Consumer education

  • Introduction
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3
  • Activity 4
  • Activity 5
  • Activity 6
  • Reflection


As with issues of citizenship and health, consumer education is a key cross-curricular theme for student learning. Traditionally, consumer education was seen as the study of prudent shopping habits, family budgeting, and ways of avoiding advertising and credit traps.

However, consumerism touches on all aspects of daily life in the modern world and might be seen as a core value in the North and, increasingly, throughout the South as well. Indeed, mass consumption is now entrenched as one of the key defining processes of economic and social life around the world in contrast with the values of sustainability that are characteristic of indigenous communities.

Chapter 4 of Agenda 21 identified unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, especially in industrialised countries, as “the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment”. Agenda 21 goes on to say that this is “a matter of grave concern” because “the basic consumer needs of a large section of humanity are not being met” and “the excessive demands and unsustainable lifestyles among the richer segments … place immense stress on the environment.”

Accordingly, Agenda 21 encourages governments in the North to take a leading role in promoting sustainable patterns of consumption through policies that:

  • encourage efficiency in production patterns;
  • reduce wasteful consumption in the process of economic growth; and
  • encourage a shift to more sustainable patterns of production and consumption, taking into account the development needs of developing countries.

In this way, Agenda 21 heralded a new approach to consumer education, aligning it with health, citizenship and environmental education as part of the reorientation of education towards sustainability.

This module explores key issues in consumerism as a part of contemporary life. It also analyses the issues of social, economic and ecological sustainability raised by consumerism, ways in which the impacts of consumption can be reduced, and ways in which issues such as these can be integrated across-the-curriculum.


  • To analyse patterns, causes and impacts of global and personal patterns of consumption;
  • To appreciate the ethical dimension of reducing the social and ecological impacts of consumption;
  • To appreciate the importance of changing the patterns and impacts of consumption;
  • To identify principles of sustainable consumption; and
  • To analyse examples of educational activities and programmes aimed at encouraging sustainable consumption and identify ways of integrating principles and examples of education for sustainable consumption across the school curriculum.


  1. A review of key concepts
  2. Fair share
  3. Paradoxes and impacts of consumption
  4. Driving forces of increasing consumption
  5. Ecological Footprints
  6. What is sustainable consumption?
  7. Reflection


Blower, M. and Leon, W. (1999) The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Three Rivers Press, New York.

Brewer, J. and Trentmann, F. (eds) Consuming Cultures, Global Perspectives: Historical Trajectories, Transnational Exchanges, Berg, Oxford.

Carley, M. and Spapens, P. (1998) Sharing the World: Sustainable Living and Global Equity in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London.

Chambers, N., Simmons, C. and Wackernagel, M. (2000) Sharing Nature’s Interest: Ecological Footprints as an Indicator of Sustainability, Earthscan, London.

Jackson, T. (ed) (2006) The Earthscan Reader on Sustainable Consumption, Earthscan, London.

New Internationalist (2006) Ethical Shopping, No. 395.

OECD (1997) Sustainable Consumption and Production, OECD, Paris.

OECD (1997) Sustainable Consumption and Production: Clarifying the Concepts, OECD, Paris.

OECD (1998) Towards Sustainable Consumption Patterns: A Progress Report on Member Country Initiatives, OECD, Paris.

OECD (1999) Education and Learning for Sustainable Consumption, OECD, Paris.

Ryan, J. and Durning, A. (1997) Stuff: The Secret Life of Everyday Life Things, Northwest Environment Watch, Washington DC.

Shove, E., Watson, M., Hand, M. and Ingram, J. (2007) The Design of Everyday Life, Berg, Oxford.

Soper, K., Ryle, M. and Thomas, L. (2008) Better than Shopping: Counter-Consumerism and its Pleasure, Palgrave,

Soper, K. and Trentmann, F. (eds) (2007) Citizenship and Consumption, Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Trentmann, F. (ed) (2006) The Making of the Consumer: Knowledge, Power and Identity in the Modern World,
 Berg, Oxford.

Wackernagel, M. and Rees, W. (1996) Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island BC, Canada and Philadelphi PA, USA.

A comprehensive bibliography of resources on sustainable consumption is also provided by the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Internet Sites


Best Foot Forward

Center for a New American Dream

Consumers International

Redefining Progress: Ecological Footprints

United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development

WWF Living Planet Index


This module was written for UNESCO by John Fien. The Center for a New American Dream and Education for a Sustainable Future provided valuable resources for this module.

