Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Conscious Consumption and Sustainable Development

  • Kathleen KevanyEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_269-1


Consciousness Consumption Climate change Reflection Values education Reduction 


To consume consciously is a process of deliberation to purposefully and thoughtfully consume what is beneficial and necessary and not consume unconsciously things that are unhelpful or harmful. Conscious consumption also is a philosophy and growing social movement that encourages citizens to become aware of the impact of their consumption practices on their own health and well-being and to consider the social, economic, environmental, and communal implications. This movement pays attention to the effects of media and advertising on citizen-consumer behavior. Conscious consumption may form part of government strategies used to promote ways to address the growing crises of climate change and noncommunicable diseases.

Sustainability requires a focus on principles of equity, inclusion, and distribution and the long-term state of the environment (Hopwood et al. 2015). Sustaining species and ecosystems must be done in ways that allow them to go on renewing themselves indefinitely (IUCN 1980; Anand and Sen 2000). Development involves improving the state of one’s quality of living, learning, and ways of interacting with individuals and systems. Higher levels of development have co-related with higher levels of consumption of environmental, social, natural, and economic capital.


Consumerism is a philosophy and practice that suggests it is valuable and good to consume. The justifications may be political, social, and personal. These may include consuming for necessity, for pleasure, as one has “earned the right” or to show support for a brand or business one supports, as examples. Consumerism may challenge citizen-consumers to satisfy competing ideologies of individual self-interest juxtaposed with collective responsibilities for shared economic, political, social, and ecological benefit (Johnston 2008). Consuming also has been used as a political act to propel the economy, as a way to be a good citizen and overcome economic depressions. The United Nations too promotes the importance of developing market systems for the production and consumption of goods. A former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan said the developed world should view sustainable development as an opportunity, not a disaster. “Far from being a burden, sustainable development is an exceptional opportunity – economically, to build markets and create jobs; socially, to bring people in from the margins; and politically, to give every man and woman a voice, and a choice, in deciding their own future” (2002). Some of the discourse on the roles of “citizen-consumer” implies political, economic, and social power consumers wield through “voting with your dollar” (Johnston 2008). Consumption, in itself, may not raise concerns; issues arise when eco-systems are being threatened and social stability is being undermined. Additional planets – equivalent to two Earths by 2030 – have been calculated as required to sustain the present growth and consumption patterns of humanity (WWF 2016). Such levels of unconscious consumption are unsustainable and unconscionable as the more privileged disproportionately consume the Earth’s resources and contaminate its eco-systems. When over-consumption or over-indulgence is contrasted with widespread deprivation this reveals structural violence (Galtung 1969). Even while referencing writing from nearly fifty years ago, the integrity and gravity of the messages still hold sway today.

Drivers of Unconscious Consumption

Human practices of seeking fulfillment and pleasure in material things and relying on validation and affirmation from others to feel worthy or significant drive much of the patterns of consumption. When people seek significance outside and individually struggle this generates a pattern of being unfulfilled. Wren-Lewis called this, “a collective nightmare of separate individuals struggling in an alien universe for survival, satisfaction, significance” (Wren-Lewis n.d., p. 3). Fox cites Eckhardt’s explanation of the contrast between compulsive and compassionate value systems. “Concerning consciousness, Eckhardt maintains that compulsive personalities and societies will consider it their vocation to remain uncritical and to make the conscious unconscious, especially as regards inequality in the world” (Fox 1994, p. 33). As well, pervasive notions of competition and self-aggrandizement can drive a disdain for self-regulation and control and fuel instead the drive to consume as much as desired. Such drives can become insatiable. Yet some have grown up with the philosophy to fix things, and to take care of one’s possessions and not to waste. Others have resented these requirements. One young presenter at a recent conference said, “I wanted just once to be wasteful. Waste meant affluence. Because I believed that throwing things away meant there’d always be more” (personal communication). Not surprisingly, beliefs like success and affluence are things to strive after and wasting freely become drivers and measures of success. Operating beliefs that ‘consuming offers deep satisfaction’ and ‘competition is good and necessary’ enable people to pursue self-interests over addressing the needs of others. This allure of consumption encourages people to allocate precious resources not to demonstrate compassion but for personal pleasure and prestige. To prop up a façade of fullness, individuals are tempted to place themselves above others, to outspend, out decorate, out entertain, and out succeed people in their lives. People can greedily indulge in every form of outward show, like in wealth, power, and possessions yet remain inwardly poor (Fox 1979, 1994). “When our hearts are empty, we collect things. If we can afford it, we surround ourselves with objects that we consider beautiful, and we attach enormous importance to them. Yet the objects are a distraction and our questing them creates distress for us and our ‘must have’ mentality contributes to misery and destruction experienced by others” (Krishnamurti 1953, p. 122). Greed it seems, leads to competition and not to compassion. “Greed is right. Greed works. The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good” (Gekko 1987).

