5, No. 1, December 2003
ICT for Sustainable Consumption?
Without a Sustainable-Values Social Framework
years have seen the enthusiastic adoption of the Internet and
communications technologies (ICT)--development of the knowledge
economy-- notwithstanding the recent technology bubbleexperienced
in global stock markets. ICT has been widely promoted as, among
other things, an important strategy to improve the energy and
materials intensity of the economy and, correspondingly, reduce
energy and materials consumption. The reasoning is that dematerialising
the economy and immaterialising consumer preferences can lead
to greatly improved efficiencies. It is assumed that by shifting
economic activities towards a service oriented economy, environmental
impacts can be reduced.
improvements in general have been widely advocated in this context
for decades, dare I say centuries (Jevons 1865). Nevertheless, energy
and materials consumption continues to rise. Indeed, efficiency
gains often produce unexpected results, whereby consumption levels
increase, often exceeding the gains in efficiency. Complex social
processes establish powerful motivational forces through which such
efficiency increases may provide an effective conduit to increase
studies are beginning to reveal that just such a phenomenon may
be occurring through the application of ICT. For example, while
there is much hope that audioconferencing, teleconferencing and
web-based meetings may be able to dramatically reduce physical mobility,
studies have found that face-to-face communications appear to supplement
virtual alternatives rather than substitute for them. (Traxler and
Luger 2000; Gaspar and Glaeser 1996; Gillespie et al 1995; Thrift
1996); Moss and Townsend 1998). Similarly, expectations that telework
arrangements might allow reductions in needed office space as well
as reductions in the energy and materials associated with commuting
are instead yielding to arrangements that generate additional suburban
sprawl, increasing both infrastructure demands for new housing developments,
as well as increasing commute distances when people need to attend
meetings or be in the office.
results are appearing in other sectors where ICT is being applied,
such as intelligent vehicle highway systems, just-in-time delivery,
e-commerce, urban development, housing and households, digital
media, e-learning, product development (such as mass customization),
packaging, product design, and the controversial issue of networking.
to Moore's law, electronics dematerialise by a factor of four
every three years. Yet despite the trend towards reduced energy
intensity per appliance, product or process, there has not been
a corresponding reduction of the total energy and material flows
since the introduction and application of ICT. In fact, the
energy and materials utilised by this sector continues to increase
and is proving to be significant. Although these levels are
small on the order of national economies, it represents increasing
levels of throughput consumption which previously did not even
exist. The proportion of this consumption which could be considered
a shift versus new consumption is not at all clear. Still, the
production, consumption and disposal of wastes from the ICT
sector are creating significant environmental hazards worldwide.
and policy have typically focussed on the proximate causes of environmental
damage. More recently, attention is being directed towards the underlying
social and economic driving forces. By shaping the context in which
choices are made, values can establish powerful motivational forces
which can produce, indirectly, tremendously greater environmental
and social consequences (Rosa and Dietz 1998; Vayada 1988; Brown
and Cameron 2000; Kilbourne et al 2001).
factors influence our decisions, activities, and behaviours. By
focussing on improving energy and materials intensity, it is widely
believed the contentious issue of behaviour change may be avoided.
However, conventional approaches have achieved limited success.
That is often precisely because of the intractable and complex nature
of human behaviour and lifestyles, and the intransigence of belief
and value structures. These structures profoundly influence behaviours
through socialization and cultural conditioning. Conventional social
norms and institutions appear to generate behaviours which favour
increasing consumptive practices (Manno 2000; Lintott 1998; Cogoy
within such a framework, changing behaviours will be essential
to move towards more sustainable development. This will necessitate
confronting complex human factors, deeply held beliefs and social
pressures, institutions and goals. Yet it is these factors which
define conventional tools and strategies, and how they are employed,
to achieve sustainable development. In other words, conventional
activities to reduce the throughput consumption of energy and
materials may implicitly embody the very values and social forces
which produce overconsuming decisions, lifestyles and behaviours.
The evidence strongly implies the adoption and application of
ICT appears to manifest these values and social forces, and
thus it is probably exemplary when it is applied in this context.