A review of key concepts

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Module 1 explores key aspects of the global situation including and how they lead to a descending spiral of unsustainable development.

The consumption of natural resources is essential to human life all around the world. The air, water, energy, timber, food and other resources that come from nature are the basis of, and sustain, all human activities. We live by producing, processing and then consuming these products of nature.

However, the rate of resource consumption around the world is rising rapidly. So too are the many adverse social, economic and ecological impacts of over-consumption. Increasing consumption is driven by many factors. For example:

Click for larger image.
  • Some say global population growth is responsible. Others focus on the impacts of rapid economic growth.
  • The lifestyle changes fuelled by urbanisation and technological change are also said to fuel consumption by creating new patterns of human needs and wants.
  • Others see consumption as a sign of a society looking for a cure for the ’alienation of the spirit’ that has resulted from the lack of meaningful contact with nature and the ’work, consume, and then work some more’ cycle of modern life.

Consumption has led to improved material living standards – private motor cars, television sets, overseas holidays, new designer fashions, restaurant meals, etc. – at least for those who can afford to consume. However, it does not necessarily lead to a sustainable way of life.

The tension between these positive and negative effects of consumption is a major influence on the transition to a sustainable future:

Currently some trends appear positive: the growth in world population is slowing, food production is still rising, the majority of people are living longer and healthier lives, environmental quality in some regions is improving. But it is impossible to ignore other trends which have the potential to undermine these gains or even bring about catastrophic collapse of local economies. They include the growing scarcity of fresh water, loss of productive agricultural land and the downward spiral of impoverishment affecting a significant minority of the world’s population. These threats are real and near-term; they already affect millions of people.

Source: United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development (1997) Global Change and Sustainable Development: Critical Trends, paragraph 14.

Listen as David Suzuki explains the human dependence on the resources provided by nature and the problems being caused by the high rates of resource consumption in the world.

These ideas were introduced in Module 1 through three exercises. This module builds on the concepts developed in these exercises. Before moving on to the new activities, you might wish to review the key ideas developed in the 1998 Human Development Report on Sustainable Consumption.

Q1: Identify the key ideas you learnt about consumption in Module 1.

Q2: These ideas are introductory and, no doubt, give rise to a number of questions. Brainstorm a list of the questions you would like to see answered in this module.

Compare your questions with the list of questions that guided the planning of this module.

We return to these questions in the reflection activity at the end of this module.

Fair share

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Rising Global Levels of Consumption

The 1998 Human Development Report produced by the United Nations Development Programme indicated that:

  • Global consumption levels rose from US$1.5 trillion in 1900 to US$4 trillion by 1950.
  • It then trebled to US$12 trillion in the 25 years from 1950 to 1975.
  • And then doubled to US$24 trillion in the 23 years from 1975 to 1998.

Patterns of Global Consumption

There are distinct North-South differences in the ability to consume. This situation was described in one of the key findings of 1998 Human Development Report.

The 20th century’s growth in consumption, unprecedented in its scale and diversity, has been badly distributed, leaving a backlog of shortfalls and gaping inequalities.

Some of the supporting evidence quoted in the Report includes:

  • Consumption per capita has increased steadily in industrial countries (about 2.3% annually) over the past 25 years, spectacularly in East Asia (6.1%) and at a rising rate in South Asia (2.0%). Yet these developing regions are far from catching up to levels of industrial countries, and consumption growth has been slow or stagnant in others.
  • The average African household today consumes 20% less than it did 25 years ago.
  • The poorest 20% of the world’s people have been left out of the consumption explosion. Well over a billion people are deprived of basic consumption needs.
  • Of the 4.4 billion people in the South, nearly three-fifths lack basic sanitation. Almost a third have no access to clean water. A quarter do not have adequate housing. A fifth have no access to modern health services. A fifth of children do not attend school to grade 5. About a fifth do not have enough dietary energy and protein. Micronutrient deficiencies are even more widespread.
  • In the South only a privileged minority has motorized transport, telecommunications and electricity.

Who Consumes What?

Rank the level of global spending on a range of goods and services to identify the nature of global consumption patterns.

