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Why Tackling Climate Change Through Consumption May Be Harder Than It Seems

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There are many ways to frame the root causes of the climate crisis. Fossil fuels, big emitters like the U.S. and China, and high-carbon industries like air travel and shipping often tend to get blamed.

But there remains a significant elephant in the room in the climate blame game: runaway consumption. Household consumption is responsible for more than 60% of global emissions. And, yet, framing the climate challenge around consumption can upset a range of stakeholders. Businesses worry that talking about a crisis of consumption could harm the prospects of growth. Activists and civil society worry that talking about consumption in the wrong ways risks putting the onus of addressing climate change on consumers.

To help break through this communication log jam and address the elephant in the room, I moderated a Dec. 3 TIME100 Talks discussion on the sidelines of the U.N. climate talks taking place in Dubai. “Humans need food, shelter, clothing... We have to consume to survive, but it is about consuming differently,” said Ellen Jackowski, chief sustainability officer at Mastercard. Consuming differently requires a mindset shift—for both consumers and businesses.

On the consumer side, research has shown that a significant share of consumers—the exact percentage depends on who you ask—are interested in buying sustainable products. But, today, there is limited information publicly available to help inform them. That’s changing rapidly as companies explore ways to make sustainability data easily accessible—think of QR codes next to the product in a store, or next to various options on online shopping sites. Research has shown that incorporating this information into the market place and creating a so-called “green nudge” shapes consumer behavior. Still, most people won’t make the sustainability of a purchase their top priority. To make sustainable products better, a growing group of businesses say they emphasize that sustainable products can have better value for the purchaser—think of a longer lifespan for a piece of clothing.

But mass consumption is not an issue that can be solved solely—or even primarily by consumers. Most consumer facing companies have built their entire business model on selling more things, and to truly address mass consumption would require them to search for profits elsewhere. Eva Kruse, chief global engagement officer at sustainable fashion company Pangaia, described it to me as a “difficult” but critical question: “How do you make new services or models where you can grow in value, not volume?” 

Examples of early changes in this direction are myriad. Some retailers now offer repair services or offer to rent out clothes instead of selling them. Sourcing recycled materials has become a point of pride across sectors. And businesses are increasingly trying to find ways to offer services—not just carbon-intensive products—to grow. But there’s no question that these efforts are not close to enough.

Tackling this question with new business models will be a key measure of whether companies are serious about addressing climate change in the coming years. And governments will face a key test of whether they can nudge—or force—companies to go along.

TIME100 Talks: The Power of Purchase: Pathways to Conscious and Sustainable Consumption was presented by Mastercard.

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Write to Justin Worland / Dubai at justin.worland@time.com