staggering $45 trillion (Gokhale and Smetters 2002). As Ferguson
(2005:262) observes,
[T]his overstretch has almost nothing to do with the United States’ overseas
military commitments. It is the result of America’s chronically unbalanced
domestic finances. And the magnitude of the problem is such that most
Americans, including those who consider themselves well informed about the
nation’s finances, find it quite simply incredible. Indeed, the main reason why
America’s fiscal crisis remains latent is precisely that people refuse to believe in its
existence. (italics in original)
To maintain its generally high standard of living, the USA has come to rely
on the steady infusion of borrowed money from China and other Asian
countries. While prominent economists have debated the relative vulnerability
of the various participants (Krugman 2003, Mu
¨hleisen and Towe 2004,
Summers 2004, Bernanke 2005, Setser and Roubini 2005), historical experience
suggests that the creditor tends in the end to hold the upper hand in these
financial alliances (Ferguson 2008). Should China decide to diversify its
financial portfolio (or even to reduce appreciably the rate at which it purchases
American debt) the People’s Bank of China would no doubt suffer significant
losses as its remaining holdings fell in value. However, such action would be
economically catastrophic for the USA as interest rates spiked upward to
attract new money to replace the withdrawn Chinese funds.
A particularly
unsettling dimension of this situation, at least from the perspective of
American foreign policy, is that the mere threat of altered Chinese investment
preferences gives Beijing a unique degree of political advantage.
The scope of a crisis is, of course, not limited to the USA and China.
Potential curtailment of American debt purchases by the Chinese means that
other countries – probably Germany in the first instance – would be called
upon to prevent the global economy from spiralling into a parlous tailspin.
Environmental Politics 119
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
However, the magnitude of the required amount raises questions about
whether sufficient liquidity exists to mount an effective rescue, even if national
treasuries could be convinced of the necessity of doing so.
The financial circumstances surrounding recent patterns of immoderate
consumption in the USA could precipitate still more disconcerting futures if
the country is unable to resolve its deep and expanding structural deficits. More
than two decades ago, Kennedy (1987) famously inquired whether Washington
was in danger of ‘imperial overreach’ and this debate has assumed new
relevance as the USA once again is mired in protracted military conflicts,
contentious disputes with allies and accumulating debt (Bacevich 2002,
Calhoun et al. 2006, Jackson 2007). While there are few historical examples
of ‘debtor empires,’ there is growing agreement that the USA will be forced to
surrender in coming years some measure of its national sovereignty (Ferguson
2005, Maier 2006, Morgan 2008, Zakaria 2008). This situation has inspired
some observers to lapse into schadenfreude, but the country’s trading partners
have played accessory roles by allowing themselves to become subject to what
Mead (2004) describes as American ‘sticky power.’ This concept usefully
captures a tacit objective of Washington’s foreign policy and approaches from
a sideways direction the customary Manichaean distinction between ‘hard’ and
‘soft’ power. For more than a generation, the USA has supplemented its
military prowess and cultural appeal by enticing other nations into dependent
relationships predicated upon alluring access to the American consumer
market. In exchange for acquiescence on a wide range of political fronts, the
USA provides its closest allies with an expedient way to export surplus
production. This situation is starkly apparent with respect to more than a
dozen countries, including those listed in Table 3. It is in fulfilment of this role
that the USA has enlisted its consumers to function as the ‘engine of the global
economy.’ While this strategy has been relatively successful in creating
Table 3. US merchandise trade deficit by major partner country, 2008.
Merchandise trade deficit
(in billions of current dollars)
China 270.3
Canada 112.4
Mexico 84.8
Japan 77.6
Germany 45.6
Malaysia 19.1
France 16.6
Thailand 15.1
Korea 13.6
Taiwan 12.6
Israel 12.0
Major oil-exporting countries are excluded. Source: US International Trade Commission (http://
120 M.J. Cohen
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
enduring alliances, its perpetuation entails the movement and consumption of
massive resource throughputs, the unprecedented degradation of environ-
ments, and the maintenance of a huge marketing artifice. Reversing this
situation will likely require a lengthy period of parsimony by American
consumers and discipline by those countries that have become reliant on the
USA as a safety valve to ensure their own political and economic stability.
