Theories of (Un)sustainable Consumption

Clive L. Spash, Karin Dobernig

Publication: Working/Discussion PaperWU Working Paper


In this discussion paper we review and contrast alternative theories of consumption in terms
of the intellectual basis they provide for understanding sustainable behaviours. A defining
aspect of the modern literature in this field is the emphasis on the individual as a volitional
agent who engages wilfully in the decision to consume. This is in stark contrast to earlier
literature that concentrated on the structural lock-in of individuals to undesirable consumption
patterns and the powers of corporations in creating consumer demand for their products and
services. We argue that, in order to unravel consumption in its full complexity, and as a
matter of utmost importance, understanding must include both the buy-in of individual agents,
whose consumption activities contribute to their self-identity, and the structure imposed by
the institutions of society, that frame the context of actors' decisions. More than this, any
move away from the current unsustainable consumption patterns prevalent in modern
societies requires a richer conceptualisation of consumption that involves an awareness and
examination of the political economy in which humans live.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationVienna
PublisherWU Vienna University of Economics and Business
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Publication series

NameSRE - Discussion Papers

WU Working Paper Series

  • SRE - Discussion Papers

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