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Digitization and sustainable consumption

Published Apr 28, 2015


Society is being digitised in the sense that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is increasingly affecting all sectors. Sweden has an IT policy objective that states, the country will be the best in the world at utilising opportunities for digitisation. But neither the Swedish nor the European digital agenda have any particular connection to sustainable consumption, and they have limited links to environmental issues overall. What do the opportunities for digitisation for sustainable consumption look like?

The purpose of this study was to clarify whether, and if so how, the use of digital services could contribute to the transition to a resource-efficient society and reduced environmental impact, and how public policies and policy instruments could contribute to this. The study focused on household consumption and was divided into four key categories – housing, consumption, travel and food. These categories were selected based on their relevance from the perspective of environmental impact and resource use, and from the perspective of how ICT applications could affect them.

This study covered examples from:

  • Housing – heating and household electricity use
  • Consumption – ICT products and clothing
  • Travel – in rural areas
  • Food – choice of food and food waste

This study defined four fundamental ways in which ICT could support more resource efficient consumption and reduced environmental impact. These were to:

  • replace products/surfaces/travel/transport
  • intensify the use of products/surfaces/travel/transport
  • make processes and activities more efficient
  • inform of changed consumption choices.

An ICT application that facilitates replacement could provide access to remote services. Intensified use could be achieved by ICT applications that supports shared living areas and through secondary markets on the Internet. ICT applications that support improved efficiency are found in heating and food handling. For information, ICT solutions could enable the right information to be available where and when it is needed.

ICT applications can have both a positive and negative effect on environmental impacts and resource use. Adverse effects are linked to the production, use and disposal of ICT products and services, but can also occur if digitisation encourages and facilitates a more environmentally damaging consumption and resource use. Positive effects arise when products or services are replaced, and new construction and waste management thereby is avoided. An additional example is when processes are streamlined without a following consumption increase.

When studying the effects of digitisation, it is important not to have narrow system boundaries. When an individual unit is studied, individual actions may seem positive or negative, hence it is the total effect on society that needs to be studied. A long-term perspective is important, as significant effects can arise after a long time, particularly if they are supported by policy instruments.

Many ICT applications can be used for sustainable consumption, covering all possible consumption categories. For the potential to be achieved, it is not only important that the applications are used, but replacementintensified use, improved efficiency and/or information are required for more sustainable social practices. In general, measures are needed to support most ICT applications for sustainable consumption through a public promotion of sustainable consumption.

There are different groups of actors that can create, implement and use ICT applications – consumers can often be the drivers. However, in other cases, software developers, other companies or  ssociations can develop new services.

Several reasons for using and developing ICT applications are mentioned in this report:

  • Only chance of getting access to a certain service
  • Interest of actors to explore and be stimulated by new technology
  • Status, identity and fashion
  • Convenience
  • Satisfaction of seizing resources, such as environmental resources
  • Financial gain.

The general conclusion of this report is that opportunities of digitisation to create a more sustainable consumption can be both very large and very small. Opportunities can be very large as digitising applications can be created for any activity – applications that help people live with low resource use. But, opportunities can also be non-existent, or even negative, if general environmental control measures that discourage resource waste are not taken. Digitising without other controls could lead to increased consumption due to the space created for further consumption.

The report highlights the need for an ICT policy for sustainable consumption. This would mean that the government works with issues regarding the support of ICT applications that promote sustainable consumption. The successful design and implementation of such a policy could strongly promote sustainable innovations. It is crucial that an ICT policy such as this, is complemented by a strong and purposeful environmental policy.

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Belongs to: Centre for Sustainable Communications
Last changed: Apr 28, 2015