UH/LafargeTarmac: Think Piece 4  
                    The Centre for Sustainable Communities
UH/LafargeTarmac: Think Piece 4

Incentivising sustainable living: the wrong answer to the right question?

by: John McCormack

How do we encourage ways of living that safeguard the planet earth for future generations? This is a question that has gained momentum in policy discourse since the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987. It is difficult to think of another, more important question facing humankind than this, given the apocalyptic scenario Brundtland addressed. The scale of the task is enormous, and numerous authors have addressed the issue of sustainable living in different ways, implying that it is also a complex issue, in need of a mutli-faceted, transdisciplinary approach. Yet, there is a discernible, 'common sense' narrative, which reduces the issue to a seemingly straightforward proposition. It is based on classical economic theory, and it goes like this: people will choose to live sustainably if it is in their economic interests to do so. In order to encourage sustainable living, therefore, economic incentives must be deployed, such as making eco-friendly goods and services more affordable (as well as, in some cases, more user-friendly).

There is a paradox here, centred on the principle of 'fighting fire with fire': if, as many observers note, unsustainable living is a result of voracious consumption of the world's resources (especially in the industrial North), how can it be tackled by appealing to consumer interests? To put it another way, financial benefits that may accrue to consumers through incentivising sustainable living almost certainly will, in a culture of insatiable consumerism, result in further consumption of goods and services. As a result, resources saved in one context are consumed in another, and so our dabbling in sustainable living simply displaces unsustainable practices. In this sense, incentivising sustainable living seems counter-productive. Of course, it can be argued that practices such as the leasing and hiring of consumer goods does not add to the total stock of resources being produced for consumption (even though, in many cases, the process of consumption will involve the use of scarce resources, such as power and fuel). However, such practices are still a small part of overall consumption patterns and, in Western societies, private ownership of goods is still very much the modus vivendi of consumer behaviour. For many of us, our sense of self is fundamentally related to what we privately own (Fromm, 1976).

There are those, of course, who argue the opposite: namely, that in order to cultivate sustainable living, we must make the world's vital, scarce resources, such as water and non-renewable energy, more expensive (at least in the Western world), by reflecting their true cost of production and use. In this way, a rightful sense of scarcity and value will be attached to those things currently taken for granted, and more concerted efforts subsequently made to reduce resource consumption and, therefore, expenditure. What this argument has in common with the previous one is a belief in the efficacy of using markets and economic instruments as a means of promoting sustainable living. Both appeal to the individual as a rational choice consumer.

However, research suggests that reducing the challenge of sustainable living to a one-dimensional, economic question is woefully misguided, not to mention over-simplistic. There are a number of reasons why this is so. For example, as Fukuyama has argued very powerfully, economic activity takes place in cultural contexts. Consequently, if we want to understand economic behaviour (including choices around un/sustainable living), we have to look at the cultural context in which this behaviour takes place. Similarly, if we want to influence economic behaviour, we need to address the wider cultural context in which such behaviour is situated.

What is this wider cultural context? It includes many things, not least of which is the system of norms and values in society. As Chiu has argued, in the context of sustainable development:

To pursue development which is environmentally sustainable, we have to begin with changing the attitudes and values of people on the consumption and distribution of resources and assets (Chiu, 2004).

Changing from behaviour based on consumerist values and attitudes to that based on sustainable living principles may seem an insurmountable task. However, as many commentators have pointed out, sustainable living - as a consciously pursued policy objective - is a relatively recent historical phenomenon in most societies. Hitherto, sustainable living in the industrial North was born out of a relative absence of choice and spending power. It was, for many, not so much a conscious choice as a necessity - a precondition of life itself. Consequently, developing what Chiu calls 'green consciousness' is a task very much in its infancy: there is still much work to be done, and, notwithstanding the fact that time is not on our side, we have yet to exhaust all channels.