Though the concept of sustainable consumption has begun to achieve political
prominence, actual demand-side interventions have to date centred on
relatively modest measures like enhanced product information and consumer
education. Campaigns by advocacy organisations have focused on similarly
straightforward efforts to encourage various forms of ethical shopping and
green consumerism. All of these initiatives deserve encouragement under the
large tent of sustainable consumption, but such strategies are not scaled to the
size of the challenge. The ongoing contraction of the global economy starkly
exposes the underlying structure of current modes of consumption and
production, namely that American primacy rests in important ways on
resolving the problem of how to dispose of surplus production. By impelling
the country’s populace to serve as a civilian army of consumers in exchange for
the obeisance of its trading partners, the USA has provided a practicable way
out of this dilemma. We are, however, now seeing that this strategy comes with
exceptionally high social and environmental costs.
A more implicit proposition that emerges from this discussion is that the
USA (or any other country) is not immutably prone to consumerism. As de
Grazia (2006) and other historians have convincingly demonstrated, consumer
societies are constructed manifestations of specific interests. This view leads to
the observation that policy initiatives to improve technical standards and to
raise consumer consciousness are unlikely to yield much improvement in the
absence of parallel efforts to bring production capacities into line with
legitimate consumer needs. Recent calls for ‘radical systems innovation’
represent a partial step in this direction, but attending largely to the socio-
technical dimensions of provisioning underplays the more expansive political
economy that frames the challenge. When the day arrives, as it surely must, to
renegotiate the terms of the global economic order, it will be necessary to
design more efficacious systems of consumption that do not rely on rampant
consumerism to ameliorate the quandaries created by the ineffectual
organisation of production.
1. Data on household savings for other OECD countries were not available in
comparable form.
2. The following discussion draws heavily on the report by Guidolin and La Jeunesse
Environmental Politics 121
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
3. Some of this disparity may be attributable to variability in how governments report
savings rates. Comparative analysis is also complicated because nations differ in the
way pensions are funded and programmes are designed to provide insurance against
illness and unemployment.
4. The OECD data set does not include Belgium, Mexico and Turkey.
5. The Obama administration has announced ambitious intentions to cut the
budget deficit by 50% by 2013, but prevailing economic conditions and inevitable
political resistance to any tax increases will make this target very difficult to achieve.
6. Speculation currently abounds on the extent to which China’s economic
stimulus programme, announced in November 2008 and amounting to nearly
$600 billion, will divert surplus funds otherwise earmarked to purchase American
treasury bonds.
Bacevich, A., 2002. American empire: the realities and consequences of U.S. diplomacy.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Barry, J., 2007. Towards a model of green political economy: from ecological
modernization to economic security. International Journal of Green Economics,1
(3–4), 446–464.
Bernanke, B., 2005. The global saving glut and the U.S. current account deficit: remarks at
the Sandridge lecture [online]. Richmond, VA, Virginia Association of Economics.
Available from:
[Accessed 26 November 2007].
Bonner, W. and Wiggin, A., 2006. Empire of debt: the rise of an epic financial crisis. New
York: Wiley.
Brower, M. and Leon, W., 1999. The consumer’s guide to effective environmental choices:
practical advice from the union of concerned scientists. New York: Three Rivers
Calhoun, C., Cooper, F., and Moore, K., eds., 2006. Lessons of empire: imperial
histories and American power. New York: New Press.
Cohen, M., 2006a. Sustainable consumption research as democratic expertise. Journal of
Consumer Policy, 29 (1), 67–77.
Cohen, M., 2006b. Consumer credit, household financial management, and sustainable
consumption. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 31 (1), 57–65.
Cohen, M. and Murphy, J., eds., 2001. Exploring sustainable consumption: environ-
mental policy and the social sciences. Oxford: Elsevier.
Commission of the European Communities (CEC), 2008. Communication from the
Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and
Social Committee, and the Committee of the Regions on the Sustainable Consumption
and Production and Sustainable Industrial Policy Action Plan [online]. Brussels,
Commission of the European Communities. Available from:
environment/eussd/pdf/com_2008_397.pdf [Accessed 19 September 2008].
de Grazia, V., 2006. Irresistible empire: America’s advance through twentieth-century
Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
de Serres, A. and Pelgrin, F., 2003. The decline in private savings rates in the 1990s in
OECD countries: how much can be explained by non-wealth determinants. OECD
Economic Studies [online]. No. 36. Available from:
22/15/33638821.pdf [Accessed 12 December 2007].
Durning, A., 1992. How much is enough? The consumer society and the future of the
earth. New York: Norton.
Elgin, D., 1993. Voluntary simplicity: towards a way of life that is outwardly simple and
inwardly rich. New York: William Morrow.