Therefore, understanding the factors responsible for these forces
is an essential and often ignored step to identify appropriate
tools and strategies to reduce energy and materials consumption.
social processes and norms, directed by underlying value structures,
can strongly influence behaviour and lifestyles choices. At present,
those values which predominate are inconsistent with many objectives
of sustainable development, and prevailing economic values are quite
contrary to reducing consumption. Even as attitudes and perceptions
are becoming ever more environmentally sensitive, powerful social
forces militate against the requisite changes. While individuals
are exposed to the knowledge that there are environmental problems
and that they should be sensitive to them, the more subtle message
of these social forces imply that existing political, economic,
and technological institutions will solve the problems for them
(Kilbourne et al 2001). While this social bias may manifest a predisposition
towards reduced energy and materials intensity, it exhibits no intrinsic
desire to reduce consumption nor environmental impacts at the level
are never neutral, as they reflect cultural values and biases.
Indeed, the development and application of ICT is, as with all
science and technology, inherently value-laden. Clearly, a technology
itself does not determine how it will be applied. If not carefully
managed, the introduction and application of ICT may simply
continue to reflect this social bias, and provide the conduit
with which to increase energy and materials consumption, although
it may simultaneously improve energy and materials intensity.
for the "technical fix" fail to recognise the social embeddedness
of their inventions, the underlying values motivating its development,
and the differences between the micro and macro effects of technological
adoptions, much needed and appropriate guardrails are neglected,
and unsustainable social processes tend to guide the adoption and
adaptations of ICT. For example, Heinonen et al (2001) conclude
that economic forces are primarily responsible for driving the development
and adoption of ICT, and these do not consider their sustainability.
Nuij (2002) similarly observes that the initial, and creatively
essential, phase of ICT development neglects environmental considerations.
and Smit (2000) suggest many technological shortcomings are a function
of several factors, most notably the A performative role of expectations
and future images in technological development.In this sense, expectations
function as an intervention to affect the direction and speed of
technological developments. Due to the risks of developing new technologies
and their initially low performance characteristics, they are unable
to immediately compete on the market. Development therefore requires
advocates to establish a specific "niche" in order to
further develop the application. This niche consists of a network
of actors such as funding organisations and technology developers
who share a common belief in the future value of the technology.
Future expectations represent generalisations of the technologies'potential.
This is intended to influence the relevant actors, such as policy
makers or scientists, to invest resources in the technologies'development
and establish a process of political and/or technological agenda
setting. As specific goals can be established, resources become
available to achieve those targets. Outcomes are assessed and new,
more specific goals are established in a repeating cycle. As this
process continues, optimistic expectations are shifted towards more
pragmatic expectations. Thus, initially optimistic expectations
function as a strategic activity to attract the needed actors (financial)
to stimulate the agenda setting process (technical and political)
and establish niches.
effect, the efficiency gains achieved through the application of
ICT are only realised on a per unit level of analysis. Once diffused
throughout the economy, these micro level benefits are rapidly eroded
by the macro societal effects, including economic, behavioural and
other complex social forces. In essence, ICT are employed to help
achieve greater economic growth, often layered upon existing technologies
to enable greater economic penetration Hilty and Ruddy (2000).
important role of economic forces to businesses or firms fashioning
ICT cannot be understated. For example, Sonntag (2000) argues
that, while cost is still an important factor of production,
it is not the only driver in market evolution. Industry consensus
has identified the attributes of competitive products in today's
markets as cost, quality, time to market, and performance based
on distinctive product features. Thus, while accelerated product
cycles support cost reduction strategies, the strategic advantage
of faster cycle times propels firms in this direction. Policies
promoting competitiveness seek to maximise the adoption of advanced
manufacturing technologies and processes, such as ICT.
such strategies create the dilemma of technological equipment cost
recovery over reduced product and process lifetimes. Thus the faster
cycle times and speed to market assumes strong market growth. Immediate
sales growth is required for companies to justify the significant
investments (in agile technologies) needed to sustain economic growth
and future earnings.Agility Forum (1997) Effectively, consumption
must increase at an ever greater rate to offset capital substitution
for labour in the production process (Schnaiberg 1980).
market growth and accelerated product cycles predict new product
variants and more rapid obsolescence linked with consumer desires.
Mass customization precisely describes strategies to accommodate
increasing consumer demands. Thus, the economic rationale underlying
increased product diversification and market fragmentation counteracts
the problems of market saturation and over-capacity. The inevitable
result is increasing energy and materials consumption.
effect, this rebound effect consists of the following five effects:
Replacing an existing product, process or activity through the
application of ICT.
2) Optimisation: Optimising the efficiency of an existing
product, process or activity through the application of ICT.
3) Induction: The application of ICT induces the greater
use of an existing product, process or activity.
4) Supplementation: A new ICT product, service or process
supplements or complements (adds to) an existing product, service
5) Creation: Creating a new niche or application for a new
ICT product, service or activity.
it is usually only the first two categories that are considered
when consumption or environmental considerations are made and technologies
are advocated. This can largely be attributed to the assumption
that the introduction of ICT is exogenous to existing social processes
and needs (Geels and Smit 2000). Future expectations from ICT are
also typically biased by conventional reductionist thought. For
example, the substitution of physical shopping by ICT alternatives
(e-commerce) is largely based on the assumption that shopping is
a purely functional activity of purchasing the required goods. That
is, functional equivalence is assumed. Functional Equivalence is
the term given intensity improvements, such as those achieved through
eco-efficiency or dematerialization, intended to maintain the output
("functional unit" or "service unit"), while
reducing the physical input to the process of providing the output.
Not only is this an imprecise term, and therefore very difficult
to compare alternatives, it is also misleading, because it is assumed
that different alternatives (such as e-commerce versus shopping
in a mall; or telework versus working in the office) are assumed
to be comparable. Rather, the choices we make between alternatives
is done so precisely because they are different, not functionally
equivalent! Such reductionist thought neglects other social and
psychological, or human, factors.
In the case
of shopping, Sindhav and Balazs (1999) outline a number of other
factors which suggest the continued relevance of traditional retail
practices in the face of increasing ecommerce trade. Additionally,
the social interaction of shopping and the cultural phenomenon of
shopping are important factors determining the importance of physical
shopping (Cook 1999). Therefore, from a purely reductionist perspective,
certain ICT applications may appear very appealing, as they may
promise to fulfil a certain function in a much more intense manner.
Nevertheless, by neglecting the complexity of social processes and
their interactions with the natural and physical world, future expectations
about the role of ICT in reducing energy and materials intensity,
consumption and environmental impacts may be overly optimistic,
not to mention simplistic. Thus, multifarious pathways will prevent
the optimistic expectations from being fully realised, and may even
produce some quite unintended, if not harmful effects. The initial
development of a technology is often driven by very these narrow
(2002) stresses that "Social factors are very important
and do influence in a decisive way" whether the application
of ICT will lead to a reduction in energy consumption and environmental
emissions. Similarly, Plepys (2002) stresses the decisive role
of human behaviour in determining the significance of environmental
impacts resulting from the adoption of ICT.
for example are early adopters of ICT and typically develop
new and quite innovative adaptations for a given application.
Frequently, these technologies are employed for their intended
purposes as well as developed into new, novel, and personally
unique forms of adaptations asserting self-expression, group
participation and other social statements. As such, the youth
market forms a key driving force for the development and marketing
of new technologies.
formation and other social processes lend themselves to increasing
the consumption of ICT applications and thus often lead to a
physical increase in the energy and materials consumed in the
aggregate. Thus, the adoption of ICTs and their multifarious
adaptations by youth worldwide must be preceded, or at least
accompanied by the necessary value changes so that technological
options are embedded within a sustainable-values social framework.
transformational effects of ICT are a function of their potential
to reduce energy and materials intensity through dematerialisation,
e‑substitution, production optimisation, and product efficiencies.
However, these benefits will only be realised if they are accompanied
by the necessary social changes, including behaviour, social norms
and lifestyle choices. This suggests that particular attention must
be given to the social processes and institutions from which these
needed changes will be derived - in essence, attention must now
focus on the human dimensions of the challenge. For example, this
may necessarily mean direct and indirect interventions in social
processes previously considered sacrosanct. However, as of yet,
there is little interest in this approach. This is interesting,
since the stated misgivings focus on the interference of socially
accepted values, such as freedom of choice, economic growth, and
technological progress. However, through government action and inaction,
such specific values, and their concomitant social processes, institutional
arrangements and lifestyles are regularly intervened upon and promoted
or discouraged, as the case may be. Values simply must be consistent
with sustainable development goals if we are to achieve more sustainable
development without merely limiting the concepts "to the global
management of contemporary capitalism in a green framework"
Forum, Leaders for Manufacturing, and Technologies Enabling
Agile Manufacturing, 1997, Next Generation Manufacturing:
A Framework for Action, 1997.
Paul M., and Cameron, Linda D., 2000. What can be done to Reduce
Overconsumption?, Ecological Economics 32, 27 - 41, 2000.
M.,1999. The Consumer as a Social and Environmental Actor, Ecological
Economics, Vol. 28, No. 3, March, 1999.
Dan, No Purchase Necessary, Newsletter of the Consumers,
Commodities and Consumption Special Interest Group of the American
Sociological Association , Issue 1, Number 1, December 1999.
Jess and Edward L. Glaeser, Information Technology and the
Future of Cities, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Institute of Economic
Research, Harvard University, 1996.
Frank W., and Smit, Wim A., Failed Technology Futures: Pitfalls
and Lessons From a Historical Survey, Futures Volume:
32, Issue: 9‑10, pp. 867‑885, November 2000.
Andrew, Richardson, Ranald, and Comford, James, Review of Telework
for Public Policy. Newcastle, England: University of Newcastle
upon Tyne, Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies,
Sirkka, Jokinen, Pekka, and Kaivo‑oja, Jari, The ecological
transparency of the information society, Futures Volume:
33, Issue: 3‑4, pp. 319‑337, May 2001.
Lorenz M. and Ruddy, Thomas F., Towards a Sustainable Information
Society, Informatik No. 4, August 2000.
Stanley, The Coal Question ‑ Can Britain Survive? Macmillan
[Extracts in Environment and Change 1974], 1865.
William E., Beckmann, Suzanne C., Lewis, Alan and Van Dam, Ynte,
A Multinational Examination of the Role of the Dominant Social
Paradigm in Environmental Attitudes of University Students,
Environment and Behavior, Vol. 33, No. 2, March 2001,
209 - 228, 2001.
J., 1998. Beyond the Economics of More: The Place of Consumption
Ecological Economics, Vol. 25, No. 3, June, 1998.Manno,
2000. Commodity Potential: An Approach to Understanding and
Ecological Consequences of Markets, in Integrating Environment,
Conservation and Health, David Pimentel, Laura Westra and
Reed Noss, eds., Island Press, 2000.
P., 1996. Contested Terrains: Politics, Stories and the Discourses
of Sustainability, Environmental Politics 5 (1), 48 -
Mitchell and Anthony Townsend, "Technology and Cities."
Cityscape: A Journal of Policy
and Research 3(3), 107-127, 1998 Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy
Development and Research, 1998.
Robert, Eco Innovation: Helped or Hindered by Integrated Product
Policy, The Journal of Sustainable Product Design 1,
49 - 51, 2002.
Andrius, The Grey Side of ICT, Environmental Impact Assessment
Review, Vol: 22 Issue: 5, October, 2002, pp: 509‑523.
E.A. and Dietz, T., Climate Change and Society: Speculation,
Construction and Scientific Investigation, International
Sociology, 13, 421 - 425, 1998.
Allan, The Environment, From Surplus to Scarcity, Oxford
University Press, 1980.
Birud and Balazs, Anne L., A Model of Factors Affecting the
Growth of Retailing on the Internet, Journal of Market‑Focused
Management, Volume: 4, Issue: 4, December 1999.
Viki, Sustainability - in Light of Competitiveness, Ecological
Economics 34, July 2000.
N, Spatial Formations, London, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996.
Johannes, and Luger, Michael I., Businesses and the Internet:
Implications for Firm
and Clustering, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis,
Volume: 2, Issue: 3, December 2000, pp. 279‑300.
Ildiko, The Information Society and the Environment: a case
study concerning two Internet Applications, 2002.
A.P., Actions and Consequences as Objects of Explanation in
Human Ecology, in R.J. Borden, J. Jacobs, And G.L. Young
(eds.), Human Ecology Research and Applications, Society
for Human Ecology, 1988.