The issue of consciousness brings us to the related issue of education. Many authors in the sustainable living literature point to the pivotal role of education in facilitating a transition from unsustainable to more sustainable lifestyles. In some cases, the focus of these efforts is centred on the role of schooling in encouraging awareness of sustainability issues, and nurturing habitual forms of behaviour that are eco-friendly (e.g. recycling, turning off light switches when leaving rooms, walking and cycling to school, instead of being driven, and so on). Some writers refer to the need to educate consumers in the use of eco-friendly technology, particularly in the North (Miller and Buys, 2008). For others, the focus is much more upon critical reflection in relation to the wider, societal forces (including material interests) that encourage conspicuous consumption and/or directly pollute the environment (Kahn, 2008). Regardless of these very different emphases, there is clearly a growing body of literature that underlines the important role of education in facilitating sustainable living. As a result, taking sustainable living seriously implies we have to ask questions about the type, or types, of education interventions that are appropriate to the task.

Within the various discussions centred on the role of education in sustainable living there is that which also highlights the significance of community. As Moloney, et al, have argued, 'behaviour is socially constructed, and therefore needs to be considered at the collective level' (Moloney, et al, 2010). This has led some to argue that community is the point of entry in respect of promoting sustainable living initiatives, and not individual consumers acting in isolation. Such interventions include forms of community-based learning, such as action learning, or experiential learning, gained through collective involvement in policy-making, planning and design (Chifos, 2007). This is a far cry from handing over a green technology user manual to a home buyer, or new tenant, and giving them a whistle stop tour of eco-friendly design features in their home and neighbourhood: it represents a sustained attempt at facilitating an understanding of sustainable living issues, and building up a sense of common values and purpose with neighbours and fellow citizens. Indeed, some writers, including Middlemiss and Parrish (2010), Seyfang (2010) and Heiskanen, et al (2010), have highlighted the important role of 'grassroots initiatives', in developing and promoting low-carbon communities. In this sense, the community is construed as the active agent leading in the fight for sustainable living, and not the problem that needs to be manipulated through crude, top-down economic 'incentives'.

Of course, in talking about the role of 'community' in promoting sustainable living, there is the danger of concealing within such a normative concept some very tangible differences and conflicts, including those based on income and wealth. As a result, it is arguably easier for some within the community to exercise agency in the direction of sustainable living than it is for others. For many of the poorer members of the community, simply to sustain themselves (never mind the planet) is a fundamental, but everyday, challenge (Glasmeier and Farrigan, 2003). As Pleyán has argued, there is something rather naive about expecting a population that is, or feels itself to be, unprotected to take an active role in stewardship of the environment, especially if this is something that they are not culturally used to doing (Pleyán, 2001). Moreover, as Heiskanen, et al, say:

People are most motivated to change when they feel they are becoming more competent and more able to take charge of their lives (Heiskanen, et al, 2010).

There is, so it seems, a social justice dimension to sustainable living, which has a bearing on one's sense of agency. If this is so, then this must be addressed if measures aimed at promoting sustainable living are to bear fruit (Haughton, 1997).

The issue of social justice brings us to the broader issue of ethics. Avineri has argued that most of us are in fact naturally motivated 'to do the right thing'. Paradoxically, introducing financial incentives to 'do the right thing' (i.e. live more sustainably) can have the opposite effect:

Financial incentives can crowd out feelings of civic responsibility and may actually discourage the kinds of behaviours needed to solve collective social problems (Avineri, 2012).

An alternative way of putting it is to say that the introduction of financial incentives reinforces the identity of the individual as a self-maximising, rational choice consumer. This it does at the expense of the individual's sense of identity as a conscientious citizen. From this perspective, promoting sustainable living includes consideration of moral and ethical issues, and these appeal to the individual at an affective level, not simply at the level of the cognitive. This is not to say that sustainable living should be promoted in a crude, guilt-inducing and doctrinaire fashion; but it does mean that we need to embrace ethical issues critically when promoting sustainable living practices, rather than shy away from them and hide behind a discount voucher. As Haughton has suggested:

The sustainable city's citizen will need to be better informed, embracing practical ethical considerations for everyday decisions in ways that are currently not the norm (Haughton, 1997).

