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Theories of (Un)sustainable Consumption


  • Clive L. Spash
  • Karin Dobernig


In this discussion paper we review and contrast alternative theories of consumption in terms of the intellectual basis they provide for understanding sustainable behaviours. A defining aspect of the modern literature in this field is the emphasis on the individual as a volitional agent who engages wilfully in the decision to consume. This is in stark contrast to earlier literature that concentrated on the structural lock-in of individuals to undesirable consumption patterns and the powers of corporations in creating consumer demand for their products and services. We argue that, in order to unravel consumption in its full complexity, and as a matter of utmost importance, understanding must include both the buy-in of individual agents, whose consumption activities contribute to their self-identity, and the structure imposed by the institutions of society, that frame the context of actors' decisions. More than this, any move away from the current unsustainable consumption patterns prevalent in modern societies requires a richer conceptualisation of consumption that involves an awareness and examination of the political economy in which humans live.

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  • Clive L. Spash & Karin Dobernig, 2017. "Theories of (Un)sustainable Consumption," SRE-Disc sre-disc-2017_04, Institute for Multilevel Governance and Development, Department of Socioeconomics, Vienna University of Economics and Business.
  • Handle: RePEc:wiw:wiwsre:sre-disc-2017_04

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    1. Galbraith, John Kenneth, 1970. "Economics as a System of Belief," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 60(2), pages 469-478, May.
    2. Vermeir, Iris & Verbeke, Wim, 2008. "Sustainable food consumption among young adults in Belgium: Theory of planned behaviour and the role of confidence and values," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 64(3), pages 542-553, January.
    3. Peter E. Earl, 2005. "Economics and psychology in the twenty-first century," Cambridge Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 29(6), pages 909-926, November.
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    sustainable consumption; structure; agency; nudging; social practice theory; technostructure; corporate power; social ecological transformation;
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