Sustainable consumption remains a key goal today, as reflected in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12. But it is often hard to see the environmental impact of things that people use, consume and interact with on a daily basis. In many cases, complex global supply chains make it almost impossible to know which products are more sustainable, placing an unreasonable burden on consumers to make ‘the right choice’.  

However, consumers may still use some basic common sense principles to assess the environmental consequences of their consumption. Consuming less almost always means reducing the use of resources. When consuming less is not possible, extending the useful life of items by repairing them or finding others who have use for items that are no longer needed, intuitively makes sense. By slowing the speed at which items are discarded, we slow the material demand for new products. 

Finally, when a product has reached the end of its useful life, most people are aware that finding innovative ways to reuse its constituent parts and recycle what cannot be reused are likely to reduce negative environmental impacts by reducing pressure on the extraction of raw materials.  

Is a transformation from a resource-intensive to a circular way of living possible? Many examples exist already for people’s engagement in circular consumption. A thriving second hand market for clothes both offline and online, the rise of repair cafes and successful recycling schemes for household and electronic waste spring to mind. Importantly, these practices can open up new ways of understanding consumption and its impacts on society and the environment and foster greater resource awareness and circularity literacy. 

Circular consumption contributes to an economic pathway that promises a more sustainable future in a resource-and climate-constrained world. However, significant regulatory, market and social supports will be needed to provide the right signals to both producers and consumers to strive for higher levels of circularity. 

By Eoin Grealis and Henrike Rau – LMU