122 M.J. Cohen
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
Elzen, B., Geels, F., and Green, K., eds., 2004. System innovation and the transition to
sustainability: theory, evidence, and policy. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.
ENDS Europe Report, 2008. Product sustainability plan ‘lacks direction’ [online].
Available from: [Accessed 19 September 2008].
European Environment Agency (EEA), 2005. Household consumption and the
environment [online]. Copenhagen, EEA. Available from: http://www.eea.europa.
eu/publications/eea_report_2005_11 [Accessed 19 September 2008].
Ferguson, N., 2005. Colossus: the rise and fall of the American empire. New York:
Ferguson, N., 2008. The ascent of money: a financial history of the world. New York:
Finnish Ministry of the Environment, 2005. Getting more for less: proposals for Finland’s
national programme to promote sustainable consumption and production [online].
Helsinki, Finnish Ministry of the Environment. Available from: http://www.¼47329 [Accessed 25 November 2007].
Fuchs, D. and Lorek, S., 2005. Sustainable consumption governance: a history of
promises and failures. Journal of Consumer Policy, 28 (3), 261–288.
German Federal Environment Agency, 2007. Sustainable consumption: securing
the future [online]. Berlin, German Federal Environment Agency. Available
[Accessed 25 November 2007].
Gokhale, J. and Smetters, K., 2002. Fiscal and generational imbalances: new budget
measures for new budget priorities. Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Policy
Discussion Paper [online]. Available from:
y2003idecn5.html [Accessed 15 January 2008].
Guidolin, M. and La Jeunesse, E., 2007. The decline in the U.S. personal savings rate: is
it real and is it a puzzle? Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, November/
December [online]. Available from:
review/07/11/Guidolin.pdf [Accessed 15 January 2008].
Hardner, J. and Rice, R., 2002. Rethinking green consumerism. Scientific American, 286
(5), 88–92.
Hargreaves, T., Nye, M., and Burgess, J., 2008. Social experiments in sustainable
consumption: an evidence-based approach with potential for engaging low-income
communities. Local Environment, 13 (8), 743–758.
Hawken, P., Lovins, A., and Lovins, H., 1999. Natural capitalism: creating the next
industrial revolution. Boston, MA: Little Brown.
Herring, H. and Roy, R., 2002. Sustainable services, electronic education and the
rebound effect. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 22 (5), 525–242.
Hertwich, E., 2005. Life cycle approaches to sustainable consumption: a critical review.
Environmental Science and Technology, 39 (13), 4673–4684.
Hinterberger, F. and Schmidt-Bleek, F., 1999. Dematerialization, MIPS, and factor
10 physical sustainability indicators as a social device. Ecological Economics, 29 (1),
Hobson, K., 2002. Competing discourses of sustainable consumption: does the
‘rationalisation of lifestyles’ make sense? Environmental Politics, 11 (2), 95–120.
Hobson, K., 2004. Sustainable consumption in the United Kingdom: the ‘responsible’
consumer and government at ‘arm’s length’. Journal of Environment and
Development, 13 (2), 121–139.
Hopkins, R. and Heinberg, R., 2008. The transition handbook: from oil dependency to
local resilience. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2007. Climate change 2007:
synthesis report [online]. Geneva, World Meteorological Association and United
Nations Environment Program. Available from:
ar4-syr.htm [Accessed 19 September 2008].
Environmental Politics 123
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
Jackson, I., 2007. The geopolitics of President George W. Bush’s foreign economic
policy. International Politics, 44 (5), 572–595.
Jackson, T., 2005. Live better by consuming less? Is there a ‘double dividend’ in
sustainable consumption? Journal of Industrial Ecology, 9 (1–2), 19–36.
Jackson, T., 2008. Where is the ‘wellbeing dividend’? Nature, structure, and
consumption inequalities. Local Environment, 13 (8), 703–723.
James, O., 2007. Affluenza. London: Vermillion.
Kennedy, P., 1987. The rise and fall of great nations. New York: Random House.
¨hler, J., 2006. Transport and the environment: the need for policy for long-term
radical change. IEE Proceedings: Intelligent Transport Systems, 153 (4), 292–301.
Krugman, P., 2003. The great unraveling: losing our way in the new century. New York:
Levine, J., 2007. Not buying it: my year without shopping. New York: Free Press.
Leyshon, A. and Thrift, N., 1993. The restructuring of the UK financial services
industry in the 1990s: a reversal of fortune? Journal of Rural Studies, 9 (3), 223–241.
Maier, C., 2006. Among empires: American ascendancy and its predecessors. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.
