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Sustainable consumption and young Australians

By Daniel Donahoo - posted Thursday, 15 September 2005

Affluenza is the sickness of over-consumption and more of us are looking for a cure. Downshifting is being sold as a step towards happiness, but for young Australians who haven’t even shifted up yet it provides little help. Instead, my generation are trying to forge a new sensibility of sustainable consumption.

Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that 20-somethings continue to postpone the traditional hallmarks of adulthood. But while we may not have left home, many of us are acutely aware of the increasing costs of education, entering the housing market and our society’s affluent demands. It affects our lives significantly.

Consequently, young people understand the world in a different way. In a society obsessed with consumption, opportunity is directly linked to the capacity to earn. We are a lucrative market and are targeted by advertisers as such. Still, our age group is fighting to consume sustainably against the multi-billion dollar force of advertising expenditure.


And, we have the capacity to do it.

Back in 2000, ABC New Inventors whiz kid and award-winning engineer, James Moody, presented research about the role of young people in sustainability issues. He identified that: “Young people have many of the solutions to sustainability through their fresh perspective, and have the power to implement change through passion, enthusiasm and ‘constructive naivety’. Moreover, many have a vision for a sustainable world, as this is the world that they will inherit.”

More recently, a report released by the National Youth Affairs Research Scheme, Sustainable Consumption: Young People as agents of change, gives us a broader view of the ideas and habits of young Australians. The report demonstrates that young people are engaged with our world in a complex way. While we are interested in acting as “change agents” to improve our communities, we are not prepared to fight older generations for that opportunity. We see that as a waste of energy, and are quietly waiting our turn.

Young people continue to assert we are more interested in happiness than money. But for all our passion and ideas, we are not immune from the clutches of consumerism - far from it. Young Australians represent a large slice of consumption expenditure, as we do in most affluent societies. In 2003, combined youth spending power in 11 major economies, including Australia, exceeded $US750 billion.

However, the Sustainable Consumption report identifies a growing trend of young Australians trying to minimise our environmental impact through the pursuit of non-materialist lifestyles. Depending on our interests, young people are embracing parenthood, water and energy conservation, flexible and more relaxed working hours and refusing to succumb to the stress of the hyper-competitive job market.

But, how frequently does concern translate into personal action? Young Australians are just as likely to struggle with their individual responsibility for sustainable consumption. Moody noted in his paper that, “the consumption patterns of young people in Australia do not always reflect their concern”.


Internationally there is a trend towards turning that concern into action. Germany’s Federation of Consumer Organisations began a project in 2003 aimed at educating young people about sustainable consumption techniques. This has evolved into a partnership with organisations like the United Nations Environment Program and Consumers International to produce a website to encourage global discussion on the topic by young people. YouthXchange is now a web-based training kit promoting responsible consumption.

Canada’s The Things we Carry gathering was a project that brought together high school students and organisations interested in sustainable consumption. It resulted in a study guide and video now used in schools to “integrate global, environmental and media education” supporting an understanding of “how we can contribute to local and global sustainability through our actions as consumers and citizens”.

These international projects demonstrate young people’s passion to create sustainable systems and improve the efficiency of the way we live is being supported so it can be realised. The Australian Government should look closer at the Sustainable Consumption: Young People as agents of change report and consider actions calling for a nation-wide education program on sustainable consumption.

Young Australians have a range of ideas and the inclination to move society to a more sustainable model. And we must, because our future depends on it. What we need is the support and encouragement to turn our ideas in real projects and action. It is our future world after all.

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About the Author

Journalist and columist with The Age, Sushi Das says he is ‘one of today’s young rebels’. Author and ethicist Leslie Cannold has referred to him as one of her ‘gorgeous men’.

Daniel Donahoo is fellow with OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank. He writes regularly for Australia's daily papers and consults on child and family issues. A father to two boys. Daniel's first book is called Idolising Children and explores our society’s obsession with childhood and youth. Updates on Daniel's work can be found at

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