The 1999 Human Development Report describes inequalities in consumption around the world as one of ’the facts of global life’.

This report shows that these inequalities in consumption include different levels of access to basic necessities of life such as food and shelter as well as access to education and health services – and even in ’intangibles’ such as holiday opportunities, rates of Internet use, and participation in the international share market. These inequalities also have a distinct geographical, gender and class bias.

Listen to former World Bank economist, Herman Daly, explain these justice dimensions of global consumption patterns.

Q3: Identify patterns of global expenditure that you think are not sustainable – socially, economically, politically and ecologically, and give your reasons.

These unequal global patterns of consumption, in the end, make the move towards sustainable consumption an ethical and a cultural issue:

… changing wasteful patterns of consumption, particularly in the industrialized countries, is an area where culture will clearly have an instrumental role to play. Changes in lifestyle will need to be accompanied by a new ethical awareness whereby the inhabitants of rich countries discover within their cultures the source of a new and active solidarity which will make it possible to eradicate the widespread poverty which now besets 80% of the world’s population as well as the environmental degradation and other problems which are linked to it.

Source: UNESCO (1997) Educating for a Sustainable Future: A Transdisciplinary Vision for Concerted Action, paragraph 113.

Paradoxes and impacts of consumption

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

The 1998 Human Development Report identifies five paradoxes of consumption: [click to expand each Paradox]

Paradox 1 – Consumption does not guarantee happiness

The percentage of people in Northern countries calling themselves happy peaked in the 1950s – even though consumption has more than doubled since then. Indeed, there is no consistent correlation between income, consumption and happiness. A global comparison of measures of happiness in relation to levels of income per capita indicates that the richer the country, the smaller the correlation between income level and individual happiness.

Source: Carley, M. and Spapens, P. (1998) Sharing the World: Sustainable Living and Global Equity in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London, p. 142.

Carley and Spapens (1998) explain this seeming contradiction in terms of the differences between ‘expectations’ and ‘satisfaction’. Fuelled by advertising and social pressures, expectations tend to rise with income, but satisfaction does not. Thus, they say that “there is always an element of dissatisfaction which increased income cannot cure”. Carley and Spapens conclude that:

It is no accident: workers who are earning a lot of money because they work long hours provide the market for the very goods they are producing, and never mind if they do not really need the goods in question. The consumption becomes the reward for the hard work and the long hours.

Nevertheless, it cannot be a very satisfying reward: the conditions of dissatisfaction must be maintained, or markets for useless products would disappear under a gale of common sense. We become addicted to consumption, which provides no lasting satisfaction.

Source: Carley, M. and Spapens, P. (1998) Sharing the World: Sustainable Living and Global Equity in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London, p. 143.

This explanation of the paradox suggests that ‘dissatisfaction’ is central to market economies as they rely upon people becoming caught up a vicious ‘cycle of work-and-spend’ – just like a fast-spinning wheel in which consumption must be paid for by long hours of work – which need to be rewarded by more consumption, and so on.

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A second explanation of this paradox relates to the lack of regular contact with nature in modern life:

The consumer society required that human contact with nature, once direct, frequent, and intense, be mediated by technology and organisation. In large numbers we moved indoors, A more contrived and controlled landscape replaced one that had been far less contrived and controllable. Wild animals, once regarded as teachers and companions, wee increasingly replaced with animals bred for docility and dependence.

Our sense of reality, once shaped by our complex sensory interplay with the seasons, sky, forest, wildlife, savanna, desert, river, sea and night sky, increasingly came to be shaped by technology and artful realities. Compulsive consumption, perhaps a form of grieving or perhaps evidence of boredom, is a response to the fact that we find ourselves exiles and strangers in a diminished world that we once called home.

Orr, D. (1999) The ecology of giving and receiving, in R. Rosenblatt (ed) Consuming Desires: Consumption, Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Island Press, Washington DC, p. 141.

Investigate the relationship between consumption, satisfaction and happiness by reading:

Paradox 2 – Many poor people live in the most affluent of societies

Despite high consumption, poverty and deprivation are found in all countries of the North – and in some the number is growing. Indeed, between 7% and 17% of the population in these countries are poor.

These levels have little to do with the average income of the country. For example, Sweden is ranked only thirteenth in average income but has the least poverty (7%), while the United States has the highest average income in the North but has the highest percentage of people living in poverty.