Marquis, M., 2002. What’s behind the low U.S. personal savings rate? FRBSF (Federal
Reserve Bank of San Francisco) Economic Letter, Number 2002–2009 [online].
Available from:
pdf [Accessed 15 January 2008].
McKibben, B., 2005. Changing the climate. American prospect, 18 September [online].
Available from:¼changing_the_climate
[Accessed 15 January 2008].
Mead, W., 2004. America’s sticky power. Foreign Policy, 141 (March), 46–53.
Morgan, I., 2008. The indebted empire: America’s current-account deficit problem.
International Politics, 45 (1), 92–112.
¨hleisen, M. and Towe, C., eds., 2004. U.S. fiscal policies and priorities for long-run
sustainability [online]. Washington, DC, International Monetary Fund. Available
from: [Accessed 12 December 2007].
New Economics Foundation (NEF), 2006. The Happy Planet Index: an index of human
well-being and environmental impact [online]. London, NEF. Available from: http:// [Accessed 16 May 2009].
New Economics Foundation (NEF), 2008. A green new deal [online]. London, NEF.
Available from:
pid¼258 [Accessed 16 May 2009].
Nordic Council of Ministers, 1995. Sustainable patterns of consumption and production.
Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers.
Offer, A., 2007. The challenge of affluence: self-control and well-being in the United States
and Britain since 1950. New York: Oxford University Press.
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 1997. Sustainable
consumption and production: clarifying the concepts. Paris: OECD.
O’Rourke, D., 2005. Market movements: nongovernmental organization strategies to
influence global production and consumption. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 9 (1–2),
Paavola, J., 2001. Towards sustainable consumption: economics and ethical concerns
for the environment in consumer choices. Review of Social Economy, 59 (2),
Pedersen, E. and Neergaard, P., 2006. Caveat emptor: let the buyer beware!
Environmental labeling and the limitations of ‘green’ consumerism. Business
Strategy and the Environment, 15 (1), 15–29.
Perrels, A., 2008. Wavering between radical and realistic sustainable consumption
policies: in search for the best feasible trajectories. Journal of Cleaner Production,
16 (11), 1203–1217.
124 M.J. Cohen
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
Princen, T., Maniates, M., and Conca, K., eds., 2002. Confronting consumption.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Quitzau, M. and Røpke, I., 2008. The construction of normal expectations: con-
sumption drivers of the Danish bathroom boom. Journal of Industrial Ecology,12
(2), 186–206.
Redclift, M., 1996. Wasted: counting the costs of global consumption. London:
Rohracher, H., 2001. Managing the technological transition to sustainable construction
of buildings: a socio-technical perspective. Technology Analysis and Strategic
Management, 13 (1), 147–150.
Royal Society of London and the United States National Academies of Science (US
NAS), 1997. Towards sustainable consumption [online]. London, The Royal Society.
Available from:¼11518 [Accessed 26
November 2007].
Schor, J., 1998. The overspent American: why we want what we don’t need. New York:
Basic Books.
Schrader, U., 2007. The moral responsibility of consumers as citizens. International
Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, 2 (1), 79–96.
Setser, B. and Roubini, N., 2005. How scary is the deficit? American power and
American borrowing. Foreign Affairs, 84 (4), 194–200.
Seyfang, G., 2004. Consuming values and contested cultures: a critical analysis of the
UK strategy for sustainable consumption and production. Review of Social
Economy, 62 (3), 323–338.
Seyfang, G., 2006. Ecological citizenship and sustainable consumption: examining local
organic food networks. Journal of Rural Studies, 22 (4), 383–395.
Sinclair, P., et al., 2005. Towards an integrated regional materials flow accounting
model. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 9 (1–2), 69–84.
Spaargaren, G., 2003. Sustainable consumption: a theoretical and environmental policy
perspective. Society and Natural Resources, 16 (8), 687–701.
Spangenberg, J., 2004. A great step further but still more to go. Environment, 46 (8),
Stern, N., 2007. The economics of climate change: the Stern Review. New York:
Cambridge University Press.
Stern, P. et al., eds., 1997. Environmentally significant consumption: research directions.
Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Stiglitz, J. and Bilmes, L., 2008. The three trillion dollar war: the true cost of the Iraq
conflict. New York: Norton.
Sullivan, A. and Worden, D., 1989. Deregulation, tax reform, and the use of consumer
credit. Journal of Financial Services Research, 3 (1), 77–91.
Summers, L., 2004. American overdrawn. Foreign Policy, 143 (July/August), 46–49.
