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Published

14 October 2016

SEK 45m for new programme on sustainable consumption

In September, Mistra’s Board decided to issue a funding call for a research programme on sustainable consumption. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has cited this highly topical issue as crucial for stopping climate change. The aim is for the research to tackle a wide range of aspects, from policy instruments to supply chains and individuals’ quality of life.

Sustainable consumption has risen high on the global agenda. The Climate Agreement to which the world’s nations made a binding commitment in December 2015 emphasised the necessity of sustainable lifestyles and consumption patterns for halting global warming. In the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals of 2015, too, sustainable consumption and production patterns were seen as essential for a transition to a more sustainable economy.

However, the question is how to do it. Mistra has swiftly taken up the challenge. In spring 2016 an international expert panel was set up with the task of compiling a background report ahead of a decision on a funding call concerning sustainable consumption. This panel’s work formed the basis for the programme call Mistra’s Board presented in September.

Focus on four areas

The expert panel proposed a research programme on sustainable consumption focusing on five areas. In the programme call, these were reduced to four:

  • Sustainable consumption, well-being and the Good Life
  • Sustainability in supply chains
  • Alternative systems of provisioning for sustainable consumption
  • Policies fostering sustainable consumption.

Malin Lindgren, programme director at Mistra: ‘Making our consumption patterns more sustainable is an important and complex issue of our day, and crucial if Sweden is to be able to achieve its climate goals. The fact that we’re investing in this programme now shows that Mistra is a flexible stakeholder that can respond to current needs around the world.’

The panel surveyed the research already under way in this area in Sweden. One expert consulted was John Thøgersen, Professor of Economic Psychology at Aarhus University, Denmark.

‘We came across some superb research in this area in Sweden — on energy, sustainable transport, consumer behaviour… but we saw too that it’s scattered across many higher education institutions. Someone needs to get a coherent grip and strengthen it,’ he says.

Interdisciplinary studies to make change feasible

The programme will focus on solutions rather than just describing the implications of current consumption. The aim is for the research to have the power to drive change, i.e. to be transformative, and take into account emissions with an environmental impact from the whole supply chain right down to individual consumer choices. This, Thøgersen argues, involves a strongly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach.

 But research on human behaviour in a system perspective is, he maintains, complex. It is more uncertain and less of a consensus prevails than in scientific and technological research.

‘Human free will is hard to pin down. Here, it’s a matter both of free will and of society, of joint efforts in which human willpower is exerted in a context. And that doesn’t reduce the complexity.’

Thøgersen’s plans include large-scale experiments with randomised or quasi-randomised control groups. Such experiments are difficult and expensive, but this is still the best way of understanding what gets people to leave their cars behind and make climate-smart consumer choices.

How high quality of life can be sustainable

There will also be a focus on sustainability and quality of life. Does our existence necessarily suffer as a result of us changing our consumption? Not at all, apparently.

‘A great deal of research shows that, above a certain level, consuming more doesn’t necessarily boost well-being. What we need to explore, to know more about in depth, is the specific links between sustainable consumption and quality of life,’ Lindgren says.

The programme objective is to raise the research to a more advanced level, and expand the number of PhD students in the area. Another hoped-for aim is that the research will be able to influence policy in Sweden, which has to develop better instruments out of sheer necessity, Thøgersen thinks.

‘There’s a focus on policy instruments in the area. But ultimately everything depends on what the politicians decide to do. You can take a horse to water, as they say, but you can’t make it drink.’

The intention is for Mistra’s initiatives to strengthen Swedish competitiveness, too, and here Thøgersen sees no contradiction. Sustainable production chains are an increasingly important parameter in international competition, he maintains. And understanding consumers better is invariably a competitive advantage.

’What’s more, a country with a population that’s critical when it comes to the environment and climate keeps industry on its toes,’ Thøgersen adds.

New programme call: Sustainable consumption

  • The call opened at the end of September and will close on 6 March 2017.
  • Preliminary programme start: August 2017.
  • Expected programme budget: SEK 50 million, of which Mistra will provide SEK 45m, over four years.

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