Sustainability and sustainable consumption – What are we actually talking about?

Jonas Jonas

14. Jul, 2020 5 min. readtime

Three global hectares. That is roughly the space that I, Jonas Wendt, take up on earth through my consumption (1). If everyone used that much, we would need 1.9 Earths. Despite the fact that I had to go through the G8 Turbo-Abitur, I noticed immediately, that is too much. Until just 15 minutes ago, I would have told everyone that I live & consume sustainably. I eat vegan, mainly seasonal and relatively much “organic”. I have a bicycle and otherwise use mostly subways & commuter trains. I live in a sparsely furnished 11sqm room in a wonderful 12-person shared apartment and heat only when really necessary. Clothes (except for underpants, socks & shoes) I buy only used. And indeed, my ecological footprint is about 40% smaller than the average German footprint (1). But do I therefore consume sustainably, even though my ecological footprint is almost twice as big as it should be? What does this buzzword sustainability used by everyone even mean?

What does sustainability mean?

In the German-speaking world, the concept of sustainability can be traced back to Hans Carl von Carlowitz (2). 300 years ago, wood as a resource was one of the most important economic goods in Germany, which, however, led to severe deforestation (3). Carlowitz realized that if trees are cut down faster than they grow back, there will be fewer and fewer of them. Recognizing the long-term problem of the depletion of wood resources, Carlowitz therefore advocated for a “sustainable” management of this resource (4). Only as much wood should be felled as would grow back. Sustainability hence means that conditions for action in the future are not worsened by actions in the present. In particular, he had in mind the socioeconomic conditions of the following generations:

Where damage comes from neglected work, there grows poverty and penury among men” (Hans Carl von Carlowitz 1713: 105).

The issue of sustainability is of course becoming more and more present, even if it has just been slightly slowed down by COVID-19, with the increasing awareness of climate change. Mankind has not yet fully understood, however, that the more we destroy our environment, the less we can live off it. But at least it is slowly dawning on us. As a result, the pressure on us humans to consume sustainably is growing, as is the pressure on companies to enable sustainable consumption (5).

What is sustainable consumption?

Two of the most commonly used definitions for the construct of sustainable consumption are the so-called Oslo and Brundtland definitions. The Oslo definition emerged from an expert meeting convened by the Norwegian government in Oslo in 1994 and reads:

Sustainable Consumption and Production can be defined as […] the production and use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimizing the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations” (Oslo Symposium 1994).

This definition has also been adopted by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, among others, but has also been criticized in the (scientific) debate (6). Terms such as Quality of Life or Basic Needs are said to be too imprecise, the measures to be taken are said to be too arbitrary, and the definition makes an inadequate distinction between production and consumption.

The United Nations Brundtland definition, named after a former Norwegian prime minister, has gained wider acceptance. According to it, lasting development, now understood as sustainable development, is:

development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Commission 1987: 46).

Building on the Brundtland definition, two sustainability experts, Prof. Belz and Dr. Billharz, differentiate sustainable consumption into a narrower and a broader understanding (7). Sustainable consumption in the broader sense is to switch to products and services that are more socailly fair and take up less of the earth’s surface than conventional products or services of this kind. Sustainable consumption in the narrower sense is consumption that neither disadvantages other people nor contributes to the consumer using more than his/her allotted area of about 1.6 global hectares.

The balance between too little and impossible

And so from the scientific debate back to my real-life question: Am I living a sustainable life? Yes & No is probably the answer. In the broader sense according to Belz & Bilharz I consume sustainably, because in most areas I use products & services that are fairer and take up less space on earth than their alternatives. As a result, I take up significantly less space than the average person in Germany and probably also contribute to less intra- and intergenerational injustice. Nevertheless, I still take up twice as much space as I actually have available. So as far as sustainability in the narrower sense is concerned, I have failed absolutely catastrophically.

But what should be the guideline for me now? Should I continue to “only” pay attention to consume fairer & more sustainable products or do I have to strictly pay attention to live in a way that I use a maximum of 1.6 instead of the current 3 global hectares? Is it even possible to use only one earth in Germany? The base amount alone (collective footprint due to infrastructure such as roads or schools) is 0.9 global hectares (1). That leaves only 0.7 global hectares for food, mobility, housing and other consumption. This is hardly enough to light a fire under the bridge (under which we then have to live).

On the other hand, is sustainability in the broader sense enough? What is better, according to this understanding, is not best, but still good. No one really knows where the “point of no return” is with climate change, but it is becoming clearer and clearer that we are racing ever closer to it. Closer and closer to a future that will be characterized by a global loss of security and quality of life on an unprecedented scale. Is better therefore really good enough?

So far I’ve talked about sustainable consumption on a personal/individual level, but what does that mean for businesses? For producers, it means that their products are sustainable in a broader sense if they are socially & environmentally better than competing products. Products would be sustainable in a broader sense if it is realistic that even despite or because of consuming the product, the consumers do not have to use more than extrapolated one earth and do not contribute to any intra- or intergenerational injustices.

But also here the same question arises: is it enough to be better than the competition or does a company have to actively support its customers via its product to use less than one earth and to prevent intra- or intergenerational disadvantages? Personally, I think the former is no longer enough in the face of the challenges we face, and the latter is too unrealistic to serve as an orientation. But when we talk about a sustainable economy and a sustainable F&B industry , what do we actually mean?


  1. Brot für die Welt Website (2020): Fussabdrucktest.
  2. Zürcher, Ulrich (1965): Die Idee der Nachhaltigkeit unter spezieller Berücksichtigung der Gesichtspunkte der Forsteinrichtung.
  3. Reisch, Lucia A./ Schmidt, Mario (2017): Nachhaltige Entwicklung.
  4. Carlowitz, Hans C. (1713): Sylvicultura oeconomica.
  5. Grunwald, Armin (2010): Wider die Privatisierung der Nachhaltigkeit.
  6. Fischer, Daniel/ Michelsen, Gerd/ Blättel-Mink, Birgit/ Di Giulio, Antonietta (2011): Nachhaltiger Konsum — Wie lässt sich Nachhaltigkeit im Konsum beurteilen.
  7. Belz, Frank-Martin/ Bilharz, Michael (2007): Nachhaltiger Konsum, geteilte Verantwortung und Verbraucherpolitik.