Thøgerson, J. and O
¨lander, F., 2002. Human values and the emergence of a sustainable
consumption pattern: a panel study. Journal of Economic Psychology, 23 (5),
Thomas, V. and Graedel, T., 2003. Research issues in sustainable consumption: toward
an analytical framework for materials and the environment. Environmental Science
and Technology, 37 (23), 5383–5388.
Thompson, H., 2007. Debt and power: the United States’ debt in historical perspective.
International Relations, 21 (3), 305–323.
Tukker, A., et al., 2008. System innovation for sustainability: perspectives on radical
changes to sustainable consumption and production. Sheffield: Greenleaf.
UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), 2003. Changing
patterns: UK government framework for sustainable consumption and production
[online]. London: DEFRA [online]. Available from:
environment/business/scp/pdf/changing-patterns.pdf [Accessed 12 May 2008].
Environmental Politics 125
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), 2005. Securing
the future: the UK sustainable development strategy [online]. London, HMSO.
Available from:
strategy [Accessed 12 May 2008].
UK Sustainable Consumption Roundtable (SCR), 2006. I will if you will: towards
sustainable consumption [online]. London, UK Sustainable Development Commis-
sion and National Consumer Council. Available from: [Accessed 16 May 2009].
UK Sustainable Development Commission (UK SDC), 2009. Prosperity without growth:
the transition to a sustainable economy [online]. London, UK Sustainable
Development Commission. Available from:
publications.php?id¼914 [Accessed 25 November 2007].
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), 1992. Agenda
21 [online]. New York, United Nations. Available from:
Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?documentID¼52 [Accessed 25 November
United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), 2001. Sustainable consumption
opportunities: strategies for change [online]. Geneva, UNEP. Available from: [Accessed 25 November
van den Bergh, J., 2008. Environmental regulation of households: an empirical review of
economic and psychological factors. Ecological Economics, 66 (4), 559–574.
von Weizsa
¨cker, E., Lovins, A., and Lovins, L., 1997. Factor four: doubling wealth,
halving resource use: the new report to the Club of Rome. London: Earthscan.
Warren, E. and Warren Tyagi, A., 2003. The two income trap: why middle-class mothers
and fathers are going broke. New York: Basic Books.
White, D., 2002. A green industrial revolution: sustainable technological innovation in
the global age. Environmental Politics, 11 (2), 1–26.
Zakaria, F., 2008. The post-American world. New York: Norton.
126 M.J. Cohen
Downloaded By: [Cohen, Maurie] At: 18:03 9 February 2010
... Sürdürülebilir küçülme kavramı içerisinde refahın tamamen tüketime bağlı olmadığı yeni bir ekonomik model geliştirilmiştir. Bu ekonomik model, bireysel tüketim eylemlerinin yerine kolektif eylemlere ve ihtiyati kararlara dayalı yeni bir sistemin inşasını önermektedir (Cohen, 2010;Ehrenfeld, 2010 (UNEP, 2011;Cohen, 2010). ...
... Sürdürülebilir küçülme kavramı içerisinde refahın tamamen tüketime bağlı olmadığı yeni bir ekonomik model geliştirilmiştir. Bu ekonomik model, bireysel tüketim eylemlerinin yerine kolektif eylemlere ve ihtiyati kararlara dayalı yeni bir sistemin inşasını önermektedir (Cohen, 2010;Ehrenfeld, 2010 (UNEP, 2011;Cohen, 2010). ...
Full-text available
Bu araştırmada, hane halklarının sürdürülebilir tüketim davranışlarını bütünlüklü bir yaklaşımla ele alan, kavramın kuramsal temelini ve teorik alt yapısını kapsayan ve geçerlilik ve güvenilirlik kriterlerini sağlayan bir ölçek geliştirilmesi amaçlanmıştır. Böylelikle literatürdeki önemli bir boşluğun doldurulması hedeflenmiştir. Araştırma dört bölümden oluşmaktadır. İlk üç bölümde araştırmanın kuramsal ve teorik alt yapısına; son bölümde ise ampirik araştırma bulgularına yer verilmiştir. Dünyada sürdürülebilir olmayan tüketimin en fazla gelişmiş ülkelerde, özellikle de ABD’de olması nedeniyle araştırmanın ana kütlesini ABD’de yaşayan hane halkları oluşturmaktadır. Araştırma süreci, madde havuzunun oluşturulması, ölçeğin yapılandırılması ve ölçeğin değerlendirilmesi şeklinde üç aşamada ele alınmıştır. Araştırma sonucunda “Hane Halklarının Sürdürülebilir Tüketim Davranışları Ölçeği” adı verilen, beş alt boyut ve 27 maddeden oluşan bir ölçek geliştirilmiştir.
