Fostering Sustainable Consumption in U.S. Cities

Eran Ben-Joseph, landscape architect/urban designer

Year One Report Executive Summary

Consumption is the major driver of ever-increasing global material extraction, and neither technological innovation nor efficiency gains have proven sufficient to offset rising demand. Scholars and practitioners are therefore increasingly promoting “sustainable consumption” as a solution. This broad term can encompass everything broad scale redesign of industrial processes across continents to individual behavior modification. This research focuses on cities, which—despite being efficient in terms of land, water, and energy use for daily life—are hubs of material and energy consumption, particularly in the global North. This research project charts the progress that US cities have made toward sustainable material consumption and examines the many barriers they have encountered. We designed a multi-method research program, including a survey and in depth case studies to address these questions. Over the first year of work, we designed, tested and implemented a survey of the 294 U.S. cities, over 100,000. The survey provided descriptive data about urban material management programs, and helped us to identify a series of correlations that start to explain the difference between high-performing cities and cities that are doing little to nothing in terms of sustainable consumption or material management policy. Over the next year, we will conduct in depth cases of cities across the spectrum of material management sustainability.

Proposed Work

The world has seen steadily rising levels of consumption and material flows since World War II. Neither technological innovation nor efficiency gains have proven sufficient to offset rising demand. The environmental community has increasingly turned to the concept of sustainable consumption as a way to combat the rising levels of waste production, material use, and pollution that result from material extraction, manufacturing, shipping, and disposal of consumer products.

Despite being efficient in terms of land, water, and energy use for daily life, cities are hubs of consumption. Moreover, inaction on sustainability at the federal level has put cities on the front line of sustainability policy and practice. As a result, cities are an important testing ground for efforts to reduce consumption. Through this research, we seek to answer the following questions: How and to what extent have U.S. cities made progress towards sustainable consumption? How have the most progressive cities advanced this agenda in practice? What obstacles have they encountered, and how have they overcome those barriers (if they have)? And finally, what prevents other cities from following suit? Although some sustainable consumption practices are taking root among individuals and households, and in some corners of the private sector, this project will focus on how and to what extent government policy at the local level impedes or enables such practices.

To address these questions, we propose to conduct a large-scale survey of 285 municipalities and counties. The survey will target waste managers first and foremost because sustainable consumption initiatives are often driven by a desire to reduce the volume and cost of municipal solid waste. The survey will also target sustainability offices, economic development offices, and other municipal- and county-run programs that directly or indirectly support activities that fall under the umbrella of sustainable consumption—for example, repair and reuse activities, programs to minimize product toxicity, or goods- and skills-sharing programs. The survey will provide baseline data that will allow us to compare places and assess the general state of sustainable consumption programming in U.S. cities.

In addition to the survey we will conduct between 12 and 15 in-depth case studies that assess how and to what extent specific factors influence cities’ efforts to promote more sustainable consumption. We will investigate municipalities that boast effective sustainable consumption programming, as well as those that have struggled to enact meaningful reforms. We will use the cases to identify barriers to more widespread adoption of sustainable consumption practices and to characterize how municipalities have overcome those barriers (or failed to do so).

Ultimately, we plan to offer concrete policy direction to cities, towns, and counties that seek to promote sustainable consumption at the local scale, as well as to be able to describe what kinds of policy action must be taken at larger scales of government. We will disseminate our analysis and our policy prescriptions by producing a highly readable, well-designed report and making it widely available for free on the web. We anticipate posting this report within two years of receiving grant funding from the Environmental Solutions Initiative.