Thus, under-consumption and poverty are not just the experience of poor people in the South.

Paradox 3 – Economic growth does not measure the quality of development

National income or GDP (Gross Domestic Production) increases no matter what we spend our money on. Thus, the concept of ‘quality’ can be neglected (and indeed often is) when development is equated only with economic growth. This includes the quality of development, the quality of human life and the quality of the natural environment.

This idea about ‘quality’ is illustrated in a story about Anton and Marti, and how their changing spending habits affect the economist’s ideal of development.

Listen to a song by Alan AtKisson at the Center for a New American Dream about this paradox.

Paradox 4 – Northern consumption is often at the expense of the South

The amount we can consume is related to the amount of money we have. Indeed, the key barrier to consumer choice is money. The message of this is:

If you want choice – you have to get out there and get going. Money gives choice. Whatever the area of consumption, from crime protection to clothes, from health to education, from cultural industries to cars, money is the final arbiter.

Source: Gabriel, Y. and Lang, T. (1995) The Unmanageable Consumer, Sage, London, p. 32.

The very low income levels of most people in the South means that they are unable to afford the benefits of the consumer economy. This affects the people of the South in a number of ways. Four of these are discussed below.

Poor People Cannot Always Afford What They Need

The consumer market produces according to laws of supply and demand. This means that it usually supplies the products demanded by those with the most available money.

Click for a larger image.

Source: Ted Trainer.

The South’s demand for low-cost practical goods that can reduce costs (e.g. solar ovens, charcoal stoves, etc.) and improve their standard of living (affordable housing, public transport, clean water, etc.) are not produced, or as widely available, as would be suggested by moral and environmental imperatives.

Many Polluting Industries are Moving to the South

Governments in the South often allow transnational companies to locate industries in their countries in order to attract investment, to provide jobs for rising urban populations, and to meet growing international demands for ‘free trade’.

In many cases, transnational companies have moved their industries to the South to avoid safety, employment and environmental regulations in their home countries – and to take advantage of lower local wages and not-as-well developed regimes of industrial regulation and environmental control. As a result, many polluting industries have moved from the North to the South.

While jobs have been provided in the South, the social, health and environmental costs of these industries have often been quite damaging.

Low Labour Costs – Poor Working Conditions

These factories mostly produce consumer products for Northern markets – from digital watches, low-cost clothes, computer parts and electronic entertainment products to sports shoes, processed food and Christmas decorations. In fact, China is now the centre of the world’s commercial ‘Christmas industry’.

Very few of these products are useful in the South – or can be afforded by the workers who produce them – and often their wages and working conditions have been described by international human rights groups as exploitative.

For example, a headline story on the front page of the New York Times on November 7, 1997 alleged that a factory in Vietnam belonging to a leading sports shoe manufacturer was ‘unsafe for workers’. Similarly, it was alleged that the sports company that made the soccer balls for the 1998 World Cup did not pay a fair wage to the workers in its factories in the South who made them.

Unfair Distribution of Sales Income

Case studies of the production and consumption of food crops such as coffee and bananas show that the farmers in the South who grow the crops often do not receive as much income as others in the supply chain.

For example, the money paid in the supermarket for a banana exported from Central America to Europe, Canada or the USA is divided up in the following way:

Source: New Internationalist, No. 317, October 1999.

This example shows that the largest returns are in retailing – mostly to large national and international supermarket chains – with only 5% of the sale price of a banana going to the farming family who grew it. The same is usually the case for farm products grown and sold in the North as well.

Investigate a similar situation in the distribution of income from the production and sale of coffee.

Paradox 5 – Consumption is costing us the Earth

The producton of the goods and services we consume is based upon raw materials from the Earth. For example, according to environmental economist, Paul Hawken, the goods and services consumed each day by the average person in the USA require nearly 60 kg of raw materials to make – over 23 tonnes per year.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has traced the impact of global resource over recent years and calculated a Living Planet Index. This is an index of the ‘natural wealth’ of the world’s ecosystems, and how the level of this natural wealth has changed over time.

The 2000 Living Planet Index indicates that the Index declined by 30% from 1970 to 1995. This means that the world has lost 30% of its natural wealth in the space of one generation.

