Barkemeyer R, Young W, Chintakayala P, Owen A. Hijacking sustainable consumption? Presented at the 2019 Corporate Responsibility Research Conference; September 11, 2019. Tampere, Finland.

Sustainable consumption represents a growing niche with an increasing number of initiatives aiming at lowering domestic ecological footprints. Product labelling has emerged as one of the dominant governance mechanisms to promote sustainable consumption. One important question in this context is to what extent purchasing of labelled products really indicates more sustainable consumption patterns, and to what extent mainstreaming of product labelling can actually help us to achieve a transition towards sustainability. Here, we report on two inter-related and multi-level studies into the link between consumption of labelled products and different types of environmental resource consumption. At the macro-level, we compare willingness to purchase labelled products across 26 EU economies and find that sustainable consumption flourishes in economies that are characterised by higher levels of overall resource consumption. At the microlevel, we conduct an analysis of UK data and find that higher levels of labelled product consumption are associated with higher levels of various types of resource consumption. In other words, sustainable consumerism in its current form is inextricably linked to more affluent consumers and to actually higher – rather than lower – levels of resource consumption. Whilst purchasing of labelled products is associated with the uptake of certain types of low-cost environmental behaviours, the opposite effect is observed for a number of high-cost behaviours that in fact drive ecological footprints. Thus, our analysis shows that product labelling schemes – and with them the idea of charging higher premiums for more sustainable products – largely reflect a moral licensing mechanism rather than driving sustainable change. Consequently, the results of our study also imply that the common practice of employing attitudinal surveys, focusing on consumers’ willingness to pay higher premiums for sustainable labelled products, should not be misinterpreted as an indicator of overall sustainable consumption.

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