Consumption – sustainable use of products


The affluence and easy access to all kinds of commodities in our societies is certainly part of our welfare. But there is also a downside to this. Industrialized societies are consumption societies; consumption may even become a meaning of life. The flow of resources is enormous. Counted per capita, it is today larger than the carrying capacity of the Earth. We are living in an era of overshoot and over-consumption, which is not sustainable. The use of resources is often expressed by the so-called ecological footprint (See further Chapter 3c). It is the surface area of the Earth needed to create the resources used. It is expressed in global hectares (gha). In the Baltic Sea region, we use on average 3-5 gha per capita. The space available on earth (with 7 billion inhabitants) is about 1.8 gha/capita. Others have smaller footprints, as e.g. most Africans, but still for the planet as a whole the footprint is too large. In 2011 the global population used close to 1.5 planets.

The affluence, which makes this possible, was in the West largely created between 1955 and 1975. In this period the flow of material of all kinds – energy, water, minerals, fertilizers, etc – increased by about 3 times or more. Later, the flow levelled off to increase much less steeply. Since the early 1980s the world as a whole is in a period of overshoot, meaning that we use more resources than are created; that is, we live on loans. The overshoot is due to fossil fuel use, overfishing, deforestation etc. The overshoot is still increasing.


Shopping is an important part of life in the consumer societyShopping is an important part of life in the consumer society


Several ways have been tried to address the problem of overconsumption. We will touch on those, which are concerned with the products themselves, in this session. The question of consumption and lifestyle is treated in Chapter 10.

Decoupling means that you may deliver a service or goods while consuming fewer resources than before. A typical case is if instead of travelling to see someone, you meet virtually using the Internet. This is increasingly used and reduces travelling. But as many more meetings are made, travelling is still increasing. This is called the rebound effect. The relative number of travels per meetings is reduced, but the total number of travels is still increasing. In many areas we have in this way obtained relative decoupling, but much more seldom absolute decoupling. (See further Chapter 3c)

Another way to reduce resource flow is to use products together instead of individually. Thus, if many use a common printer instead of each one having his/her own, the material flow decreases. Another example is if many car owners use bus instead of their individual cars, the footprint of everyone is decreasing dramatically. In real life, the tendency is the opposite: each one who can afford has his/her own car. And overshoot increases! An opposite trend is, however, car sharing or car-pooling, increasingly common in large cities.

Product design can make much to reduce footprints. Eco design is a systematic method to design products not only according to form, colour or material, but also desirable environmental properties. Eco designed products may be dematerialized, that is having less material, be more compact, than ordinary products; they may have less toxic materials; they may have longer lives for example by being easy to repair; be more energy efficient during use; and they may have a better end-of-life, e.g. be easier to recycle. Some aspects of eco-design we meet daily, e.g. energy efficient lamp bulbs, smaller computers, toys without toxins. Some of these properties are mandatory according to environmental law.

Jacket made of recycled raw materials only.

A very important aspect is a product’s end-of-life. The waste management hierarchy tells us that best is reducing (fewer products, e.g. by sharing resources), next best reuse (repairable products) and then recycle, which means that the material in the product can be reused.

Environmentally friendly products are often called green products. There are a number of organizations, which provide green products with an eco-label to indicate that they meet set standards for that label. Well known labels include that European Union flower and the Nordic Swan, developed by the Nordic Council.

The big consumers, such as municipalities, state authorities and large companies may adopt a policy of buying green products, quite significant since they buy for the millions or billions. This is called green procurement, meaning that they choose a product or a service that has a lower environmental impact in comparison with other products or services fulfilling the same functions. Life cycle costs calculation is used as a basic. Companies which pride themselves for thoughtful care of the environment may use green procurement to ensure that they do business in an environmentally responsible way. Also, as a private person, one may decide to buy green products. It sends a clear signal to the producer that there is a market for such products, and they will increase compared to the less green alternatives.

EU EcolabelAccording to much research the largest environmental impact we make as consumers is caused by our living (houses and how they are heated for example), our food (e.g. meat has a much larger footprint than vegetarian meals) and travelling (air travel has the largest footprint per km while e.g. biking is very environmentally friendly). These areas need to be looked at with some care to be sure that all possible improvements have been made. Best is if one makes a proper estimation of the ecological footprint or a similar measure to quantify the differences.

Materials for session 5b

Basic level

  1. Read chapter 7, pages 111-115: Ready-made methods for life cycle impact assessment methods in Product Design and Life Cycle Assessment.
  2. Ecological footprint – global footprint network
  3. Overshoot and carrying capacity. Earth Overshoot Day is coming!
  4. Read chapter 2: Resource flow and product design in Product Design and Life Cycle Assessment.
  5. Read the last chapter, Decoupling and rebound in: A Sustainable Baltic Region. Session 9.
  6. Read chapter 3: Strategies for ecodesign in: Product Design and Life Cycle Assessment.
  7. Read chapter 13: Green marketing and eco-labelling in: Product Design and Life Cycle Assessment.

Medium level (widening)

  1. Read chapter 15: Product-related environmental policies in Product Design and Life Cycle Assessment.
  2. Read chapter 4: Implementing eco-design in Product Design and Life Cycle Assessment.
  3. Explore the concept of biomimicry (e.g. on Biomimicry Institute)
  4. Study some examples of sustainable products and judge how good they are (e.g. at Biothinking)

Advanced level (deepening)

  1. Read chapter 9: Applying LCA – Comparing two windows in Product Design and Life Cycle Assessment.
  2. Read Case Study 3: Eco-buildings – European projects for ecological building, Germany and Sweden in Product Design and Life Cycle Assessment.
  3. Study certification systems for buildings on the Internet LEED, BREEAM, Nordic Swan.


Additional Material

Eco-labelling is an important strategy within the European Union work for Sustainable Production and Consumption, as briefly shown in the first film. The second film shows the case of a small Estonian printing company, EcoPrint.

Film 1: Sustainable consumption & production: a greener world (YouTube film)
Film 2: Ecoprint (YouTube film)



Rydén, L. (ed.) 1997. The Foundations of Sustainable Development – Ethics, law, culture and the physical boundaries. A Sustainable Baltic Region. Session 9. Baltic University Press, Uppsala.

Wackernagel, M., Schulz, N.B., Deumling, D., Callejas Linares, A., Jenkins, M., Kapos, V., Monfreda, C., Loh, J., Myers. M., Norgaard, R. and J. Randers. 2002. Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy. PNAS vol. 99  no. 14: 9266–9271. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.142033699

Zbicinski, I., Stavenuiter, J., Kozlowska, B. and H.P.M. van de Coevering. 2006. Product Design and Life Cycle Assessment. Environmental Management, Book 3. Baltic University Press, Uppsala.


BUP Sustainable Development Course

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