Teaching About Sustainable Consumption: Reflections on Consumption Logging

At times, instructors of sustainable consumption struggle to disrupt students’ deep-seated notions of consumption as an individualized phenomenon. When offering their views on why we face an over-consumption problem, many students argue it is because of human greed and selfishness. This belief is potentially problematic because students may then neglect to observe ways that institutions, policy, and power can lock us all into unsustainable consumption patterns. This blog post recounts a recent successful effort to challenge the notion of consumption as an individual problem, as related to an exercise I led in Dr. Emily Kennedy’s course ‘Sociology 332: Society and Environment’.

SOC 332 focuses on the study of human-environment interactions, and emphasizes inequities in how individuals impact, and are impacted by, the environment. Recently the students completed an assignment focused on their individual consumption practices. The assignment had three components. Students 1) logged their consumption over a 24-hour period, 2) wrote a reflection paper on the experience, and 3) participated in a class discussion to process what they learned. The consumption log asked students to make note of consumption within several categories: food, fuel, packaging, paper, water, and appliance use. In the classroom, students added to the consumption log by reflecting on each consumption category and coded it as 1) a practice that could be easily changed, 2) a practice which could be changed with some effort, or 3) a practice which could not be changed without a radical change in lifestyle. For the reflection paper, students addressed topics such as what they learned from paying deliberate attention to their consumption, which types of consumption would be harder or easier to reduce, what specific interventions they might be able to implement to reduce their consumption, and whether their various consumption activities could best be reduced through individual interventions or through changes to policy or the market.  Finally, students were prompted to make connections to the sociological concepts of agency, structure, and power. I have attached the instructions for the assignment.

This exercise was surprisingly successful in meeting two of the goals of SOC 332—to disrupt students’ beliefs about over-consumption reflecting human greed and apathy, and to introduce students to some of the limitations of individual, consumption-based solutions to environmental problems. Further, many students went above and beyond what was required in the assignment. For example, students were not required to document consumption outside the assigned six categories, but some did so anyway. Additionally, some students went into considerably more detail in logging their consumption than dictated by the assignment. For example, under the category of water consumption, students were asked to track the length of their shower if they took one that day. However, a number of students went into much more detail. Some went as far as to count the number of times they flushed the toilet, and one of these students even noted the amount of water used with each flush. For purposes of illustration, I have attached a consumption log written by one of our students. The reflection papers were written in class, and thus were not as polished as a take home essay. However, some of the students churned out a remarkable amount of material in the time allotted (approximately 25 minutes). I have also attached a student reflection paper. Finally, following completion of the reflection, students engaged in a discussion of their experience. The discussion was lively, and provided a forum for students to identify areas where their consumption is wasteful, to discuss possible solutions, and to engage with important course concepts such as inequality and power.

For class on the following Tuesday, students submitted memos, which provided evidence of their engagement with the assignment. The memos are meant to offer an opportunity for students to reflect on what they are learning. Many of the memos discussed the consumption assignment. Here is a sample comment:

“The consumption journal has left me with the greatest impact because I have realized I’m not as environmentally aware as I believed myself to be. I thought myself to be making a smaller footprint than I actually have come to know. I spend money at fast food restaurants where I buy items which utilize non-recyclable material. For example, the cardboard/paper cups used for drinks I simply toss in the landfill trash. I don’t even know what the material is composed of or the effect the cup may have on the environment.”

This activity also served as an effective segue to the reading for the next class, which was  Michael Maniates’ 2001 article titled “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?” In this article, Maniates discusses how environmental responsibility has become increasingly individualized, and how we fail to imagine non-individual solutions to environmental problems, such as protesting, joining a social movement organization or becoming otherwise politically involved to affect environmental change. The students’ reflection papers demonstrated they were very comfortable coming up with personal interventions for their consumption based impacts. However, while they noted many of their consumption activities would be difficult to change personally, they often had difficulty articulating what non-individual interventions might look like. Maniates refers to this phenomenon as suffering from a limited environmental imagination. After reading Maniates, it would be helpful to have students go back and read their reflection papers to see evidence of the individualization of environmental responsibility at work.

As Dr. Kennedy and I walked to class today, I noted how interested I was as I read the students’ reflections on their consumption. When I went back to my office after class, I found myself reflecting on why I felt so positively about what I had read in their papers. Here is what I came up with:

1)      The activity clearly resonated with the students. We don’t often take the time to deliberate upon our daily routines, and simply making the unconscious become conscious can be a powerful tool for learning.

2)      Consumption can be a deeply personal activity, and I could see the students wrestling with how they felt about what their logs showed. When confronting consumption and waste, solutions are often difficult to identify. However, what was clear to most students were the inefficiencies in current systems of production, consumption and disposal.

3)      The papers provided an opportunity for students to apply course concepts to their own lives, and to speak with authority about something they know well, themselves.

4)      An unanticipated bonus was I got to know the students better. The consumption logs said a lot about the students and their daily activities, and for any social scientist, this is pretty fascinating data (spoiler: many college students don’t eat well and don’t get much sleep!).

If anyone is interested in adapting this exercise to their classroom and would like to get in touch, feel free to do so. I can be contacted at jacobs.hammond@wsu.edu.