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Sustainable consumption: what role for consumers?

Research project OA/20 (Research action OA)

Persons :

Description :


Thanks to this "cluster" project a dozen of teams having dealt with different sustainable consumption aspects in the framework of the Scientific Policy SPP programmes compare and share their researches with the goal to achieve a common scientific publication.
The common theme is the different facets of the roles that the consumers play, can play, or cannot play in the context set by sustainable consumption policies.
The teams have already established collaboration links as shown below.

The working mode includes the organisation of four research seminars with presentations by project members and foreign guests selected for their competence at international (mostly European) level. These speakers will also take part in the final publication (book), which is notably aimed at spreading Belgian research abroad.

For ensuring outside the scientific sphere the use of relevant results in support to policies in the matters dealt with, a specifically adapted synthesis will be written and disseminated.

Hereafter the questions raised in the project are exposed in more detail

There is widespread agreement on the necessity to deeply alter our production and consumption patterns in order to reach sustainable development objectives. The integrated product policies (IPP promoted by the EU), in this respect increasingly emphasize the consumers' role, notably through dissemination of information. Indeed one can observe an unfailing interest in the population for ecological and sustainable development issues (even if correct comprehension of daily impacts remains low). Some individuals and organisations are looking for means of action or commitment through consumption acts or consumption uses. In parallel, according to the stakeholders’ theory, firms put forward market stimulation to move towards more sustainable products.
But at the same time some more lukewarm assessments have to be made.
The implementations of product policies bump against serious practical problems and voluntary actions do not seem the more effective in caring for the environment. The scientific literature has considered for several years that knowledge and care for ecological topics do not guarantee the most appropriate attitudes. Many studies suggest that informing and communicating on environmental matters has very limited impacts in terms of consumers’ attitudes and behaviour. This is corroborated by recent research projects taking part in the present cluster. However these findings remain poorly integrated in the "information to action" approach.

Other researches show that consumers ask for more collectively supported and structured actions. Similarly, following business managers taking part in enterprise European surveys, it is, among other tools, the legislations that are quoted as first factors of change in the field of environment, while consumers and consumer associations’ pressures are listed several ranks lower.
In this contrasted context, it appears that policies that are aiming at making consumption more sustainable are calling for improved understanding of the consumers' role.

Here is a list of research issues that the partner teams have selected as interesting to take into consideration within the framework of this project.

- As a backdrop, the consumer society, its genealogy and evolution. Genealogy and archaeology of the "consumer". Since when, in what context, within what institutions, has one been speaking of "the consumer" and how? How should the evolution of the "merchandising" of social relationships be analysed? How do the more recent call for sustainable consumption take place in such an evolution?
- What do we know about the relation between consumption and: well-being, quality of life, health, personal fulfilment, etc.
- Different approaches of the consumer: what does for instance distinguish "psycho-sociological" (marketing) and "sociological" approaches? How should the links between needs, wishes, desires, wants, impulses, etc. be analysed in regard to this context?
- What do we know about the attitude and behaviour logics showed in reaction to the messages and policy instruments in favour of sustainable consumption patterns? How are these reactions distributed in a population (socio-economic, cultural profiles)?
- What does "informing the consumers" really mean? Who reads the labels? Who plainly understand them? Which are the decisive elements in the consumers' choice? Role of routine, proximity relationships, etc.
- What is the role of advertising in consumption? Can that sector be regulated?
- What part does (small, middle, large) distribution play in consumption? How do consumers influence it ?
- Social (ethical) and environmental (bio) aspects of consumption: convergence and divergence. What links can one establish between "responsible consumption" and some forms of political activism?

Detailed description of the scientific methodology

As exposed above, this project of cluster is mainly a mode of organizing exchanges of knowledge among the teams involved : it is a building capacity process leading to publishing main results.

The first stage (February to April 2004) saw the organization of internal meetings to define a provisional program of four seminars. Together, the researchers involved have agreed on a repartition of questions and on short lists of speakers to invite.

Each seminar was more particularly managed by two teams (changing from seminar to seminar, in correlation to their location). These had the responsibility for launching the invitations, for contacting and hosting the invited speakers, for running practical commodities, and so on. Each of the two seminars held in 2004 (June and November) was attended by approximately 20-30 people, all scientifically active in the field. Each presentation (half-an-hour) was followed by a serious time of discussion (approx. half-an-hour).

The organization of seminars and the intellectual exchanges that were related have certainly deepened the interrelations between researchers in some main Belgian universities (and the Centre for Research and Information of Consumers Organizations) on the subject.

So far, the foreign invited speakers have found the possibility to integrate their questions and findings in the proposed framework, and have accepted to submit a paper for the final publication. This gives a favorable signal as to the connection between the Belgian network and European research, and it will also give an added value for the foreseen publication.

To sustain the communication among the members, a specific web-site was devoted to the project, thanks to the hospitality of one university partner. It is a sub-site of at the Catholic University of Louvain, and it functions only by private access for the members of the cluster.

Documentation :

Consommation durable : quel rôle pour le consommateur ? Synthèse des recherches menées dans le cluster consommation durable du PADD II    Bruxelles : Politique scientifique fédérale, 2007 (SP1739)
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Duurzame consumptie : welke rol is er voor de consumenten weggelegd ? Synthese van onderzoeken uitgevoerd in de cluster duurzame consumptie van het PODO II    Brussel : Federaal Wetenschapsbeleid, 2007 (SP1740)
[To download

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