Apart from the rapid use of natural resources this represents, increasing levels of global consumption are degrading the environment through the generation of pollution and waste. Hawken reports that the people of the USA generate over 20 billion tonnes (50 trillion pounds) of waste (excluding wastewater) every year. This includes:

  • Nearly 320 million tonnes (700 billion pounds) of hazardous waste from the chemical industry.
  • Nearly 140 million tonnes (300 billion pounds) of organic and inorganic chemicals from manufacturing plants.
  • Nearly 13 million tonnes (28 billion pounds) of uneaten food.
  • Nearly 12 million tonnes (25 billion pounds) of carbon dioxide.
  • 2.5 million tonnes (6 billion pounds) of polystyrene.
  • 1.5 million tonnes (3.5 billion pounds) of carpet dumped in landfills.

Hawken concludes that for every 100 kg weight of products produced in the USA each year, at least 3200 kg of waste is generated.

Source: Hawken, P. (1997) Nature’s capitalism, Mother Jones, April, p. 44.

Q4: As you read about these five paradoxes, make notes in your learning journal, about (i) the nature of the problems caused by each one, and (ii) solutions to them that you think could work in your school or local community.

Q5: Identify one consumption question, issue or problem that could be taught in a range of different school subjects.

Q6: Plan a project or assignment guide for an Internet research project on ‘T-Shirts, Jeans and Fair Trade’ for junior secondary students.

Q7: What role might media studies play in student learning about these questions, issues or problems?

Visit these sites to investigate media literacy and sustainable consumption:

Driving forces of increasing consumption

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Activity 3 analysed five paradoxes about consumption. This activity focuses on another, and very puzzling, paradox: If consumption can cause so many problems, why has it become such an all-encompassing part of life today?

A key reason is that very few people in the world actually live a subsistence lifestyle any more. We have to consume to survive. We live in exchange economies where each person tends to specialise in one job, receives money for the time and effort involved, and then uses that money to purchase the goods and services produced by other ‘specialists’.

This can be efficient – after all, if you were not a very good farmer or did not have access to land in the first place, you would soon go hungry.

The specialisation of labour in an exchange or market economy also gives people a chance to apply their time and skills to the things that they are good at (if jobs are available in that field). Working at the things that we are good at is important for our sense of achievement and satisfaction in life.

Purchasing goods and services from people who are skilled in their design, manufacture or delivery also means that the quality of the things we buy is higher than if we had to make everything ourselves. They can also be made more quickly, efficiently, and often less expensively, as well.

At least this is the theory.

However, this theory mostly applies to the things we consume to satisfy our needs. The theory does not apply so well when it relates to our wants.

In fact, the affluence of Northern lifestyles means that:

  • the 20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures;
  • the poorest 20% consume a tiny 1.3%; while
  • the middle 60% (around 4 billion people) consume only 12.7%.

These differences translate into the following consumer patterns:

Share of: Richest 20% Poorest 20%
Population total 1.2 million 1.2 million
World GNP 82.7% 1.4%
World trade 81.2% 1.0%
Commercial bank loans 94.6% 0.2%
Meat and fish consumption 45% 5%
Energy consumption 58% 4%
Paper consumption 84% 1.1%
Telephone lines 74% 1.5%
Vehicles 87% <1%

Source: 1998 Human Development Report; Carley, M. and Spapens, P. (1998) Sharing the World: Sustainable Living and Global Equity in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London, p. 42.

These figures show that arguments about over-population being the cause of global environmental decline, poverty and famine need to be reconsidered.

See Module 13 on the ‘new understanding’ of population and development and Module 14 on ‘world hunger myths’ for further discussion of this issue.

Q8: Calculate the proportion of global consumer spending by the middle 60% of income earners in the world.

Q9: What is the message of the formula: I = C x T x P?

Q10: How might you use this formula in teaching about consumption?

Why are the Resources Impacts of Northern Consumption so Great?

There are many reasons – but the key one is because consumerism now touches on all every aspect of culture in the North today. Indeed, consumerism might be seen as a core value, not only in the North, but also in many countries of the South where Northern ideas about ‘wants’ are rapidly being spread by the mass media, western style education and other processes of globalisation.

Mass consumption is one of the key defining processes of economic and social life in the world today. In fact, daily life today is a material one with social life often revolving around the manufacture, exchange and consumption of material objects. Thus, it has been said that ‘we are what we consume!’

