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Less is more: share not own – Ingo Balderjahn wants sustainable consumption included in school curricula

When you become intoxicated by consumption, it is difficult to do without. Picture: Fotolia/Amy Fang

When you become intoxicated by consumption, it is difficult to do without. Picture: Fotolia/Amy Fang

School children are being taught to cook, do housework and handicrafts – to sustainably prepare for life. This is not a glimpse of our grandparents’ schooldays but rather of 2018. If the research project of Prof. Ingo Balderjahn goes as planned, Sustainable Consumption might be taught in Brandenburg schools in three years as part of the subject Economy-Work-Technology. The researcher is critical of what is happening in schools. His conclusion: “The connection to everyday life is often missing, to questions and problems of adolescents such as clothing, career choices, and consumption.” That's what he wants to change and is not alone in that.

Some time ago, 17-year-old Naina from Cologne tweeted: “I'm almost 18 and I am clueless about taxes, rent, or insurance. But I can analyze a poem, in 4 languages.” Her message: School does not adequately prepare her for life. Even the Federal Education Minister Johanna Wanka agreed with her. Prof. Balderjahn, who holds the Chair of Business Administration and Marketing at the University of Potsdam, seems to be filling a niche with his research project at the just right time. The project has the somewhat unwieldy title “SPIN - Strategies and Potentials to Initiate and Promote Sustainable Consumption: Development and Evaluation of Instruments for Business Communication and Consumer Education”. It is a three-year project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) that will explore the possibilities of teaching future-oriented consumer competencies in schools. “It has to become part of the curriculum,” says Balderjahn. For this, he made sure to get the support of Brandenburg’s ministries of consumer protection and education. “We want to complete the basic research in 18 months. Then we will pass our research findings on to the cooperating school experts, who will use them to develop an interesting practically relevant teaching module suitable for schools.” This will, of course, include technical resources that school children use anyway. “For example, children will meet in groups on WhatsApp to share their homework. This sharing principle can certainly be used in many fields.”

For this research project conducted with three other universities, the researcher also brought in the Society for Consumer Research (GfK Association Nuremberg), which had already provided the research group with a representative survey about sustainable consumption. Further surveys and studies are to follow. “In the end we will know fairly accurately why people buy or do not buy sustainable products,” says Balderjahn. For three to four months they will monitor what people put in their shopping carts. Do consumers look for organic seals? Do they prefer fair trade products or bargains? Based on these surveys, they will be able to deduce practical and curricular-related content, which will show consumer behavior and might direct it onto a new track.

The economist is sure that the world can only be saved if each person puts forth an effort, i.e. each person starts with himself or herself – and as soon as possible. Since human beings are egoistical by nature, incentives need to be created. An important motivator, Balderjahn says, are social norms. “Once all my friends start buying fair trade products, I will feel guilty buying the cheapest products and ignoring the possible mistreatment of the people who produce them. We Germans, however, are penny pinchers. “The market share of organic products is still below five percent and even lower when it comes to fair trade products. “When I buy ‘organic’, I’m doing something both for the environment and for myself. But these products are slightly more expensive.” Balderjahn hopes that sustainable consumption will eventually become social consensus. “For this, we want to gain fundamental knowledge to demonstrate the practical implications of sustainable consumption –
for shopping, laundry, or travel.” Balderjahn also questions his own habits. “Do I, for example, have to change my shirt every day? Does it not suffice to do the laundry at 30 degrees?” He consciously has jettisoned some of the examples set by his mother, such as whites needing a boil wash. Many people in Germany are already very environmentally aware, but there is often still a disconnection between their awareness and behavior. “Of course, one person cannot save the world. Many individuals, however, can contribute to the recovery of the environment: if they focus on more sustainable forms of consumption. After all, we would not have our environmental problems without people who consume. Therefore, we need to reflect on what and how much we consume. In order to raise this awareness, it is best to start with children.

His research project is part of an academic network that explores possible strategies and potentials for sustainable consumption. While the universities of Hannover and Braunschweig are investigating how communication can be used to influence sustainable consumption, the Leipzig Graduate School of Management is analyzing how retailers can best display sustainable products. The University of Potsdam is researching the various consumption styles that are expected to lead to sustainable consumption competence.

Balderjahn explains that economically sustainable consumption can be characterized by three interrelated but easily distinguishable consumption styles: first, a voluntary renunciation of consumption or modest consumption, which is both possible, e.g. buying second-hand products. Then there is the collaborative style of consumption focusing on sharing instead of owning. Finally, there is the debt-free consumption style. “Many people run up debts to be able to consume more and more, which is increasingly widespread among young people. Debt, in turn, creates mental stress and affects wellbeing,” says Balderjahn. He refers to an analysis about material wellbeing that showed that the German gross domestic product has increased significantly in the last 20 years. “That has not made people any happier. Rather the opposite.”

The economist is however pleased to note that the collaborative style of consumption is slowly beginning to kick in – at least among ecologically and socially conscious consumers, who have already internalized the welfare of society and the preservation of the environment as part of their value system. He cites car sharing as an example, which is quite popular in Berlin. In the strongholds of the new bourgeoisie – the Berlin districts Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, and Prenzlauer Berg – where there are more organic grocery stores than banks, you do not need to walk far to find a car just waiting to be shared: always roadworthy, clean, and well maintained. “This is a completely new form of mobility: cost-saving and environmentally friendly.” Even in Potsdam West there is a car sharing network: StadtTeilAuto. Unlike professional companies, StadtTeilAuto does not rent out cars commercially, but rather distributes the costs and responsibilities of car owners out of solidarity. Interest in this is also growing. “Now you can rent almost anything: from a children’s car seat to a ball gown."

These values of environmental and social justice would have to prevail as standards, emphasizes Balderjahn. “Such processes are slow and the best way to achieve them is through upbringing, everyday life, and education.” Apart from schools, clubs and churches could get involved, too.

Of course, economic and political stakeholders have to step up as well if greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced to 40 percent of their 1990 level by 2020 – as was decided at the Rio+20 summit. Problems arising from production conditions and production structures due to globalization intertwine with people’s consumption and lifestyles.

By the end of the project, Balderjahn and his research team want to demonstrate why people maintain certain consumption styles and thereby also disclose the barriers to sustainable consumption. The project “Promoting modest, collaborative, and debt-free consumption styles” is about explaining to children causes and consequences, providing them with information and assessments why something is good or bad for the individual, the environment, and society. In three years, it might support better consumer competencies among Brandenburg’s children and catch on at schools in other federal states.

The Researcher

Prof. Ingo Balderjahn studied industrial engineering and management and earned his PhD at the Technische Universität Berlin and habilitated at the University of Hannover. Since 1993 he has been Professor of Business Administration with focus on Marketing at the University of Potsdam.


Universität Potsdam
Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät
August-Bebel-Str. 89
14482 Potsdam
E-Mail: ingo.balderjahn@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

The Project

SPIN – Strategies and Potentials to Initiate and Promote Sustainable Consumption: Development and Evaluation of Instruments for Business Communication and Consumer Education;
Subproject at the University of Potsdam: Promoting modest, collaborative, and debt-free consumption styles and consumer-oriented training to promote sustainable consumption competence
Participating (University of Potsdam): Prof. Ingo Balderjahn, Dr. Mathias Peyer
Duration: 2015–2018
Funded: Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF)

Text: Heidi Jäger, Translation: Susanne Voigt
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa
Contact Us: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de