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Wanna save the world? Forget it!

So you think that recycled can is going to earn you a gold star in consumer heaven? Not so, according to a new report from the Nordic Council of Ministers. The report dispels a number of myths about sustainable consumption and concludes that government action is what we need.

Johannes Jansson/

A new report from the Nordic Council of Ministers sets out to dispel a number of myths on sustainable consumption. It was presented at the Nordic sustainability conference in Umeå, Sweden, on September 18, accompanied by the release of a new set of Nordic sustainable development indicators.


One such myth could be “As long as I buy green products, I am sustainable”. But no, in fact buying (a lot) less overall is more effective than just stocking up on ecolabelled goods.

“if everyone does a little, we will achieve a lot” is another myth that gets a critical assessment. But here the conclusion is, that even if individual action is valuable and necessary, it often perpetuates unsustainable behaviour in other areas - people buy absolution, so to speak, for their minor “offenses” only to splurge all the more diligently in other areas.

The report - Improving Nordic policymaking by dispelling myths on sustainable consumption - also states that the commercial use of this “absolution” mechanism, “buy X and give Y”, does not do the trick either.

Me, myself and I

Appealing to the self-interest of consumers is widely regarded as a useful tool to promote sustainable behaviour. But the authors of the report warn against losing sight of the social nature of consumption and the societal consequences of our behaviour.

- Our consumer culture in fact inherently rejects sustainable development and the concept suffers from severe image problems. A greener lifestyle is often associated with a lower quality of life, almost as if we had to go back to living in caves, deprived of all modern comforts, says one of the authors of the report, Oksana Mont from Lund University.

- But unsustainable consumption will in fact lead to just that, forcing a lower standard of living on us due to the depletion of resources. So what we need is a planned transition to a more sustainable lifestyle to avoid this, she concludes.

In conclusion there are definite limits to what individual action can achieve and the report calls for governments to take the lead to achieve real changes in consumption patterns.

Facts speak clearly

To provide a solid ground for working with its new strategy for sustainable development, the Nordic Council of Ministers also released a new set of Nordic sustainable development indicators at the Umeå sustainability conference.

The indicators cover a wide range of aspects from all three areas of sustainable development, the economic, the ecological and the social. They take the Nordic model and the welfare state as their starting point, but also look at climate issues and ecosystem services.

The Nordic sustainable development indicators will be updated annually and are located at


The report Improving Nordic policymaking by dispelling myths on sustainable consumption was commissioned by the working group for sustainable consumption and production under the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Other than Oksana Mont, the authors are Kate Power from Copenhagen Resource Institute and Helka Kuusi plus Eva Heiskanen from the National Consumer Research Centre in Finland.

The goal of the study has, according to the authors, been to dispel myths that thwart sustainability by bringing forward existing evidence on consumer behaviour, in order to aid the development of efficient sustainable consumption policies in the Nordic countries.

See also policy brief with a summary of the report at