UN Climate Summit and the Place of Ethical Consumption Research

Last week (23rd September 2014) saw the UN Climate Summit, where global leaders from Government, business, finance and civil society came together to announce their commitments to action in areas that are critical for keeping global temperature increases to less than two degrees C. The 8 proposed Action Areas were Agriculture, Cities, Energy, Financing, Forests, Industry, Resilience and Transportation. I’m not going to provide a summary of the summit because there is plenty of information online but it has prompted me to share some thoughts from two conferences I went to this summer.


Have a look at this climate map from the Guardian (click here). Watch how, as my friend said, the world ‘breathes in and out’ as you flick between highest population data and highest consumption – or consumption and all levels of highest vulnerability to climate change. It comes as no surprise that the countries with the highest levels of consumption are not the countries with the highest population, nor those at greatest risk of problems associated with sea level rise and poverty.

The inequality is both startling and disgusting, and world leaders at the summit did appear to be concerned about the tangible effects of climate change in the form of severe weather events. In a press conference following Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli’s speech, Xie Zhenhua, vice-chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, told reporters that “weather extremes have greatly affected the Chinese people.” According to a report by the European Commission, China’s carbon emissions increased by around 10% PER YEAR in the decade prior to 2013 at which point it slowed to a 3% increase, whilst the EU had a 4% decrease.

In order to slow CO2 emissions we need a greater commitment to more sustainable consumption, at all scales, from personal to global. Whilst we do drastically need to cut carbon emissions, I think this could be framed more positively through a holistic sustainable consumption approach rather than focusing on carbon emissions per se. Lots of research is being done to try and learn more about consumer behavior and the motivation behind individual action. With climate change now regarded to be a critical policy issue, what’s the place of social science research in this agenda?

I attended two brilliant workshops/conferences over the summer that got me thinking about just that:

Ethical consumption and the globalising middle-classes: Philosophies, policies and practices, Durham University

Sustainable consumption and lifecourse transitions, University of Surrey.

They were only a week apart, so it was great to immerse myself in these overlapping topics and tease out the key themes across the two. The content of course did differ, as did many of the approaches with Durham being mainly geographers and Surrey mainly attended by sociologists, however I certainly got a sense of where future research is headed, and which directions we should steer it in.

The key theme for Durham was ‘globalising’, the argument being that most of the research conducted on ethical consumption is exclusively from the point of view of the West. Such research utilises a Western take on what it means to be ethical to consider the role of the consumer in the Global North and the producer in the Global South. Events like the UN Summit on climate change rely on a global agreement to produce any effect; therefore we cannot continue to be bound to this north/south dichotomy but should instead look at different variables and viewpoints. A couple of particularly interesting points to take from this workshop for me were –

How are ‘ethical’ products marketed within the Global South and what does this say about different attitudes and values?

What do we mean by ethics? Can we start laying judgement on ethical endeavours elsewhere without an understanding of the different cultural definitions of ethics?

As an example, a well-known chain/department store in Bangladesh called Aarong states on it’s website that it “is dedicated to bring about positive changes in the lives of disadvantaged artisans and underprivileged rural women” yet according to Prof. Nicky Gregson, there is no mention of this message in store. The growing middle-class (30m people) in Bangladesh are shopping to keep up with the latest fashions. Status as exemplified by taste is of utmost importance, and shopping at Aarong enables a form of distinction for this group. The ethics are silent though, rather than capitalising on ethics for commodity value, Aarong is an example of consumption with ethical effects not ethical consumption as a route for political action.

This is quite a different way of thinking through ethical consumption, which at least in the Global North, is considered a purposeful act to play out identities, politics and status. As discussed (but certainly not proven) during the workshop, perhaps such explicit reference to ethical production/consumption is too close to home in Bangladesh. With cheap clothes accounting for around 78% of total exports, the garment industry is both a source of ethical contention and a major factor in the increasing wealth of the growing elite. Similarly, in South Africa and Kenya locally sourced fair trade brands sell to their own middle-class not by focusing on a message to help the poor but on ‘love Africa’. Place, and therefore geography, is critical in forwarding this work and expanding the definition of what it means to be an ‘ethical consumer’.