This is because consumerism is not only a means of creating wealth or satisfying personal needs. Consumerism – and the values that owning and ‘displaying’ different products signify – is also one of the chief ways through in which we have learnt to establish a personal identity and present ourselves to the world:

One’s body, clothes, speech, leisure pastimes, eating and drinking preferences, home, car, choice of holidays, etc. are to be regarded as indicators of individuality of taste and sense of style of the owner/consumer.

Source: Featherstone, M. (1991) Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, Sage, London, p. 83.

As a result, consumption today is not just a matter of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. The type of food we eat, the ‘labels’ we wear, the type of cars we drive, the music we listen to – even the brands of computers, watches, cameras and sports shoes we have – are ‘social symbols’. Thus international economist, Wolfgang Sachs, argues that consumption represents:

A system of ‘signs’ through which a purchaser makes statements about him- or her-self. While in the old days goods informed about social status, today they signal allegiance to a lifestyle. But the proliferation of options makes it increasingly difficult to know what one wants, [and] to cherish what one has.


Q11: Summarise the roles that the following ‘driving forces’ play in promoting unsustainable levels of consumption:

  • Globalisation
  • Alienation from nature
  • Population growth
  • Changing technology
  • Consumerism and personal identity
  • Rising living standards in the South
  • The work-and-spend cycle

Towards Sustainable Consumption

These processes are more than just driving forces to mass consumption. They are also influential aspects of our experience of the world. In fact, it is possible that the very centrality of consumerism in contemporary life contains within it the roots of democratic social change.As a result, many goods and services have been developed from a constructive critique of consumerism and have come to signify ethical social and environmental lifestyle choices.

Examples of such goods and services include ones that seek to:

Investigate case studies of programmes aimed at promoting sustainable consumption available on the Internet.

These developments and case studies indicate that it is overly simplistic to view consumption only in a negative way. Indeed, it has been said that:

… late 20th century consumerism contains within it far more revolutionary seeds than we have hitherto anticipated.

Source: Nava, M. (1991) Consumerism reconsidered: Buying and power, Cultural Studies, 5(2), pp. 171.

Thus, while consumption may be a cause of many social and environmental ills, it is also a vehicle through which present and future solutions to the problems of unsustainability may be reached.

Q12: Suggest ways in which three driving forces of consumption could be reoriented to promote sustainable consumption.

Ecological Footprints

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

The use of natural resources and production of pollution degrade the life-support systems on Earth. This causes natural cycles and ecosystems to be less able to perform the vital functions that support all life on Earth.

Both high consumption or usage of resources, particularly in countries of the North, and population numbers contribute to our impact on the environment. The impact of all our activities can be likened to an imprint or ‘footprint’ on Earth. This imprint is referred to as our ‘Ecological Footprint’.

Just as we say that a computer has a big or small ‘footprint’, depending on how much space it takes up on our desktop, we can say that the lifestyle choices we make have a footprint on the Earth. Our Ecological Footprint is a measure of the human impact on nature – it shows how much productive land and water we use to produce all the resources we consume and to take in all the waste we make.

Ecological Footprint Analysis is an innovative and rigorous way of measuring whether the impacts of our lifestyle choices are sustainable.

Increasingly, we are coming to realise that we are using up more resources than nature can replace and producing far more waste than nature can safely absorb. So, it is sometimes said that the human Ecological Footprint is too large.

The term comes from Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth written by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees in 1996.

This book presents calculations which show that the human population requires at least 20% more biologically productive land than we presently have – and that we would need a total of three planet Earths to support us if all the Earth’s inhabitants were to live at the standard as people in countries such as the United Staes of America, Australia or Canada.

For example, the Ecological Footprint of the USA was 9.6 hectares (24 acres) in 1999. This is about the area of 24 football fields. In comparison, the average Canadian lived on a footprint about one quarter smaller (7.2 hectares/18 acres), while the average German required an area less than half the size (4.4 hectares/11 acres).

These ‘footprints’ are greatly in excess of the ‘fair share’ area of 2.1 hectares (5.2 acres) per person there would be if all the biologically productive land and sea in the world were divided equally by the total number of people in the world.

However, humans are not the only inhabitants of the Earth. So, the figure of 2.1 hectares does not allow any space for the ‘footprint’ needs of other species. If preserving the 10 million other species on Earth requires at least 12% of the biologically productive land on Earth (as recommended by the World Commision on Environment and Development calculation), the available biologically-productive space would shrink from 2.1 to 1.8 hectares per person.

