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JIIS Bulletin - April 2012
Striving toward "sustainable consumerism"
There are no two ways about it: the developed world cannot maintain into the future the patterns of consumerism it enjoyed for much of the 20th century. True, many countries enjoy more affluence and their populations are healthier than ever before, but such prosperity is not a given – on the contrary, we might be pushing ourselves into a corner. 

JIIS' Environmental Policy Center (EPC) has been exploring trends and possibilities that can help lead to change in the way societies behave; the concept is called "sustainable consumerism." 

This is not about dropping living standards, but rather opening doors to new practices that are better suited to the world we will wake up to tomorrow. 

Dr. Miki Haran, chairman of the Israel Consumer Council and former director-general of the Ministry of the Environment, together with Tali Spiegel, has written a strategy document within the framework of the EPC’s Israel Sustainability Outlook 2030 project. She recently outlined the paper's premises in a presentation (in Hebrew). 

"Out of the long list of changes to consumer behavior that must be made," she says, "two subjects are central: consumerism of services rather than products and shared consumerism of products. This isn't only about finding products that are technologically and energy efficient but rather those that embody creative solutions and business models that can really have an impact on our lives and changing needs.

"Sustainable consumerism is about changing consumer behavior by reducing the use of fossil fuels, of food waste, and so on, while encouraging recycling and the use of products that are both technologically and energy-efficient. If we are to reduce our carbon footprint," she adds, we will have to shift disposable income in directions of services, leisure, communications and education rather than in the consumerism of products." 

Experts believe that there is an opportunity for change now as businesses are trying to think "green" – though governments have yet to catch up. "Business communities, by definition, demonstrate flexibility and innovation that lead them to think differently all the time," says Haran. "Take, for example, international companies like eBay or the car-sharing company Zipcar, which embody recycling and consumer-sharing, as do the bicycle rental options now found in numerous cities, including Tel Aviv." 

Old examples of companies that provide a service include, say, Xerox, which rented out photocopiers, meaning that the company also took responsibility for its repair of parts and ultimate disposal. "The advantage to this marketing method is two-fold: there is an incentive for the company to maintain the product in good working order, so that it has a long life, and to retain the customer." 

So businesses are making moves in the right direction, consumers, even in Israel, have shown that they are willing to make changes – as seen in their ability to save water in recent years and separate some of their waste. But the government sector has yet to jump on the bandwagon in a serious way. "When the government realizes just how important this issue is, things will really move. And I do foresee positive changes ahead." 

Haran notes that there will always be some people who want to maintain their high level of consumerism and not make changes "but they will have to pay for that. There is no room for loss or waste." 

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