Advertising helps consumers to focus on achieving pleasure for one self and to share pleasures with a select few. “Ads create a gnawing dissatisfaction with what one already possesses or is and in our guts, hearts, minds and souls, this gnawing dissatisfaction grows… Advertisements effectively “convince us that we are not yet what we should be because we do not yet have what we ought to have” (Fox 1979, p. 208). When engaged in on a mass scale for the sake of mass ‘education’ and mass profits, alluring advertising serves to divert willingness to show compassion (Wals 2014; Krishnamurti 1953). With billions of dollars spent annually, who can deny that selling is one of the biggest industries? For example, the average high school seniors – the 17 years old – have seen over 450,000 commercials on American television. In the year 1948, American companies spent $4.87 billion on advertising, while in 1976, they spent $33.42 billion. Ad expenditure worldwide is expected to exceed 591 billion US dollars and possibly grow to 724.1 billion by 2020. In 2016, the largest market for advertising dollars was the United States with 190.8 billion US dollars in ad spending, followed by China and Japan (Statista 2017).

Previous field studies also revealed some of the social forces drive greater consumption and pleasure seeking while necessarily reducing caring for others and the environment. “We face too much competition, and enjoy too little satisfaction. We have to work longer hours, work harder, work cheaper; this all add more pressure, more hours and less time to give back in time and in dollars. These all add tremendous strain to our lives” (Kevany 2002). Ubiquitous calls to consume breed unrelenting materialism and consumerism that are fraught with emptiness, loneliness, and anxiety (Wallis 1994; Table 1).
Table 1

Forces driving unconscious consumption

External forces at work

Internalization by individuals

Compelling consumerism

Desire to have more, consume more

Aggressive competition

Desire to be better than others

Expectation of constant happiness

Only happiness is acceptable

Increasing time pressures

Little time for service, for others

Media influence and allure

Unconscious consumption does not replace gnawing dissatisfaction

Unethical behavior

Poor role models used to justify other unethical behavior

Prevailing capitalism

Hide values and resist spirituality

Agencies paid to care for others

Individual compassion declines

Kevany (2002)

Consequences of Unrelenting Consumption

Taylor (2007) and other environmental educators argue that consumption and capitalism are elevated to the highest religion. While consumption becomes associated with important, personal values, citizen-consumers may be more amenable to allowing industrialists privileges and exemptions to extract dwindling resources. “Being plugged in”, to feed the electronic cultures, requires constant energy sources. Unrelenting demands and overconsumption have led to outstripping forests, out-harvesting eco-systems and outraging those fair-minded. Yet the message from many social institutions is for individuals to excel. Such pressure to perform often includes pressure to consume. Unconscious or uncritical consumption can be associated with the loss of self-confidence, gratitude, and spiritual-awareness. “Were it only a problem of budgets, careful management would be enough, but the current crisis is much deeper. Fundraisers cannot fix it. The present crisis is more serious; it is a spiritual crisis” (Levan 1998, p. 97). Overconsumption is a spiritual crisis because it involves a disconnection from values and ethics and from the place of humans within the natural world.

