“A lot of people know that we are consuming more than the planet can sustain, at least at a basic level, but they don’t know what to do about it. If we want to see changes in behaviour, then that has to begin in the classroom.”
Kristen Hargis is a Master’s student in the Educational Foundations program at the University of Saskatchewan. Two books she read as an undergraduate influenced her thinking about consumption. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical encouraged critical thinking, while another, Serve God, Save the Planet, demonstrated that material downscaling could lead to healthier lives.
“I really started noticing the massive amount of overconsumption all around me,” Kristen says. “I went into my Master’s wanting to figure out how we can get to the point where we don't need to add “sustainable” to consumption because all consumption, or at least most of it, is sustainable.”
Teaching Sustainable Consumption
Kristen’s research is nestled within a much larger project called the Sustainability and Education Policy Network (SEPN), which is based at the University of Saskatchewan. SEPN is a network of researchers and organizations advancing sustainability in education policy and practice across Canada. It is the first large-scale, national-level research collaboration to collect and analyze comparable data at all levels of education with the goal of enabling educational change for a more sustainable future.
Kristen’s thesis will assess how faculty conceptualize sustainable consumption themselves and within their classroom, how sustainable consumption is taught and how those methods developed, and whether sustainability policies are influencing actual teaching practices.
“The chief aim of this study is not to prove a hypothesis but to provide a deeper understanding of how sustainable consumption has been defined and taught within the classroom,” Kristen says.
Reasons for Consumption
“Consumption is more convoluted than individual acts of consumption or production,” Kristen says, “and I believe that consumer education should reflect these complexities.” Her educational research literature review produced four different reasons for consumption.
Functional: Functional consumption fulfills innate human needs for things like food, water, and shelter. “This category also addresses healthy food consumption,” Kristen says. “A wholesome diet, that includes local produce and plant-based rather than animal-based products and that doesn’t include processed foods or eating more than one’s daily energy requirements, has environmental and human benefits in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, relieving pressure on biodiversity, and improving the overall health of the individual.”
Sociological: The sociological role of consumption focuses on the purpose that consumption has in our lives as individuals and as members of social groups. This includes institutional considerations (e.g., race, gender, and class) as well as how people talk about consumption and any power struggles that might be involved. “For example, when white people move to the suburbs to avoid living beside people of a different race, they must drive even further, using more fossil fuels in the form of gasoline, to get to work, go shopping, etc.,” Kristen says.
Psychological: There are psychological reasons why we as individuals consume, such as identity, emotions, status competition, and activism, and these affect our choices. “We buy certain clothes and accessories to fit into the identity that we want,” Kristen says. “For example, environmentalists are often associated with hiking clothes, backpacks, tents, etc. This can include a wide variety of identities and environmentalists aren’t exempt.”
Economic: The economic role of consumption considers the implications for consumers who are inevitably linked to a market system. “Buying greener products has been suggested as a way to battle over-consumption,” Kristen says. “But green consumerism, while not quintessentially harmful, sanctions environmentally conscious consumption without considering consumption levels.”
Consumption in the Classroom
Kristen’s literature review found numerous studies on sustainability and sustainable development in general. Very few, however, focused on sustainable consumption and even fewer had a higher education focus.
There are two interesting accounts of how individual teachers have introduced the topic, one at the high school level and the other at the primary school level.
Bill Bigelow brought a soccer ball into the classroom and asked his students to observe it closely and write about it. “Made in Pakistan was stenciled in small print on the ball, but very few students thought that fact significant enough to include in their descriptions. However, these three tiny words offered the most important clue to the human lives hidden in ‘just a soccer ball’ – a clue to the invisible Pakistanis whose hands had crafted the ball sitting in the middle of the classroom.”
Helen Carida looked at primary pupils’ habits and behaviours in Greece. “Sustainable consumption is one of the most recent challenges in the field of education,” Carida says. “Specifically, the aim of this article is to identify the pupils' sustainable and unsustainable practices, considering their personal dimensions of everyday living, and giving a particular meaning to consumer education in Greece.”
Kristen points out that it’s not enough to understand how faculty conceptualize consumption. You also have to examine their teaching methods. “For example, if sustainable consumption is only taught by referring to facts, the subjective message may be that learning facts is all that is required to address and understand sustainable consumption,” Kristen says. “If active components are infused throughout teaching about sustainable consumption (e.g. experiential learning, problem-based learning), the subjective meaning could be that we must act, not just listen and learn.”
It Starts in the Classroom
Kristen believes that a lot of people know that we are consuming more than the planet can sustain but don’t know what to do about it. “If we want to see changes in behaviour, then that has to begin in the classroom,” Kristen says.
“It should also be noted that when I talk about changes in behaviour, I don’t just mean individual behaviour changes because those are not enough. I mean having an informed citizenry that knows how to apply appropriate political pressure to see real systemic and structural changes happening within society.”
Articles & Websites
The Story of Stuff
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Don’t Buy This Jacket - Patagonia
Ikea Wants You to Stop Throwing Away Your Ikea Furniture
What is Degrowth? Envisioning a Prosperous Descent
New Business Aims to Change the Way We Thrift Shop
The Story of Stuff: The Impact of Overconsumption on the Planet, Our Communities and Our Health – And How We Can Make It Better, Annie Leonard
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein