Research Summary

An Exploratory Case Study of Dutch Children's Attitudes Toward Consumption: Implications for Environmental Education

Cradle-to-Cradle Framework Shifts the Consumption Paradigm

The Journal of Environmental Education

Global consumption of materials and energy is one of the greatest contributors to current environmental crises. However, sustainable consumption curricula and corresponding educational research are in their infancy. The author of this paper used recent case studies and EE literature to investigate discrepancies between consumption patterns and attitudes within different socioeconomic contexts. Based on her findings, the author proposes that the Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) framework could address challenges of teaching sustainable consumption behavior by shifting the paradigm altogether.

The author used two recent case studies to examine how upper elementary grade students’ knowledge of consumption corresponded to their attitudes of consumption and environmental protection, while considering socioeconomic contexts. The case studies used focus groups, interviews, and daily consumption journaling to investigate attitudes and behaviors related to consumption.

Children of upper-income families demonstrated environmental concern regarding consumption and viewed the purchasing of products made with minimal harm to the environment as the solution. This “sustainable consumption” harkens to the movement of eco-friendly, fair-trade, organic, local products.

By contrast, children within a largely migrant and low-income community demonstrated less awareness of the relationship between consumption and the environment, less sense of efficacy (ability to do something about the problem), and less interest. However, their families exhibited more pro-environmental behaviors than the affluent families, such as saving electricity and making minimal food and clothing purchases, with many of these behaviors initially being motivated by concerns around saving money.

Attitudes among these groups differed as well. While children in the more affluent study group expressed guilt related to their consumption and subsequent effect on the environment, children from lower economic backgrounds viewed consumption as a desired outcome linked to a higher social status. Due to these discrepancies in attitudes and perceptions among children of different backgrounds, curriculum on consumption would best be context sensitive.

In the case of wealthier societies, consumer guilt can be a driving force in increased consumption. The purchasing of fair trade, eco-friendly, organic products can lessen feelings of guilt and give one the sense of “doing good” by consuming the “right” products. This rebound effect—purchasing more to combat issues of consumption—is one of the paradoxes of sustainable consumption. As the more affluent students in the first study reported “sustainable consumption” as the solution for overconsumption, curriculum with critical analysis of paradoxes and contradictions would be necessary in fostering a deep understanding of consumption issues.

As curriculum needs to address both the paradoxes of sustainable consumption, and also sociodemographic discrepancies, the C2C framework offers an opportunity to move beyond the conventional idea of sustainable consumption and shift the consumption paradigm. The C2C framework looks at the whole life cycle of a product, from the initial resource extraction (cradle) to the product’s disposal (the second cradle). It advocates for a waste-free system, where all the elements of the product can be either recycled or reused. The concept mirrors natural systems in which one organism’s waste is another’s food (or fuel), energy sources are renewable, and diversity leads to resilient, ecologically effective systems. Businesses that have already successfully implemented this model for at least one of their products include Ford, Nike, Steelcase, and Herman Miller.

The C2C framework can be infused into current curriculum at any grade level. As consumption studies are interdisciplinary, it can be woven into life and physical science classes as well as into history and economics. The author suggests making the C2C part of a consumption curriculum, which also includes the development of strong communication skills and awareness of political processes. In the United States, for example, big business and government are both the largest consumers and the largest stakeholders of the current consumption system. Subsequently, students will need both the knowledge of consumption as well as the skills to communicate and take action on a broader scale.

The Bottom Line

A consumption paradigm shift moves away from the linear waste production line and rethinks how to use “waste” as a resource. The C2C curriculum, which aims to foster this shift, has the potential to align with students’ unique sociodemographic needs. C2C provides an alternative and more viable solution than conventional “sustainable consumption.” This paradigm shift provides knowledge of turning waste into valuable goods, encouraging youth of all income backgrounds to become more mindful of use and reuse of materials through creative, environmentally friendly activities such as composting, transforming materials, and reusing existing products.