Living without a car, avoiding air travel, switching to a plant-based diet and having fewer children are some changes that have major environmental benefits and should therefore be prioritized. Despite this, many consumers associate environmental friendliness with less effective changes such as choosing locally produced products, organic food or introducing a vegetarian day a week. If the public lacks the ability to distinguish effective changes from ineffective ones, the chances are low that Sweden will achieve consumption-related environmental goals, says Elin Petersson, a student at Linnaeus University.
Consumption is today one of the most contributing factors to environmental destruction, and an area where Sweden's actions are under all criticism. Of the 17 sustainability goals designed by the UN, goal 12, which concerns sustainable consumption and production, poses major challenges for Sweden. While we in Sweden account for a marginal part of global emissions, consumption-based calculations show that Sweden has one of the largest per capita ecological footprints in the world. If the earth's population were to live as we in Sweden, 4,2 globes would be required, which strongly shows the opposite of sustainability. Current consumption patterns are devastating to our planet and a change must take place. The question is, however, whether the public knows what changes actually make a difference, since the environmental effects of our consumption are not diminishing despite an increased interest in sustainability among the population.
Politics, media and economic interests today permeate the environmental debate, something that reduces the opportunity for the public to act effectively and factually. At the same time, several studies show that the environmental level of knowledge among the population is low, which further reduces the chance of a shift towards a sustainable society. When it comes to consumption patterns in general, existing research has identified psychological, cultural, social and economic factors as obstacles to behavioral change. It is of the utmost importance to overcome these obstacles in order to get more people to consume sustainably, but if this is not done together with a focus on increased knowledge of which choices actually make a difference, the environmental problems will persist. What I mean by this is that many consumption choices that are both marketed and perceived as environmentally friendly only bring minimal environmental benefits in practice. The changes in consumption that bring great environmental benefits, such as living without a car or eating plant-based, should be given priority over changes that have only small environmental benefits, such as buying locally produced or organic products. This is rarely noticed in today's environmental debate, which initiated a study in which I examined consumers' perceptions of environmental friendliness in more detail.
The study shows a number of obstacles to sustainability linked to individual perceptions of environmental friendliness. For example, the participants perceived 'environmentally friendly consumption' as complex, they lacked credible information from authorities and they experienced an abundance of misleading information from for-profit actors. In addition, the study showed misconceptions about the environmental impact of individuals' consumption choices. For example, organic and locally grown food was often mentioned as environmentally friendly, the problem with this is that neither organic nor locally produced food is the solution to the problems associated with our food production. We have a limited area to cultivate on which decreases in step with increased desertification, at the same time populations grow and the need for food increases. Organic cultivation today requires more land than conventional cultivation and contributes to increased deforestation, which is not sustainable. Choosing locally produced can also not be seen as a solution, as transport only accounts for a small part of all the environmental impact from our food production. The production of meat and dairy requires so many resources in the form of land, water and energy - buying organic or locally produced products can not compensate for that. A switch to a plant-based diet has more, and more extensive, environmental benefits, a fact that seems far from well-known. The study also identified a focus on reducing, rather than completely refraining from, such consumption that has a major environmental impact, for example, was mentioned to buy an electric or hybrid car or to ride together as environmentally friendly choices. The same problem arises in this case, as this only entails small environmental benefits, while much of the total environmental impact remains. If, on the other hand, more people choose a car-free life, the effects can be drastically reduced, for example, the need for new roads and parking spaces would be reduced, as well as the total emissions from traffic and queuing.
Although the study examined a limited sample, the results suggest that individuals' perceptions - or misconceptions - linked to environmentally friendly consumption hinder sustainability. If the public lacks the ability to distinguish effective changes at the individual level from ineffective changes, the chances are low that Sweden will achieve the consumption-related environmental goals that have been set. It is not realistic to expect a voluntary total change in the consumption habits of an entire population when that change is not prioritized, encouraged or made possible by those in power. Information on the choices that play a major role in our path towards sustainability must be disseminated at all levels of society, and the opportunity for the public to act in accordance with that information must be ensured. If we get stuck in the current situation, where a cloth bag brought to the grocery store, an organic milk and a waste sorting system in the home are painted as environmentally friendly enough, concrete improvement will continue to shine with its absence.
The study in its entirety: The process towards environmental sustainability and the influence of perceptions