We can calculate if there is enough land for our needs by multiplying the figure of 1.8 hectares per person by the total number of people in the world, and comparing the result with the biologically productive land available. Unfortunately, this shows that we are exceeding the Earth’s capacity by 20%.

In other words, we are consuming more than what nature can regenerate and, therefore, are eating up the Earth’s stock of natural capital. Scientists call this situation ‘overshoot’ and say that the amount of land ‘borrowed’ from the future is really an ‘ecological deficit’.

Many countries greatly exceed the footprint of 1.8 hectares per person. Thus, the footprint overshoot in the USA, for example, is causing an 80% ‘ecological deficit’. This means that they – and the people from many other countries – are ‘borrowing’ resources from the future and from elsewhere in the world without ever being able to pay back the debt.

According to the Living Planet Report for 2000, published by WWF, the international conservation organisaton, ’If every human alive today consumed natural resources and emitted carbon dioxide at the same rate as the average American, German or Frenchman … we would need at least another two Earths’.

Using Ecological Footprint calculations, the report argues that:

The area needed to produce the natural resources consumed and absorb the carbon dioxide emitted by the average North American is almost twice the area required by the average Western European, and some five times greater than required by the average Asian, African and Latin American.

It is the consumers of the rich nations of the temperate northern regions of the world who are primarily responsible for the ongoing loss of natural wealth in the tropics.

Source: ‘Needed – Two more planets’, WWF Press Release, 20 October 2000.

Q13: Investigate the Ecological Footprint of your country in relation to two other countries: (i) one with a similar footprint, and (ii) one that has a contrasting footprint.

Q14: Contrast the ecological deficit of the countries that have the largest and the smallest Ecological Footprints. What pattern do you find? How can this be explained?

Calculate Your Ecological Footprint

It is possible to calculate a personal Ecological Footprint, using a ‘Footprint Calculator’. A Footprint Calculator may ask questions about the way you live, the kinds of meals you eat, the modes of transport you regularly use, the amount of long-distance travel you do, the kind and size of house you live in, and so on.

The Earth Day Network provides an excellent, multilingual online ecological footprint calculator that allows you to calculate your footprint for the country you are in.

Other versions of Ecological Footprint Calculator include:

Q15: What is the size of your Ecological Footprint?

Q16: How many planets would we need if everyone in the world had your Ecological Footprint?

Q17: How does your Footprint compare with those of people in other countries in the world?

Q18: What aspects of your lifestyle contributed the most to the size of your Footprint?

Q19: Identify three key concepts related to Ecological Footprints that you could integrate into a teaching unit for one of your classes. What example(s) could you use to illustrate each concept? And what type of teaching strategy or learning experience would be helpful for each one?

Q20: If your class does not have easy access to computers, how could you use a paper version, the Ecological Footprint Quiz, in your teaching?

What is sustainable consumption?

What we decide to buy is influenced by many factors, including our age and health, place of residence, income and wealth, social beliefs and even our moods.

Sustainable consumption asks us to consider issues that go beyond the individual when we shop. These include not only the ecological impacts of what we buy but also the equity, human rights and political dimensions of sustainability in the production and consumption process. These aspects of sustainable consumption provide guidelines on how to reduce the social and ecological impacts of what we consume.

Guidelines such as these are not designed to make us feel guilty, but to encourage us to ask questions such as:

  • Do I really need this item?
  • Can I produce it myself?

And then, when we have decided to buy something, to think critically about each stage in the ‘life-cycle’ of a product:

  • Production
  • Transport and Retailing
  • Use
  • Disposal

Thinking critically about the impacts of consumption can lead us to realise the importance of:

Towards a Definition

There are many definitions of sustainable consumption, but most share a number of common features, including an emphasis on:

  • Satisfying basic human needs (not the desire for ‘wants’ and luxuries);
  • Favouring quality of life over material standards of living;
  • Minimising resource use, waste and pollution;
  • Taking a life-cycle perspective in consumer decision-making; and
  • Acting with concern for future generations.