The need for consistent terminology also came up at the Surrey conference and is particularly important if we want ethical/sustainable consumption research to successfully span different countries, cultures and disciplines. We discussed whether more interventionist research is indeed ethical as I proposed it as a helpful way to move forward in understanding how to change consumer behaviour. It’s one thing trying to find out why we act the way we do, but what about ‘nudging’ individuals to do things differently? As the title of the workshop suggests, we discussed lifecourse transitions, moving into the metaphysical realm of postulating how views of life after death may alter what we do in life. Maybe its philosophy we are missing? There are many ways to approach research on sustainable/ethical consumption/lifestyles and I think we’ve only reached the tip of the iceberg. The important thing, is to keep sharing ideas not just with each other but with policy makers and society at large too – globally.

Post to Twitter

Public and Private Morality of Climate Change: An Easy Solution?

John Broome is a philosopher and economist, Whites Professor of Moral Philosophy at University of Oxford and Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. I get the impression that he is an economist trying to work in some kind of sphere of morality rather than a philosopher studying issues related to economics. In Broome’s lecture ‘Public and Private Morality of Climate Change’, part of the Ethical Challenges series of public lectures at the University of Southampton, he stated that preventing climate change is simple and requires little effort on our part. Intrigued?

Broome’s answer is offsetting carbon emissions; a practical but in my view unsustainable, quick fix. The first half of his lecture focused on the duty of justice and the duty of goodness. According to Broome, we all have an individual duty to prevent climate change. In this way individuals have a private duty of justice to ensure that their individual actions do not contribute to climate change (private morality). Governments however, do not have a duty of justice to prevent climate change, but they do have a duty of goodness (public morality). This is different to the widely held view that governments have a responsibility to stop climate change.

The issue of climate change is a moral one. We actively cause carbon dioxide emissions, it is not accidental. We generally create emissions for our own benefit and we don’t compensate the victims of our harm. A paper published in Nature from 2005 states: “The World Health Organisation estimates that the warming and precipitation trends due to anthropogenic climate change of the past 30 years already claim over 150,000 lives annually”. It cannot be argued that those most affected by the impact of climate change are not those who are contributing to the problem in the main; therefore we have a moral duty to remedy this injustice.

Broome presents the concept of offsetting as a practical solution to the problem of climate change. In this way, we as consumers in the developed world can continue to consume as much as we like and are used to, if we balance out the carbon emissions. This leads to a balance of greenhouse gases, thus ensuring that our presence on earth does not contribute to climate change on the individual level. All of this comes under private morality; it is our duty of justice to offset. The Government then has a duty of goodness to help us with this by providing loans, carbon tax and carbon tax compensation for those members of society in a lower income bracket. This ‘simple economics’ of passing money back and forth means that we can live guilt free for now, only to leave the next generation with a financial debt to service.

Offsets are typically achieved through financial support of projects that reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. A number of organisations offer this ‘offsetting service’ so for a few hundred pounds a year; you can offset all of your carbon emissions. Broome commented that many environmentalists do not agree with offsetting, so I guess that makes me an environmentalist because I struggle to see the sense in paying to buy things, and then paying to offset what we have bought. Surely what we need is to consume less? Carbon emissions are just one part of a wider sustainability issue and I believe it has to be tackled holistically rather than cherry picking.

That said I don’t have a better solution, at least not a realistic one. I can only compare it to Kate Soper’s idealist view of ‘alternative hedonism’ and the need for a return to the good life. Soper’s keynote which I attended last year stated that we need a drastic transformation of the global economic system for a truly sustainable future. We must radically consume less but rather than advocate a restricted and reduced mode of living, emphasise the pleasures consumerism denies and the displeasures it generates.

We are plagued by state contradictions of economic and ecological promises and maybe offsetting is a solution to this, but I don’t understand where the morality sits with leaving future generations a (further) burden of debt. I think selling the concept, as Broome did, as an easy solution is dangerous because I see our individual duty of justice for future generations as a duty to consume less. But then I’m a hypocrite, I consume plenty more than I’d morally like to. There is no easy long term solution.

Patz, A. et al. (2005) Impact of regional climate change on human health. Nature, 438, pp.310-317

Post to Twitter

British Sociological Association Climate Change Conference

Last Friday (30th March 2012) I attended the one day BSA Climate Change Conference at the University of Southampton. Titled ‘Conceptual and methodological approaches for researching climate change at different societal scales’ the conference looked at climate change from a social science perspective, rather than policy or environmental science for example. If you consider that the little everyday actions such as washing, driving and working all use a significant amount of energy, it is clear that these practices have implications for climate change at a range of societal scales – individual, household, workplace, community, regional, national and international. In short, I and many others would argue, human behaviour is central to climate change. The conference focused on methodological approaches and sociological concepts as sociological research on climate change is still a relatively young field.