... Ecological-modernization scholars propose that efficiency improvement is an effective tool for curbing resource consumption and the associated environmental impacts (see Buttel, 2009;Mol et al., 2009;Olsen, 1985;Starr et al., 1992). Political-economy and structural human-ecology researchers are more skeptical about the benefits of efficiency improvement, indicating that socioeconomic relationships and conditions influence the specific outcomes associated with enhancing resource efficiency (see Adua, 2010;Adua et al., 2016;Cohen, 2010;Foster et al., 2010;Polimeni et al., 2008). Despite long-standing multidisciplinary interest in this subject, the empirical evidence produced so far remains inconclusive. ...
... Political-economy scholars question the extent to which economic development actually reduces resource consumption, a significant driver of environmental degradation (Cohen, 2010;Foster et al., 2010;Schnaiberg, 1980;Schor, 2005). They readily acknowledge that technological innovations and improvements in efficiency have been important parts of modern economic development. ...
This study scrutinizes the impacts of efficiency innovations as well as affluence on residential energy consumption, which is a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions. The study draws on the ecological-modernization perspective, which is optimistic about how technological innovations and affluence can help societies overcome environmental challenges associated with production and consumption, and the political-economy perspective, which raises doubts about whether these factors are beneficial to the environment, given their tendency to drive more consumption. Analysis of nationally representative longitudinal data reveals mixed relationships between efficiency innovations and residential energy consumption: while some measures of efficiency innovations, generally those not requiring human-technology interactions, are negatively related to residential energy consumption, others are either unrelated to it or drive more consumption. These findings suggest efficiency innovations offer only minimal opportunities for conserving energy, and may depend on the nature of the innovation. Raising doubts about the potential for rising affluence to promote environmental protection, this study reveals positive relationships between our measures of affluence and residential energy consumption.
... In this context, to reconcile diverse interests, it is relevant to consider the relations between governments and the other actors involved in the process. Because the changes implemented may affect the economy and society (Cohen, 2005(Cohen, , 2010Tukker et al., 2008a). All official documents associated with sustainable development is addressing the question of the inter-sectorial as a critical factor of promoting sustainable consumption. ...
... The emergence of the term sustainable consumption occurred during the Earth Summit of 1992 [1]. The research into sustainable consumption topics developed within the wider context of sustainability transitions, a research field that has evolved in the last 20-25 years [2]. ...
Full-text available
The academic literature on consumer engagement and sustainable consumption has developed gradually over the last two decades. The body of knowledge related to the role of food and non-food retailers in this context, however, is only beginning to develop. The purpose of this systematic review is to analyse the existing literature on how retailers fulfil their role in engaging consumers in sustainable consumption. The need for a study with this purpose is proven by the fact that academic literature lacks a systematic review on this topic, despite the ascending trend in the number of published articles in the field. This systematic review is based on a five-step process to ensure quality, replicability, transparency, and reliable conclusions. The reviewed articles were published relatively recently in academic journals from different domains. This review identified seven distinct types of retail marketing interventions (involvement of retailers in marketing actions with the aim to engage consumers in sustainable consumption), 30 types of retail marketing mechanisms (consisting in marketing strategies, techniques, tools, and channels used by retailers), and 14 distinct types of consumer engagement in sustainable consumption patterns. The review suggests an agenda for further research and identifies practical implications for retail management.
... In this context, to reconcile diverse interests, it is relevant to consider the relations between governments and the other actors involved in the process. Because the changes implemented may affect the economy and society (Cohen, 2005(Cohen, , 2010Tukker et al., 2008a). All official documents associated with sustainable development is addressing the question of the inter-sectorial as a critical factor of promoting sustainable consumption. ...
... The definition highlights on minimizing consumption in order to reduce pollutions and waste as well as to protect the needs of the future generation. The term "sustainable consumption" can be traced back to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, since then it has become a crucial policy element in the development of strategies for sustainable development (Cohen, 2010;Jones et al., 2014). As noted by Seyfang (2006), sustainable consumption has become a core policy objective in the new millennium era. ...
