Equality and sustainable consumption in capability perspective

Leßmann, Ortrud; Masson, Torsten (2014). 'Equality and sustainable consumption in capability perspective' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

The problem of sustainability has received serious attention since the Club of Rome pointed to the limits of growth in 1972. Addressing ecological, economic and social issues, it is still a major – perhaps the biggest – challenge humanity faces. The problem of sustainability is a societal task that needs support across all social levels, ranging from micro- to macro-actors. Recently a re-conceptualization of sustainable development on the basis of the capability approach has been proposed (Leßmann/Rauschmayer 2013) that directs attention to individuals' contributions to sustainability. Essentially, individuals need to consider the impact of their behavior on the capability set of future generations in their current choices. One specific way of doing this is sustainable consumption. This paper looks at the conditions for sustainable consumption given prevailing inequalities in our (national) societies. The empirical analysis is based on data from the 2012 innovation sample of the German socio-economic panel (GSOEP-IS). The data-set contains detailed information on two modes of sustainable consumption namely purchase of organic food and avoiding the car for inner-city rides.

The investigation builds on the model of sustainable consumption from a capability perspective developed elsewhere (Masson/Lessmann 2013). The model combines the theory of planned behavior (Ajzen 1991) and the capability approach as summarized in Robeyns' (2005) stylized representation. The approaches share some ideas and characteristics and can hence be easily combined: both focus on volitional behaviour, both see an influence of the formation of preferences (attitudes) on intention and choice, both point to certain skills (conversion factors) and resources as enabling pre-conditions for (pro-environmental) behaviour, both refer to concepts of autonomy and self-efficacy in assessing the real freedom a person enjoys (e.g. to behave eco-friendly) and highlight the importance of having this real freedom (as perceived behavioural control). They differ, however, in their assessment of the role of social norms: The theory of planned behaviour views norms as one of three unique and (mostly) independent predictors of behavioural intentions next to attitudes and perceived behavioural control whereas in terms of the capability approach social norms are among the social conversion factors that govern the individual's use of resources. Further, the capability approach not only emphasizes the importance of freedom of choice but attaches intrinsic value to it. Hence, the capability approach when combined with the theory of planned behaviour contributes to understanding the motivation and conditions for choosing sustainable consumption by shifting the emphasis from direct normative influence to perceived freedom of choice. Thereby attention is shifted to the societal opportunities for (pro-environmental) behaviour. First empirical results confirm the model structure and show that indeed social norms also affect behaviour indirectly via preference formation and shaping freedom of choice.

Based on this model of sustainable consumption the paper analyzes how (in-)equality and sustainable consumption are linked. Guided by the general idea that sustainable development is a task that needs support from all groups and layers of society the study attempts to identify areas of (in-)equality that correlate positively or negatively with sustainable consumption. Starting with demographic factors such as gender and age the analysis will be refined by taking measures of inequality traditionally used in sociological stratification theory (income, education, professional status, professional prestige indices etc.) into account. Recently, the sociological debate about stratification has revolved around the expansion of precarious employment and its effects on social inequality. Castel (2000) points to the growing uncertainty that has caught not only those who lack secure employment but also people who fear losing their jobs. While it is hard to find a comprehensive measure for this social uncertainty, the analysis will tentatively use items such as the respondents fear to lose their jobs.

Apart from applying various measures of inequality, the study also looks how the predictors (attitudes, perceived freedom of choice and perhaps social norms) differ for the different social groups. The aim is to identify patterns of personal characteristics, predictor values and actual behavior.

Last not least, the capability of sustainable consumption can be seen as an area of (in-)equality itself. Following Sen's (1980) seminal proposition of capabilities as focal variables for evaluating equality, the question is how the capability of sustainable consumption is distributed in society and whether it is possible for all to participate in solving the problem of sustainable development by conscious consumption. Thus, the aim of the paper is also to inform public policy about the in- or exclusion of groups in contributing to sustainable development.



Ajzen, I. (1991): The Theory of Planned Behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50: 179-211.

Castel, R. (2000) Die Metamorphosen der sozialen Frage - Eine Chronik der Lohnarbeit. Konstanz, UVK Universitätsverlag Konstanz.

Leßmann, O.; Rauschmayer, F. (2013) Re-conceptualising Sustainable Development on the basis of the Capability Approach: a model and its difficulties, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities 14 (1)

Masson, T.; Leßmann, O. (2013) Sustainable Consumption in Capability Perspective: Operationalization and Empirical Illustration, paper presented at the HDCA conference 2013 in Managua.

Robeyns, I. (2005) The Capability Approach: A Theoretical Survey, Journal of Human Development 6 (1), 93-114.

Sen, A. K. (1980) Equality of What? in: Sen, A.K. (ed.) (1982): Choice, Welfare and Measurement, 353–369, Blackwell, Oxford.

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