Sustainability and Social Justice

From Consumerism to Wellbeing: Toward a Cultural Transition?

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As it becomes evident that technology alone is unlikely to fully counteract the ecological impacts of consumer society, the debate increasingly focuses on a need to shift beyond the consumerist economy and culture. This paper considers how a cultural shift toward less consumerist lifestyle choices might originate, driven not by moral imperatives or environmental movements, but by the core pursuit of human wellbeing. Our goal is to jumpstart a serious conversation about plausible pathways to change, grounded theoretically and empirically. The history of consumer society is a reminder that cultural transformation of that magnitude could occur in a relatively short period of time. We hypothesize, drawing on demographic and economic trends, that technologically connected, educated, and open to change millennials might lead the way in that transition. Their diminishing interest in suburban life in favor of cities, constricted economic opportunities, and their size and interconnectedness all point in that direction. We envision a scenario in which the core understanding of wellbeing will change through the combined effects of changing lifestyles, adaptation to the economic, technological and demographic realities, and emerging new social practices. Extensive research on wellbeing suggests that such reframing can readily incorporate a shift away from consumerist lifestyles. To succeed, this shift needs government support at all levels through policies that enable young urban families to thrive. This paper is about the United States because it a global leader in the creation of the consumer society, with a per-capita ecological footprint about twice that of Europe, and with many emulators across the world. We contend that the US-grounded analysis presented in this paper has relevance for other parts of the world, and that it can inform research and debate on similar cultural transitions in other national contexts.

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Journal of Cleaner Production

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beyond consumerism, cultural change, sustainable consumption