Full-text available
Insatiable appetite for seafood has resulted in overfishing, depletion of fish stocks and damaged of our oceans globally. Malaysians are among the world's top seafood consumers and ranked as the sixth biggest consumer of seafood with an average consumption of 56.5 kg per capita. Despite consuming a large amount of seafood, Malaysian awareness towards sustainable seafood consumption is still low. This study contributes to the scare empirical literature on this subject by analyzing Generation Y's response towards sustainable seafood. More specifically, this study examines; (1) the level of sustainable seafood awareness, (2) seafood purchase behavior and (3) factors influencing sustainable seafood purchase. This study uses a self-administered survey. The survey was conducted on students in two undergraduate classes at a public university in Malaysia. The participation of this study is on voluntary basis. The results of this study revealed that the majority of the respondents are aware of sustainable seafood consumption. In terms of seafood purchase, among others Generation Y considers several issues such as price, seafood sustainability, source of seafood and fishing methods. This study also revealed that factors such as seafood labelling, knowledgeable staff, recognizable logos, availability of recipes and tips as well as more affordable green options could make it easier for consumer to practice sustainable seafood consumption. The findings are particularly useful for practitioners and policy makers planning for sustainable seafood management towards achieving the sustainable development agenda for food security
This chapter links the massive global environmental changes and socio-political consequences underway and mankind’s ensuing governance responses to the notion of responsibility. It discusses current scholarship on the Anthropocene and argues that ethical principles, such as responsibility, and their political institutionalization have hardly played a role in environmental governance. Instead, mankind has replied with mechanisms of control and the individualization of competencies regarding environmental problems. The chapter summarizes the potential dangers of these logics by drawing on Ulrich Beck’s notion of the ‘organization of irresponsibility’. Relevant actors seemingly act responsible in the face of environmental threats but misrecognize the harmful effects of structural dynamics. Consequently, structural effects are moved out of sight yet continue to multiply in the background of responsible actions. The chapter provides examples of these dynamics from different fields of environmental governance with an explicit focus on food and waste governance.KeywordsResponsibilityEnvironmental governanceOrganization of irresponsibilityAnthropoceneFoodWaste
Full-text available
The capability approach is an interdisciplinary conceptual framework, which can be used for a wide range of evaluation purposes. With the aim of operationalizing the approach to make it applicable, a human development perspective has been developed and pointed out by means of the efforts of the United Nations Development Program and the Human Development Reports published by this institution. In light of the current global ecological crisis, the relationship between economic growth and human development should be assess according to the capacity of a finite planet. Within a context of exponential increase in the number of global environmental problems, and after 25 years of discourse about sustainable development and human development, political practices associated with such discourse have not been able to produce the necessary political and social changes at both the individual and collective level in order to support sustainable ecosystems for the flourishing of life on Earth. In this dissertation, economic degrowth is analyzed as an alternative to formally address the issue of environmental sustainability. However, economic degrowth does not consider the theory of justice as an guiding analytical framework for its proposal, which the capability approach can provide by integrating both approaches. This thesis seeks to provide an original perspective in order to answer the general theoretical question about why the capability approach has to be integrated with the economic degrowth approach based on two specific questions: What particular redefinitions should the capability approach and the human development perspective include to make room for the proposal of economic degrowth? How could a degrowth society be judged from the point of view of the capability approach? Therefore, the general objective of this study is to review the relationship between the capability approach and the paradigm of economic degrowth using the specialized literature from 1990 to date. The hypothesis underlined in this dissertation is that the paradigm of economic degrowth has not been fully incorporated into the capability approach. In order to carry out this study, bibliographic documents are analyzed to examine the relationship between the capability approach, the categories of welfare and justice, and the paradigm of economic degrowth by making use of scientific literature from 1990 to the present. Based on the review of literature, it is suggested that it has not been possible to integrate the paradigm of economic degrowth with the capability approach so far. The reasons for the lack of integration between these perspectives were also identified, and they are principally the paradoxical and problematic relationship between the capability approach (as a development approach) and economic growth and the perception of many social, economic and political agents regarding the low political feasibility of the idea of economic degrowth. Moreover, it has been suggested that the capability approach may provide a framework to the proposal of sustainable economic degrowth in order to make it more politically viable, and in turn economic degrowth may give the idea of strong sustainability serious consideration, which helps to transcend the limits of anthropocentrism. A structural/relational interpretation of the capability approach has the necessary flexibility to include proposals like sustainable economic degrowth.
