As the holiday shopping season got off to an early start this year, clothing company Patagonia took a courageous stand with a full-page ad in The New York Times telling consumers to buy less. The ad went on to say, "Don't buy what you don't need. Think twice before you buy anything."
If you are like me, you probably have an uneasy feeling in your stomach when you hear the term "sustainable consumption." After more than two decades of talking about it, and in spite of advances in resource efficiencies, we are not all that much closer to consuming sustainably. The fact is, it is enormously difficult to do this without actually reducing what we consume.
Take clean energy, for example. Supplies are currently limited, costs can be higher and breakthroughs are still needed in battery technologies, solar energy and biofuels before renewables can replace fossil energy on a large scale. In time, with the right investments and policies, the breakthroughs can happen, but we are not there yet.
Can we rely primarily on energy efficiencies in the meantime? Up to a point, yes; but efficiencies are not a panacea for all our energy problems. Energy efficiencies are known to cause rebounds, which can reduce potential energy savings by stimulating additional energy use.
What about an idea such as using white roofs to reflect sunlight and reduce the energy cost of cooling? The downside to this, as a recent study found, is that the additional sunlight reflected from roofs could be absorbed by dark pollutants in the atmosphere and end up warming the Earth.
In recent years, only the financial crisis has been able to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, both in the United States and globally. According to the International Energy Agency, global emissions dipped in 2009 because of the recession and then climbed back to a record level just a year later.
On the materials side, recycling is one activity that many of us participate in. And yet, closing the materials loop remains a challenge. Recycled materials clearly produce lower environmental impacts, including lower greenhouse gas emissions. But supplies are still limited, costs can sometimes be higher and further technological advances are needed to make the collection and processing of recyclables more efficient. There are many similarities between the market struggles of recycled materials and renewable energy.
What about the food sector? Isn't it more sustainable to eat organically produced food? Yes, with the caveat that several studies have noted lower efficiencies and yields in organic production -- so land use could increase as organic production expands. As far as locally produced food, greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly lower compared with food brought in from elsewhere (unless the food is air-freighted) and could be higher in some cases because of inefficient local transport.
My point is not that there are no good solutions; it is simply that virtually every solution out there is either incomplete or has a downside. We should still support the most promising solutions with our purchasing power and vote for policies that can take them further. We should also rethink the notion that we can consume our way to sustainability by always choosing the environmentally preferable products.
It is not just what we consume, it is also how much we consume.
Kumar Venkat is the founder and president of CleanMetrics Corp., a Portland-based provider of sustainability and resource efficiency solutions for businesses.