Sustainability in a consumer society

Sustainability Sustainability in a consumer society

Published on 06.08.2021 by Dr. Pia Furchheim, lecturer in marketing at the Institute for Marketing Management at the ZHAW School of Management and Law

Ever since Greta Thunberg and the “Friday for Future” movements, societies around the world are now focusing on sustainability. More and more consumers see sustainability as an important purchase criterion and are willing to pay premium prices for sustainable products. But do the two concepts of “consumption” and “sustainability” even go together?

Photo: Edward Howell / Unsplash

The rising trend in sustainable consumption and the growing availability of sustainable product alternatives are important steps in the right direction. But there is also a risk that we as consumers will allow these to absolve us too easily from our personal responsibility. The real question is: “How truly sustainable is consumption?”

For most of us, “sustainability” simply means buying sustainable products. By doing so, we often ignore our general level of consumption. A look at research confirms that the main focus of the sustainability debate is on the time of purchase (see Prothero et al. 2011). The problem with this limited view is that sustainability remains unquestionably linked to consumption, while the general level of consumption continues to rise. We still consume too much and too quickly. We often replace and/or dispose of products even though they are still functional. There are many reasons for this: technological developments that supposedly make previous models obsolete; social changes that create new trends (e.g. the desire for sustainable products); ever shorter product life cycles; fashion trends. The result of this constant drive for consumption is reflected in the steady increase in the amount of waste that we generate. With 715 kg of waste generated per capita, Switzerland is one of the world’s top producers of municipal waste (Federal Office for the Environment FOEN, 2021).

So what does “sustainability” mean? Those who want to live sustainably should use scarce resources consciously and carefully. It’s not just about what we buy, but also what we do with products after we buy them. For example, how long do we use a product and what happens when we are finished with it? Even if the trend towards recycling has increased in Switzerland, there is still plenty of room for improvement. We need to talk about how many valuable and scarce resources are hoarded at home in attics or cellars and are therefore removed from the production cycle. According to the latest statistics, there are over 200 million unused old mobile phones lying around in households in Germany alone (Brandt, 2021). Their raw materials could be recycled, reducing the amount of resources being extracted from the earth with catastrophic environmental consequences.

On the way to a sustainable future, the shift in the zeitgeist from sustainable purchasing to sustainable use (“repair, reuse, recycle”) is inevitable. There is no returning to a world where sustainability is not an urgent issue. We have some tremendously exciting and pioneering years ahead of us provided we succeed in asking the right questions.


Due to the current situation, Connecta Bern will again be held as a digital event in 2021. Connecta is renowned for shining a light on the diverse nature of digitization and this year will be no different with content presented across the three formats of Connecta Blog, Connecta TV and Connecta Talk. Find out more here:



Prothero, A., Dobscha, S., Freund, J., Kilbourne, W. E., Luchs, M. G., Ozanne, L. K. & Thogersen, J. (2011). Sustainable Consumption: Opportunities for Consumer Research and Public Policy. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 30(1), pages 31-38.


Dr. Pia Furchheim

Pia Furchheim is a lecturer in marketing at the Institute for Marketing Management at the ZHAW School of Management and Law. In addition to her teaching and training activities, she is a project manager for research and consulting projects with a focus on consumer behaviour and market research. Her research looks at sustainable consumer behaviour in the context of a consumer society.

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