Sustainable Consumption in Style

I read in the most recent issue of New Yorker about this fellow Peter Adeney who lives a happy life of extreme frugality and small carbon footprint. His point is that this is not deprivation but rather liberation (he retired at age 30). Great idea. But here is my question:

Why is it that people who are zealously reducing their carbon footprint inevitably dress in checkered flannel shirts and hiking boots, live in rural areas, grow their own food, and do their own carpentry?

Can we have zealots of sustainable consumption who wear well-tailored high quality clothes (which last for decades), shave their legs (that one is for women), get stylish haircuts, and enjoy schmoozing in cafes of large cities instead of fixing their own backed-up plumbing? I bet this latter model has a potential to create large following, including me, if we could only shake up the stereotypes.

There are other advantages of urbane sustainable consumption: it reduces car dependency; and it contributes to a steady state economy by not eliminating employment for the local handyman, hair stylist, and boutique clothes maker (it is impossible to buy mass produced clothing of high quality).

7 thoughts on “Sustainable Consumption in Style”

  1. Thank you Halina! Your bet that a stylish model for this field “has a potential to create large following…if we could only shake up the stereotypes” is exactly the bet that Postconsumers is making (with over $100,000 so far). The key to targeting the mainstream, besides funding for marketing, seems to be letting go of criteria or purity and spreading what we call The Satisfaction of Enough *however* each person defines enough (and however each person defines style).

    1. Dear Scott,

      Thanks for your comment!

      Are people like Lauren Singer somewhere connected in a bigger network?

      If so, what role can SCORAI play in there?



  2. I have admiration for each person who is searching for or exemplifying low ecological demand lifestyle. Halina asks why ‘back to the land’ is the common narrative. I ask in return, is it really? In a series of studies interviewing intentional low consumption lifestyle people, there was no screening intention for rurality/urbanity, yet the strong majority were in city boundaries. Not generally high density urban living, because of the evolutionary patterns of or locale, they nonetheless were beneficiaries of the benefits of urban offerings. We did occasionally interview ruralites. Our system of examination included a set of honed questions eliciting an ‘ecological footprint’ for each individual. The goal wasn’t specific to compare urban and rural footprints but rather the commonality of values or influences which motivated low consumption choices of behaviors.

    Other researchers or social commentators have offered widely different findings (or opinions?) about the relative ecological impact of urban an rural choices. Halina implies that rural life assumes more travel by necessity, although this isn’t born out in our own findings – it varies. Much of the examination of ‘footprint’ does not compute or include the urban shared infrastructure necessary for contemporary patterns of shared public services urban living – imported water with long distant capture containments, mains and distributions; roads with storm drains, street lights running all night even when no one is there to need them; shared public spaces; etc; and the myriad of quasi-public activities which comprise many of the joys of urban living. All of these things have ‘footprint’ implications which are often overlooked and which the de-consumerist ruralite may (although not necessarily) avoid.

    This isn’t an argument for ruralism as a solution to ecological collapse. De-consumerist ruralites commonly foray to the pleasures of the city for social conviviality and services; depending on frequency and method often forfeit their footprint advantage by exploiting ‘the best of both worlds’ while making the suburbanites in-between miserable with imposed highways and traffic. Moreover, a back of the envelope calculation of redistributing urban density across the landscape will reveal a conflict with already tenuous biodiversity at the human – natural world interface.

    My main point here, it seems far more important to ask the right questions about what sustainability really means and ask fine grained questions about the myriad layering of behaviors. Whether urban or rural, second hand purchasing is certainly one valuable lifestyle choice although it is perhaps even more important to ask how much is enough. It probably isn’t enough to buy a 2nd hand home, it may be more important to ask how big it must be, how energy intensive it is, and what kinds of maintenance it requires.

    We’ve found people who feel very righteous about their impact because they religiously recycle while completely overlook the four cross country trips they flew on an airplane (and innumerable variations thereof) – and these people are both rural and urban dwellers. I observe that it is the comprehensiveness of the individual’s awareness about consumption which really counts.

  3. Halina poses a question: “Can we have zealots of sustainable consumption who wear well-tailored high quality clothes (which last for decades), shave their legs (that one is for women), get stylish haircuts, and enjoy schmoozing in cafes of large cities instead of fixing their own backed-up plumbing?” Most people would like the answer to be “yes!”, but this possibility is by no means a given.

