The argument advanced in this paper aims to show that complex and inconsistent incentives schemes have to be gradually revised when implementing sustainable consumption policies. Referring to recent institutional and evolutionary theories, the paper seeks to explain the merits of the in-depth study of the multifaceted driving forces at macro and meso level contributing to continuing high consumption levels in the most resource-intensive demand areas.
A first section illustrates how the institutional framework and infrastructures interact with policies. Relevant regulatory policies such as the European competition policy (e.g., shop opening hours) in conjunction with national and local planning policies (e.g., building and mobility) become manifest in settlement, retail and supply infrastructures inducing further consumption and environmental impacts. Environmental instruments (e.g., taxes/charges) and certain national consumer and information policies (e.g., food) aim to overcome lock-in effects but undifferentiated VAT rates, consumption-friendly subsidies, low asset and real estate prices and the expanding consumer credit system counteract those efforts.
A second section asks for the innovation capacities of societies within the inconsistencies of resource-saving innovations and accelerating innovation cycles. While time saving innovations not only extend leisure but also consumption time, the life span of goods continuously decreases both pushing on rebound effects. Modern business models like franchising systems and the rapid diffusion of discounters also contribute to accelerated production and consumption processes accompanied by a growing variety of products, increasing advertisement, marketing and branding. Against this background, paradigms such as consumer sovereignty have to be questioned with regard to their adequacy for an economy in need of a transition management differing between useful and environmentally detrimental innovations.
The concluding section presents a model on the interaction of the different driving forces and calls for further analysis. It proposes to systematically harmonise the existing (regulative) framework with new sustainable consumption policies.
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