Sufficiency – An approach towards a sustainable (digital) future

In environmental research, sufficiency is seen as a major pillar of sustainability. However, up to this day, sufficiency has been widely absent in the political and public conversations on environmental strategies. With digitization informing novel technologies and means to manage resources, there are also promising avenues for sufficiency measures being discussed and introduced.

While there is an increasing demand for digital goods and services resulting in higher energy usage and electronic waste, digitization also enables new ways of monitoring the environment, mitigating the negative impacts of digitization on the planet. The Bern University of Applied Sciences, on behalf of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), recently published a report called “Digitization and the Environment: Opportunities, risks and the need for action” (2020) exploring the complex relationship between digitization and the environment in the Swiss context. The report shows that individual behavior and the adoption of convenient lifestyles (89%), a lack of international cooperation (85%), and the absence of economic incentives to reduce environmental impact (85%) are viewed as the main reasons for the lack of adequate solutions for environmental issues (Estermann, Fivaz, Frecè, Harder, Jarchow and Wäspi 2020, 40). As one possible solution, the report suggests sufficiency as a potential pathway to minimize the risk of digitization on the environment and plan for a more sustainable future (Estermann et al. 2020, 55).

Respondents support measures promoting sufficiency, but legislators are hesitant

Sufficiency can broadly be described as a reduction in consumption to lessen negative environmental impact. It is therefore a viable strategy for environmental sustainability. Sufficiency measures include e.g. promoting products with less negative environmental impact or introducing laws that regulate planned obsolescence (Estermann et al. 2020, 46). In the report, 87% of the people surveyed agreed that it is important to provide incentives to reduce environmentally harmful consumption (Estermann et al. 2020, 46). This contrasts the persisting view of many politicians and administrators that sufficiency measures are lacking substantial public support as these policies suppose restriction of consumption and choice. Consequently, the concept has been widely absent in the Swiss political arena. A quick search of the term “sufficiency” (“Suffizienz”) on the parliament website www.parlament.ch[1] confirms this observation, resulting in a total of 8 matches.

Sufficiency and Digitization

Although sufficiency does not provide the single answer to confront our current environmental challenges, with the progress of digitization, sufficiency can gain momentum with the public as it provides additional tools to re-think and re-shape the ways we produce and consume.

The following are three possible approaches through which digitization can support sufficiency:

  1. The aforementioned lack of political support for sufficiency stresses the importance of the dissemination of knowledge and information on this topic. Social media and virtual spaces are vital parts of public opinion infrastructure and allow for various means of political participation, by promoting ideas, sharing content, bringing like-minded people together and stir up action. Activist communities question what is defined as “normal” or “acceptable” by critiquing the status-quo, raising problem awareness and offering alternative meanings and courses of action on a certain issue. In terms of sufficiency, this addresses what it means to live a “convenient” or “good life,” and how this relates to the idea of consumption and economic growth (Stengel 2011, 346ff.)[2]. Décroissance Bern, who just recently celebrated their 10 year anniversary, and the group Post-Growth Zurich are examples of activist communities that are engaging in both the virtual and analogue realm to promote the idea of sufficiency in the Swiss context.
  2. Sustainable consumption is often connected with the promotion of regional and local production. Localism can challenge the monopoly of private multinational corporations on production means and data collection, as it offers opportunities for collaborative economies and self-organization (Lange, Santarius und Zahrnt 2019, 114)[3] . Food systems, for example, can be organized in more collaborative ways through digitization (Donald et al. 2010, 174)[4] , democratizing the ways agriculture is operated. Square Roots is an example of a community-driven initiative that manages tech-infused indoor farms, allowing all-year local production and consumption. Energy markets have also been experimenting with “smart grid” communities, in which consumers are producing their own energy in a self-sufficient manner (Prakash et al. 2015, 343).[5] Digitization plays an important role in this as it provides solutions to align local resources, means of production and consumers, that are positively impacting on production conditions and environmental friendliness.[6]
  3. Retailers can play a large role in the promotion of sustainable consumption by inspiring their customers to rethink their consumption habits. As Gossen and Schrader (2018) point out, digital retailers have started to challenge their online customers on their purchases (“do you really need this?”) by providing information on second-hand alternatives, or on how to repair an item DIY-style.[7] Implementing a moral momentum in purchase processes can influence a customer’s decision on (not) buying a certain product (Hübner und Schmon 2019, 8).[8] Retailers with a commitment to socio-ecological responsibility are more likely to engage in sustainable consumption. However, the outlook to increase credibility and customer loyalty, gain consumers, and new avenues for corporate social responsibility might also appeal to other enterprises (Gossen and Schrader 2018).

