Nov 07 2021

SDG 12 addresses ‘responsible consumption and production’, but a report argues that progress has gone backwards since 2019, writes Nisreen Ameen.

SDG 12 is about promoting resource and energy efficiency, sustainable infrastructure, and providing access to basic services, green and decent jobs and a better quality of life for all. It is also about decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation, increasing resource efficiency and promoting sustainable lifestyles. The latest M&G Investments’ SDG Reckoning report argues that progress on SDG 12 has gone backwards from 2019 as a consequence of the rebound effect of the opening up again of the world economy after the 2020 slowdown. SDG 12 scores 3 out 10 in their report and only SDG 15 Life on the Land is lower.

According to the United Nations, this goal has become even more important during the COVID-19 global crisis, which revealed that while humans have (potentially) unlimited needs, the planet has limited capacity to satisfy them. And notwithstanding a temporary dip in energy and other forms of consumption, global demand has bounced back rapidly. Energy consumption notably is rising rapidly after an initial contraction, with 2021 likely to witness a return of fossil fuel usage including coal. The challenge remains to manage global decarbonisation while promoting less resource-intensive activity. Examples of responsible consumption and production include: if people worldwide switched to energy-efficient light bulbs, the world would save US$120 billion annually, or if people manage their food consumption responsibly, since a total of 1.3 billion tons or 13.8 per cent of food is wasted every year. Promoting healthy and sustainable diets, largely meat-free and avoiding mass-produced ‘cheap food’, would be another area of considerable promise.

Effects of COVID-19 on sustainable consumption

The COVID-19 global pandemic has drastically shifted the landscape of sustainable consumption, and the expected future impacts are not well-known yet. For example, due to COVID-19 measures, including working from home and mobility restrictions, global electricity consumption patterns have changed and levels have decreased. Recent research found that the COVID-19 pandemic had a more significant impact on sustainable consumption than environmental awareness and social responsibility. Data released by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and ESA (European Space Agency) show that pollution in some of the epicentres of COVID-19, such as Wuhan, Italy, Spain and the United States, has been reduced by up to 30 per cent.

Sustainable consumer behaviour leads companies to strengthen their efforts to become socially and ecologically more sustainable and undertake sustainable strategies to satisfy new sustainability demands. Young consumers, such as Generation Z (also called the ‘sustainability generation’ and the ‘digital natives’), born between 1997 and 2012, are particularly motivated towards responsible consumption and production. In fact, this generation is demanding sustainable retail. They prefer to buy from sustainable brands, and they are willing to spend more on sustainable products. Also, Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) are credited with being the most likely to be committed to the SDGs in general.

Previous research focused on different areas of sustainable consumption and production, for example, the management of food surplus and food waste, the implications of the three pillars of sustainability (environment, economy and social justice) on consumption; and responsible consumption, anti-consumption, and mindful consumption. In addition, efforts have been made to study the impact of different technologies on sustainable consumption, for example, digital tools, smartphone applications, green technology products (e.g., solar panels, electric vehicles, automatic kitchen composter), industrial ecology (e.g., cleaner production processes and green innovations implemented by manufacturers and promoted to consumers), augmented reality and virtual reality.

SDG 12

Image shows a UN responsible consumption and production cartoon graphic identifying challenges and solutions for households on food waste, energy use and water pollution.   

Research on AI and consumer behaviour at Royal Holloway

While different types of technology have significantly impacted consumer shopping experiences, our research at Royal Holloway shows that artificial intelligence (AI) is expected to have the most significant impact in this context, especially among Millennials and Generation Z consumers. Our recent research also shows that AI-enabled recommendation agents can provide insights into how customers behave, and they can enhance customer experiences. In addition, AI is expected to make social and environment-friendly choices much easier, and it can help to find the right time and place to provide sustainability recommendations.

The use of AI levers could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 4 per cent by 2030, which amounts to a total of 2.4 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions. Food waste application Too Good To Go uses natural language processing (NLP) machine learning process reviews to determine if users believe the app is legitimate or not. Similarly, the food waste app Karma uses basic machine learning algorithms on the data collected to predict and prevent food waste. AI in marketing can be a powerful force in promoting supply- and demand-side sustainability efforts.

AI can sort sustainable products and services, and consumer segments best suited for such offerings (i.e., place and promotion). AI can play a key role in making sustainable consumption as easy as possible, for example, algorithms for search queries and product suggestions, energy efficiency, eco-labels, and/or filter settings for ‘green’ products (green by default). Marketers should harness AI applications to empower individuals to ‘consume better but less’.

The use of AI in different areas in services and marketing has rapidly gained attention from academics and practitioners. However, it is yet to be explored how this technology can be utilised effectively and in a variety of ways to promote and enable responsible consumption and production and increase consumers’ awareness, particularly among younger consumers who are motivated to learn more about SDG 12. Such efforts will also require collaborations between firms, stakeholders and policymakers at a global level to help in achieving this goal.

Dr Nisreen Ameen is a Lecturer in Marketing, Co-Director of the Digital Organisation and Society research centre and Co-Leader of the Research Cluster: Cybersecurity and Human Behaviour at Royal Holloway, University of London. Nisreen's research interests include digital marketing, human-computer interaction, consumer behaviour, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled services, data security and ethics; and e-business. She is a Senior Editor for Information Technology and People, Associate Editor for International Journal of Consumer Studies and a Board Member of the UK Academy of Information Systems (UKAIS). Nisreen is an Editorial Board Member of Journal of Business Research, International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research, The Service Industries Journal and Journal of Enterprise Information Management. In addition, she has been a Lead Guest Editor for special issues in high-ranked journals such as Information Systems Frontiers, Psychology and Marketing, Computers in Human Behavior and The Service Industries Journal. She is currently a Guest Associate Editor for a special issue in Information Systems Journal