One of the biggest challenges for global environmental governance is “the problem of consumption.” The task involves far more than simply influencing what consumers choose, use, and discard. It requires a concerted effort to address the systemic drivers—including advertising, economic growth, technology, income inequality, corporations, population growth, and globalization—that shape the quantities, costs, and distribution of consumer goods. Current efforts to green consumption are “improving” management on many measures, such as per unit energy and resource use. Yet, this essay argues, such “progress” needs to be seen in the context of a rising global population and rising per capita consumption, where states and companies displace much of the costs of consumption far from those who are doing most of the consuming. This raises many questions about the value of sub-global measures for evaluating the environmental effectiveness of efforts to govern consumption. It also suggests the need for more global cooperation to mitigate the ecological effects of consumption. Current international initiatives such as the Marrakech process to draft a 10-Year Framework on “sustainable production and consumption,” however, will need to go well beyond simply promoting efficiencies, new technologies, and a greening of household consumption. Researchers in global environmental politics can assist here by probing even further into the complexity of governing the drivers and consequences of consumption, then working to thread these findings into the international policy process.
I would like to thank Jane Lister (postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia's Liu Institute for Global Issues) as well as the participants and organizers (Jennifer Clapp, Steven Bernstein, and Matthew Hoffmann) at the Workshop on Governance: New Frontiers in Global Environmental Governance, University of Waterloo, 28–29 January 2009, for providing perceptive feedback on this essay. The anonymous reviewers for Global Environmental Politics were also especially helpful, and for this I am grateful, too.