There were key note speeches by Prof. John Urry, Dr Pauline Leonard, Prof. Elizabeth Shove, Prof. Patrick Devine-Wright and Dr Heather Lovell, followed by paper workshops in the afternoon. It was a really beneficial day for me, not least because I am at the stage of working on my own PhD methodology. There are many ways to look at my PhD topic which focuses on second-hand retail. One way is the sustainability angle, as clearly the practice of buying second-hand items shuns the need to use virgin resources.

So if human actions (practices as termed in the academic literature) are central to climate change, how can we go about changing these practices? Can we alter them? According to Urry, people are creatures of social habituation. Habits can spread through media and advertising, to become embodied social practices which are difficult to reverse. Indeed systems can get ‘locked in’ over decades in relationship to one another. The secret to combating global warming, Urry argues, is a reversal of most of the systems, practices and habits set in place during the 20th Century. There are a number of problems associated with finding this reverse gear:

1. Carbon capital -systemic carbon interests who themselves are causing the rising GHG emissions.
2. The long term path dependencies of existing systems.
3. Low carbon economy could reduce short term levels of income and consumption.
4. General slowness of societal change.
5. States are rarely able to bring about change from the top partly because of resistance and opposition.
6. Lack of time available to make a seismic shift or system reversal since the atmospheric changes are already ‘in the system’ – is it too late?
7. The need to develop multiple systems simultaneously to generate a new low carbon cluster.

Urry then goes on to contradict his original statement of the need to find a reverse gear, instead arguing that what is actually required is a whole new system, built from scratch, which makes the existing model obsolete. He uses the example of the car and puts forward ideas for a ‘post car system’.
I have picked up on Urry’s talk because of the similarities with the themes that came to light during the Sustainable Consumption Conference in Hamburg last year. The idea that each of us needs to radically alter our practices and lifestyles in order to live for a more sustainable future.

Devine-Wright spoke about the influence of locality in his presentation, the concept that people are only interested in doing what is ethically or morally right if it affects their immediate sense of place. The further away in time and space an issue is, the less people are interested or concerned. Devine-Wright also picks up on a lack of dialogue between human geography and psychology and perhaps this needs to be addressed in future work on social practice. If it is agreed that human action has contributed, or even caused global warming, how ever are we going to change people’s habits and whose responsibility is it to make it happen?

Post to Twitter

Earth Hour: Climate change

Tonight, Sat 26th March, is Earth Hour. Are you joining in? Earth Hour started in Sydney in 2007 when 2.2 million people turned their lights off to make a stand against climate change. Last year was the biggest Earth Hour ever with 128 countries taking part. Organised by WWF, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and China have already turned off on mass to recognise Earth Hour, and I plan to do the same at 8:30 this evening.

I have to say, I’m pretty good at turning lights off. In fact it really annoys me when I see lights on unnecessarily, once you start to give it more thought it just becomes habit to switch them off. Obviously turning off lights for just an hour isn’t going to make a huge amount of difference to climate change, but the publicity around the event aims to make people continue to think about the issue after the hour is up. Climate change remains an issue for debate. World temperatures reached a global high in 1998, but fluctuated in the following years, leading some people to believe that climate change ‘stopped’ in 1998. In early 2011 the World Meteorological Organisation announced that 2010 was the joint hottest year on record along with 1998 and 2005.

There is no doubt that the temperature of the Earth has been steadily rising for decades, but I do understand where the sceptics out there are coming from. Some scientists and members of the public alike, argue that ‘climate change’ is a natural change in the Earth’s life cycle, having been through a number of dramatic climatic changes over the last 4 billion years. This may be the case, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that human activity is now intervening. Atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, coined the term ‘anthropocene’ in 2000 to explain the affect that human activity is having on the world. He stated that we are entering a new geological era (the anthropocene era) due to the affect of human activity. If humans destroy the Earth by using up fossil fuels and causing global warming, they are destroying themselves as a species, the Earth, however, will live on as it has done in previous millennia. Of course, some say that the Earth does a good enough job causing disasters itself, just witness the terrible earthquake in Japan.

I often think, hey, it will be ok, the human species will adapt. Advances in technology and science will allow us all to live a carbon neutral life. Or will they? I don’t know. What I do believe, is that humans don’t have the right to mess with nature and our current way of life has become unsustainable.

Post to Twitter