Teaching Consciousness and Sustainable Consumption

Past efforts seeking to examine and modify sustainability patterns placed greater focus on individuals (Jackson 2006). Spaargaren (2011) asked how do ordinary people deal with environmental matters and how do they perceive, understand, evaluate, and manage the connections between their personal lifestyles and routine (consumption) practices on the one hand and global environmental change on the other? Individuals, fulfilling their many social roles, including that of consumer, often contend with motivations that are conflicted, complex, and multifaceted (Sassatelli 2006). “How, in fact, do we educate the young to think clearly about important things in a culture that spends $500 billion per year to deceive using the finely honed tools of advertising? How do we prepare them to comprehend systems, patterns, and larger contexts in a society much distracted by entertainment and given to specializations?” (Orr 2004, p. xiii). Johnston (2008), asks but “[h]ow did we get to a point where consumers are responsible for ‘saving’ the world by shopping?” (p. 236).

Developing media literacy and marketing awareness may enable school children as well as adults to practice more critical thinking, self-discipline, and mindfulness (Fox 1979; Theobald 1997). Like other adult educators, Mezirow (1990) and Brookfield (2000) identified different forms of critical reflection to aid in transformative learning and to reexamine long-held presuppositions. The importance of critical reflection for responsible action should not be understated for a democratic society. Parent and community groups have worked with governments to limit advertisements in schools and reduce the corporatization of education and the unquestioned consumption culture. Educators might help citizen-consumers develop a healthy awareness of and detachment from the allure of things, while also fostering a greater sense of shared responsibility for caring for all living beings (Levan 1998; Taylor 2007). Environmental educators along with various fields of study have sought to raise awareness of the nature of the self, the environment, and how all beings and systems are interconnected. Research reveals strong connections to structural, cultural, and personal biases that suppress the willingness to change perspectives and welcome modifications to lifestyles (Hawken 1993; Theobald 1997). In a study of university interns, referred to as “the next generation of professionals,” the researchers found that the interns desire to consume was incongruent with their stated commitment to sustainable development. Their work revealed that a responsible consumption culture had not yet grown strong in Brazilian corporations or higher education (Antunes da Luz et al. 2016). This research team cited research carried out in the UK about the prominence of the attitude-behavior gap, or values-action gap. When talking about green products, 30% of the consumers reported concern over environmental issues, but were slow to translate such concern into actually going green (Antunes da Luz et al. 2016). Attention to more ethics education may be of value.

Ethics Education

To address these growing environmental, economic, political crises require addressing the spiritual crisis. Strategies for successful transitions may seek to include secular and spiritual teachings on empathy, compassion and self-discipline as well as texts from social-psychology, eco-psychology, or environmental education (Hawken 1993; Roszak 1992). An emphasis on values education appears beneficial; such insights may be found in the cultures of some communities that previously were colonized and discredited. Qualities that many First Peoples strive to teach and to emulate are called the Seven Sacred Teachings.

To cherish knowledge is to know wisdom; To know love is to know peace; To honor all of the Creation is to have respect; Bravery is to face the foe with integrity; Honesty also means “righteousness”, be honest first with yourself – in word and action; Humility is to know yourself as a sacred part of the Creation; and Truth is to know all of these things (Empowering the Spirit 2017).

Those cultivating conscious lifestyles may also want to respect and integrate the principles of: cooperation, freedom, happiness, responsibility, simplicity, understanding, and unity (Kennedy 2010; Roszak 1992).

Educators and community facilitators may propose exercises to steer citizen-consumers towards becoming more conscious citizens and sustainable consumers. Consuming less and then consuming fewer things more wisely and consciously are two key strategies. Reflections citizen-consumers might consider are, “Does this action move me towards or away from my life goals? How does it help or hinder others? What ripple effects might this consumption generate for the water, air, soil?” Some questions that may be helpful in assisting with transiting to more conscious and sustainable practices are from the “Ten Transformers” (homeplanet.org).
  1. 1.