Instead of 'fighting fire with fire', therefore, research suggests that developing strategies for sustainable living involves coming to terms with myriad challenges - social, economic, psychological/behavioural, political, educational, ethical, for example. This, in turn, demands that we recognise the complexity of the issues involved, and value the contribution that different professions and discourses can bring to our understanding of these issues. That is to say, a transdisciplinary approach to researching (un)sustainable living behaviours is required, in which multiple discourses are accommodated, and with economics being one of them (but not the only one, or even the most significant). This is not as straightforward a task as one would like to think:

There is a tendency for practitioners to retreat back to a single discipline, thus failing to capture the holistic nature of problems and their solutions. Inter-disciplinary activities tend to be seen as secondary to discipline-based approaches (Dale and Newman, 2005).

One might add that it is not just practitioners but academics who also insist on forcing analyses of complex, multi-faceted problems onto their own familiar ontological terrain. By contrast, a transdisciplinary approach will doubtless take many of us out of our comfort zones, and open us up to the risk of finding our presuppositions challenged, if not fundamentally undermined. Not least of these, it seems to me, is the paradox of incentivising sustainable living.

In saying this, I am not trying to suggest that all attempts at incentivising sustainable living are by definition counter-productive. What I am saying, however, is that to focus on financial incentives to more sustainable lifestyles, whilst ignoring the wider, situated context in which consumer choices are made, is to be guilty of reductionism, by turning a complex, multi-faceted challenge into a deceptively focalised cost-benefit analysis.


Avineri, E. (2012) On the use and potential of behavioural economics from the perspective of transport and climate change Journal of Transport Geography, 24, pp.512-521

Chifos, C. (2007) The Sustainable Communities Experiment in the United States: Insights from Three Federal-Level Initiatives Journal of Planning Education and Research, 26 (4), pp.435-449

Chiu, R.I.H. (2004) Socio-cultural sustainability of housing: a conceptual exploration Housing, Theory and Society, 21 (1), pp.65-76

Dale, A, and Newman, L. (2005) Sustainable development, education and literacy International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 6 (4), pp.351-362

Fromm, E. (1976) To Have or To Be? New York: Continuum

Glasmeier, A.K., and Farrigan, T.L. (2003) Poverty, Sustainability, and the Culture of Despair: Can Sustainable Development Strategies Support Poverty Alleviation in America's Most Environmentally Challenged Communities? The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 590, pp.131-150

Haughton, G. (1997) Developing sustainable urban development models Cities, 14 (4), pp.189-195

Heiskanen, E, Johnson, M, Robinson, S, Vadovics, E, and Saastamoinen, M. (2010) Low-carbon communities as a context for individual behavioural change Energy Policy, 38, pp.7586-7595

Kahn, R. (2008) From Education for Sustainable Development to Ecopedagogy: Sustaining Capitalism or Sustaining Life? Green Theory & Praxis: The Journal of Ecopedagogy, 4 (1), pp.1-14

Middlemiss, L, and Parrish, B.D. (2010) Building capacity for low-carbon communities: The role of grassroots initiatives Energy Policy, 38, pp.7559-7566

Miller, E, and Buys, L. (2008) Retrofitting commercial office buildings: tenants' perspectives Journal of Property Investment and Finance, 26 (6), pp.552-561

Moloney, S, Horne, R.E., and Fien, J. (2010) Transitioning to low carbon communities - from behaviour change to systemic change: Lessons from Australia Energy Policy, 38, pp.7614-7623

Pleyán, G. (2001) Innovations for Sustainable Development in Cities of the South: the Habitat-Cuba Approach Development in Practice, 11 (2/3), pp.332-335

Seyfang, G. (2010) Community action for sustainable housing: Building a low-carbon future Energy Policy, 38, pp.7624-7633

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