These five emphases feature in a definition that has come to be seen as one of the most authoritative in recent years. This is the definition proposed by the 1994 Oslo Symposium on Sustainable Consumption:

… the use of services and related products which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life while minimising the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle of the service or product so as not to jeopardise the needs of future generations.

Source: Norwegian Ministry of the Environment (1994) Oslo Roundtable on Sustainable Production and Consumption.

This definition is seen as a good one because it links sustainable consumption closely with sustainable production – by dealing with both the production and disposal phases of the product life-cycle as well as the transport, retailing and consumption of goods and services. It also assumes a two-way process of social change through which producers can influence consumption through product designs and marketing with consumers, in turn, influencing production through their market choices.

However, at least three cautionary points may be made about this definition.

  • It is idealistic
  • It does not emphasise social justice issues sufficiently
  • It over-emphasises personal lifestyle choice.

As a result, Nick Robins and Sarah Roberts of the International Institute for Environment and Development suggest that a comprehensive definition of sustainable consumption needs to be grounded in a wider range of environmental, social equity and moral concerns – such as those explored in this module. They summarised these as:

Environmental damage
The extraction, production, use and disposal of many goods and services cause serious environmental problems such as resource depletion, energy wastage, pollution of the air, water and land, and growth in the levels of solid, toxic and hazardous wastes.
While many people around the world, especially in the North, live lives of abundance and affluence, over a billion people still lack access to supplies of safe water, adequate sanitation, energy and nutrition.
The production of many consumer goods cause extensive damage to human health through air and water pollution. While pollution is a major cause of premature death in the South, many diseases in the North are now considered ‘lifestyle’ diseases with people dying from the over-indulgence brought on by affluence.
Economic efficiency
Conventional development models have sought to compensate for the above problems by attempting to incorporate more people into consumer economy through economic growth (the proverbial ‘bigger cake’). This has often been at the expense of changes in the distribution and pattern of consumption, which can be more cost-effective and resource efficient.
Global environmental change
Industrial, commercial and domestic energy use, especially in the transport sector, is the major source of greenhouse gases while air-conditioning and refrigeration are significant causes of ozone depletion. These global environmental threats can be addressed by changes in the design and construction of buildings and transport systems.
Quality of life
Increasing material affluence does not necessarily lead to a better quality of life due to the degradation of the human environment and the erosion of social relationships that it can bring.

Source: Robins, N. and Roberts, S. (1998) Consumption in a Sustainable World, Workbook prepared for the OECD Workshop on Consumption in a Sustainable World, Kabelvaag, Norway, 2-4 June.

Taking such principles into account, sustainable consumption can be defined in the following way:

Sustainable consumption integrates a range of social, economic and political practices at the individual, household, community, business and government levels that support and encourage:
  • reducing the direct environmental burden of producing, using and disposing goods and services;
  • meeting basic needs for key consumption goods and services, such as food, water, health, education and shelter;
  • maximising opportunities for sustainable livelihoods in the South;
  • consuming goods and services that contribute positively to the health and well-being of women and children;
  • increasing the development and adoption of energy and water efficient appliances, public transport and other demand-side measures
  • the production and sale of new goods and services adapted to global environmental constraints; and
  • lifestyles that place greater value on social cohesion, local traditions and non-material values.


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Completing the module: Look back through the activities and tasks to check that you have done them all and to change any that you think you can improve now that you have come to the end of the module.

Q21: Activity 1 provided a list of the key questions that guided the development of this module. Answer these questions in your learning journal.

Sustainable Consumption

  • What is driving the rapid rise in consumption levels?
  • Is it realistic to expect people to reduce their consumption?
  • What are the social and environmental impacts of world consumption patterns?
  • What are the defining characteristics of sustainable consumption?
  • What is the goal of sustainable consumption?
  • What can governments and companies do to encourage sustainable consumption?
  • What can individuals and families do?


  • How can education help alter consumption patterns?
  • What concepts need to be understood?
  • What skills are needed?
  • What attitudes and values support sustainable consumption?
  • What principles can be followed for an effective education programme?
  • What resources are available?
  • What are some schools already doing about sustainable consumption?

Q22: Explain how you could adapt the following teaching units for use with a class you teach:

  • Global Perspectives on Fast Food – a seven lesson unit on the historical background and impacts of the fast food industry.
  • The Paper Trail – a four week unit that teaches students about the effects of the choices we make about the production, consumption and disposal of paper products.