    Does the issue, product, food, decision, behavior serve my highest purpose?

  2. 2.

    Am I being wise?

  3. 3.

    Have I accumulated enough intelligence or information to make a decision?

  4. 4.

    What judgments or bias’ are present?

  5. 5.

    Have I used compassion and mercy in my decision?

  6. 6.

    Does the issue product, food, decision, or behavior serve to heal the planet?


Measuring Consumption Impact

To calculate one’s impact from consumption may be challenging to achieve. How might one assess the value of the environmental, health, and social impact of their consumption patterns? Various tools have been devised; one being the life cycle assessment (LCA) (Yao et al. 2015). LCA is a helpful yet complex tool to apply. It may be more frequently used in industrial contexts where there is willingness to invest the time and effort to design the study, collect the data, and analyze and calculate the impact. If applied effectively, the impact assessment would reveal areas in which improvements could be made.

Technological Innovations

With advances in technology, not only can practices be deployed to reduce harm, they are increasingly being designed to replenish human debts to nature. Innovations that help consumers to live comfortably but with minimum adverse ecological impacts could be more frequently deployed (Goleman 2009). Devices that reduce emissions and energy use could also be helpful. Technology that helps to measure and offer feedback on consumption patterns and impact could be beneficial in helpings consumer recalibrate their beliefs and habits. With the magnitude of wide scale overconsumption significant shifts and systems solutions are needed. Institutes of higher education could be preparing citizens more than consumers and reducers more than consumers. Such may be the outcome of more systems thinking.

Another strategy is to promote companies with production practices that help consumers make healthy and ethical choices. Organizations that demonstrate corporate social responsibility (CSR) and “conscious brands” may enable citizen-consumers to replace the dissonance when making purchases with pride and confidence that the purchase advances their individual and community goals (Adams 2014). Supporting Fairtrade labels may be one such example. Other efforts to rethink consumption habits include websites like Kijiji and Craigslist that encourage buying second-hand and many charity shops also help consumers direct their funds to “good causes” through their consumption. Cooperative approaches to online purchasing, buying clubs, trading items with friends, and learning to “make do” with what they have are other examples of approaches to conscious consumption. Other approaches to conscious consumption may be to inspire consumers to reduce their footprint in the size of their homes and the amount of materials they consume through their lifestyles. Those who switched to Tiny Homes and “small footprint living” found organization, clarity, and enjoyment and ease had returned to their lives. “But I kind of feel like paring down and having less is more – it makes life simpler” (Rodgers as cited by Gross 2017).


A lengthy quote by Krishnamurti is worth considering.

Many of us have forgotten how to be kindly, how to look at the stars, at the trees, at the reflections on the water, we require stimulation of pictures and jewels, of books and endless amusements. We are constantly seeking new excitements, new thrills; we crave an ever-increasing variety of sensations. The craving for sensation and gratification prevents the experiencing of that which is always new. Sensations can be bought, but not the love of beauty. The pursuit of sensation dominates the mind. Sensations like pleasure, excitement, fear and violence are dominant features of the modern life. Virtue comes with freedom; it comes when there is an understanding of what is. The signing of a contract does not induce love, nor is it based on an exchange of gratification, nor on mutual security and comfort. All these things are of the mind; and that is why love occupies so small a place in our lives…. it is the lack of love that creates the problem (Krishnamurti 1953, pp. 122–123).

The roles of education, of educators, of leaders, of citizen-consumers need to include that of conscious consumer, among other functions. “If we look at humanity’s and Mother Earth’s future through the eyes of our children and grandchildren we will feel, immediately, the need of concerning ourselves with sustainability and of creating means to implement it in every field of reality” (Boff 2012 as cited by Antunes da Luz et al. 2016, p. 315). Conscious consumption holds great potential when it becomes the habit of choice of concerned citizens and compassionate humans.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Agriculture, Department of Business & Social SciencesDalhousie UniversityTruroCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • Madhavi Venkatesan
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EconomicsNortheastern UniversityBostonUSA