As shown, digitization and sufficiency can be connected via the dissemination of information through online channels and communities, promotion of decentralized production chains, and a moral re-alignment of consumption. Certainly, there are pitfalls to these measures, as they require individual as well as political action that do not come easily. Yet, strategies of sufficiency offer food for thought on how to manage the limited resources of our planet.

At the same time, we must critically engage with the concept of sufficiency as it suggests that all individuals have equal options of consuming or forgoing goods, services and experiences. It is all too easy to delve into the fallacy of “less is more” without reflecting on how this applies to various members of society. In terms of choice, there is a huge difference between the ones who can choose and the ones who cannot, e.g. due to economic, social or geographic constraints. Redistributive mechanisms such as taxes, property rights or public social spending (see Kohler 2015)[9] are thus central determinants for the success and effect of environmental politics as they are ultimately also about social justice.


References

[1] The official website of the Swiss parliament includes a digital archive of parliamentary proceedings (motions, postulates, interpellations, questions and so on) as well as media releases.

[2] Stengel, O. (2011). Suffizienz. Die Konsumgesellschaft in der ökologischen Krise. München: Oekom.

[3] Lange, S., Santarius T. and A. Zahrnt (2019). Von der Effizienz zur digitalen Suffizienz. In Höfner A. and V. Frick (Eds): Was Bits und Bäume verbindet. Digitalisierung nachhaltig gestalten, 112-114, München: Oekom Verlag, https://www.fona.de/medien/pdf/Bits-Baeume_Web.pdf, accessed: 10.04.20.

[4] Donald B., Gertler M., Gray M., and Lobao L. (2010). Re-regionalising the Food System? Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 3, 171-175. doi:10.1093/cjres/rsq020

[5] Prakash, L., Sugatha Kumari P.R., Chandrana, S.,  Kumar Sa, S., Soman, K.P. (2015). Self-sufficient Smart Prosumers of Tomorrow, Procedia Technology, 21, 338-344, doi:10.1016/j.protcy.2015.10.044.

[6] Nyéléni (2019, September). the digitalization of the food system. Nyéléni Newsletter, 37. Retrieved from https://nyeleni.org/DOWNLOADS/newsletters/
Nyeleni_Newsletter_Num_37_EN.pdf, access 16.04.2020.

[7] Gossen, M. and U. Schrader (2018). Welche Potenziale die Digitalisierung für ein suffizienzförderndes Marketing bringt. Ökologisches Wirtschaften 33, 8–9.

[8] Hübner, R. and B. Schmon (2019). Wie kann Konsum transformative Kraft entwickeln? Eine Annäherung. In Hüber R. and B. Schmon (Eds.): Das transformative Potenzial von Konsum zwischen Nachhaltigkeit und Digitalisierung. Chancen und Risiken. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 1-21. doi:10.1007/978-3-658-26040-8

[9] Kohler, P. (2015). Redistributive Policies for Sustainable Development: Looking at the Role of Assets and Equity.” United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs Working Paper No. 139, https://www.un.org/esa/desa/papers/2015/wp139_2015.pdf, access 16.04.2020.

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Carmen Ferri

Carmen Ferri is a research associate at the Institute Public Sector Transformation at BFH Wirtschaft. She is interested in social and environmental sustainability, smart city and open innovation approaches.

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