This chapter introduces the roles of lean Supply Chain Management (SCM) strategies and green SCM strategies in the global business environments, thus explaining the theoretical and practical concepts of SCM, lean SCM strategies, and green SCM strategies; the importance of lean and green SCM strategies; and the interfaces of lean and green SCM strategies in terms of implementing green and global supply chain strategies, implementing green and lean supply chain strategies, and implementing lean and global supply chain strategies. Lean supply chain and green supply chain strategies help firms to maximize the improvement of lean production in operations management. Applying lean SCM strategies and green SCM strategies in the global business environments will significantly enhance organizational performance and achieve business goals in digital age.
Full-text available
All in all, the report rightfully claims that the United Kingdom has made considerable progress toward sustainability. Having said that, SDC is just as right to point out the discrepancy between need and deed, and it is also justified in its criticism that the government has downplayed the immense (and partly still growing) size of future sustainability challenges, has lacked ambition and coherence, and is missing a set of teeth that would give sustainability plans a cutting edge in key policy areas. In its call for a more ambitious, vigorously implemented sustainability strategy-particularly regarding the prominence given to rethinking the central role of traditionally defined economic development for government politics-it touches upon one of the key obstacles for sustainable development. However, although SDC addresses the issue of resource productivity, it falls short of suggesting similarly comprehensive policies for satisfactory employment and income distribution. Similarly, where it has addressed sustainable consumption, it refers only to a part of the environmentally dominant consumption patterns. SDC's appraisal represents a major step forward, stressing the need to engage the whole of U.K. society. This is especially true of its policy recommendations. The commission rightfully urges to overcome the strategy of small, undemanding, incremental steps, which it recognizes as the strategic basis of the government's sustainability policy. Nonetheless, even SDC's suggestions do not comprehensively cover the essentials of sustainable development with detail and rigor, and some crucial sustainability demands are hardly touched upon at all. We must try still harder.
Full-text available
Perhaps the weakest aspect of the ‘triple bottom line’ understanding of sustainable development has been the ‘economic’ dimension. Much of the thinking about the appropriate ‘political economy’ to underpin sustainable development has been either utopian (as in some ‘green’ political views) or ‘business as usual’ approaches. This article suggests that ‘ecological modernisation’ is the dominant conceptualisation of ‘sustainable development’ within the UK, and illustrates this by looking at some key ‘sustainable development’ policy documents from the UK Government. While critical of the reformist ‘policy telos’ of ecological modernisation, supporters of more radical versions of sustainable development need to also be aware of the strategic opportunities of this policy discourse. In particular, the article suggests that the discourse of ‘economic security’ ought to be used as a way of articulating a radical, robust and principled understanding of sustainable development, which offers a normatively compelling and policy-relevant path to outlining a ‘green political economy’ to underpin sustainable development
This book concerns the rapid advance of consumerism in affluent countries, which has caused much environmental harm, yet has failed to provide a sense of fulfilment. An asssessment of consumption is presented, which includes the consumer society, the perceived rewards of consumption and its costs. Several trends that promote materialism are examined, such as the expansion of the advertising industry. In a section on searching for sufficiency the author examines food and drink, transport and the "throwaway society'. The message that runs through the text is that we should reject excess and live within our means, and this will result in true happiness. -C.Lloyd
Taking the 1992 Rio Summit as its point of departure, this book examines what we now need to know, and what we need to do, to live within sustainable limits. One of the key issues is how we use the environment: converting natural resources into human artifices, commodities and services. In the process of consuming, we also create sinks. Today, these sinks - the empty back pocket in the global biogeographical system - are no longer empty. The fate of the global environment is indissolubly linked to our consumption: particularly in the energy-profligate North. To understand and overcome environmental challenges, we need to build the outcomes of our present consumption rates into our future behaviour: to accept sustainable development as a normative goal for societies; one that is bound up with our everyday social practices and actions. The way we understand and think about the environment conditions our responses, and our ability to meet the challenge, and discusses tangible policies for increased sustainability that are grounded in recent research and practice.
Confronting Consumption places consumption at the center of debate by conceptualizing "the consumption problem" and documenting diverse efforts to confront it. In part 1, the book frames consumption as a problem of political and ecological economy,. emphasizing core concepts of individualization and commoditization. Part 2 develops the idea of distancing and examines transnational chains of consumption in the context of economic globalization. Part 3 describes citizen action through local currencies, home power, voluntary simplicity, "ad-busting", and product certification. Together, the chapters propose "cautious consuming" and "better producing" as an activist policy response to environmental problems. The book concludes that confronting consumption must become a driving force of contemporary environmental scholarship and activism. ***Winner of the International Studies Association's Harold and Margaret Sprout Award for best book on international environmental affairs