    To illustrate our conundrum, let’s put Halina’s question in the context of ecological footprint analysis. (Your ‘ecological footprint’ is the physical area of productive ecosystems required to produce the bio-resources that you consume and to and assimilate just your carbon wastes.)

    The average North American depends on about 7 hectares of average productive ecosystems to ‘sustain’ his/her lifestyle–that’s about 17 acres (BTW, who’s taking care of ‘your’ 17 acres?). However, there are only about 1.7 hectares (4 acres) per person of productive ecosystems on the entire planet. Clearly we wealthy consumers are ‘appropriating’ much more than our fair share of global life support through our purchases. In fact, the global average human eco-footprint is around 2.6 hectares and the 50% ‘overshoot’ implied by these numbers is the driver of–and a nearly sufficient explanation for–today’s gross pollution, land degradation, climate change, biodiversity loss (etc., etc.).

    Several things spring immediately from this analysis. Here are just five:

    1) Consider the dramatic global inequity conferred by money wealth. Rich consumers indirectly purchase a grossly inflated share of the ecosphere through the global marketplace — 7 hectares worth, half of which is their per capita carbon footprint. The poorest people survive on the productive and assimilative capacities of as little as half or 1/3 hectare (less than an acre).

    2) The eco-footprints of typical high-income cities are hundreds of times larger than their political or built-up areas. Cut off from their ecological hinterlands, cities would simultaneously starve and suffocate. Questions: Are Halina’s “large cities” biophysically sustainable and, if not, what is the appropriate scale and spatial design for an ecologically sustainable city?

    3) We can can set down a rough biophysical standard that must be met by Halina’s fashionbable ‘zealots of sustainable consumption’ if they can legitimately lay claim to living sustainable lifestyles. ‘One Earth Living’ would require an eco-footprint of only 1.7 average hectares per capita. Hence, for equitable sustainability on this single finite planet, one could enjoy “well-tailored high quality clothes (which last for decades), shave [one’s] legs (that one is for women), get stylish haircuts, and enjoy schmoozing in cafes” if and only if the material and energy flows needed to support this things required the productivity of only 1.7 hectares (4 acres).

    4) It follows that to become Halina’s fashionably sustainable consumers, average North Americans would have to employ technologies and adopt lifestyles that would enable them to live on only 24% of the energy and material required to support their present lifestyles. To put it another way, we will have to reduce our per capita ecological footprints (i.e., material consumption) by about 76% to achieve Halina’s ideal of ‘fashionable sustainability’.

    5) We have a lot of work to do.

  4. Bravo Bill Reese for adding in the metrics, taking my prior point into tangible measurements. A couple of extensions then:

    1. The role of income levels is a very worthy topic because every dollar earned is almost always a dollar spend, and almost all dollars spent have some ecological footprint implication. So how do we address our society, where most every union and individual scrabbles for increasing income well an order of magnitude or more above a semblance of sustainability? My group has tested sorter work weeks and half-FTE’s, which in principle are warmly received until it comes to the topic of commensurate reduction of income. We see exceptions but they are outliers. Income, even though subject to classic social desirability bias, appears to become an end in itself. And the accounting of ‘ecological footprint’ models are very deficient about large block of income expenditure revolving around investments, retirement accounts, charitable giving and other missing variables in footprint calculations. I observe that while different spending has different levels of impact, the distinctions are modest compared to not spending at all; furthermore any earning necessarily results in spending, even if it is parked in a bank.

    2. To my mind, 76% reduction is achievable. But remember this is “average American” baseline – say about $50K, an average which is pulled up by the very wealthy. My sense is that the 76% reduction from the “average” lacks desirable nuance, that it may be more meaningful to put it at individual level “limits” uniformly shared. One challenge here is discerning the social justice not only within the industrialized national societies but every world citizen equability. This means taking on American entitlements.

    Comprehensively it is indeed “a super wicked problem”. So while I also agree with the utility of Bill’s metrics, I suspect they understate the breadth of reduction required of the higher income entitled income recipients.

    What do you think, Bill, is it possible, or is it hopeless?

    Tom Bowerman

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