Sustainable Consumption – Towards Action and Impact. Conference Report

Staircase decoration by Sonja Schenkel at the conference venue, the Curiohaus in Hamburg (photo: Christian Augustin)


In modern societies, private consumption is a multifaceted and ambivalent phenomenon: it occurs as a necessary part of prevailing social practices and it is an economic driving force; yet at the same time, its consequences are in conflict with important social and environmental sustainability goals. Finding paths towards “sustainable consumption” has therefore become a major political issue. However, despite considerable knowledge about the unsustainability of current consumption patterns and numerous initiatives in the field of consumer information, a general trend towards sustainable consumption has yet to develop.

The international scientific conference “Sustainable Consumption – Towards Action and Impact”, held from 6 -8 November 2011 in Hamburg, Germany, aimed at bringing together the emerging multidisciplinary community dealing with questions around sustainable consumption. The conference was also a major event of the inter- and transdisciplinary research programme “From Knowledge to Action – New Paths towards Sustainable Consumption”. The programme, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), has been part of the Ministry’s “Social-ecological Research” (SÖF) initiative since 2008.

This report aims at making accessible some of the discussions of the conference. It is not so much a summary as it is an attempt to build overarching arguments to which the single conference presentations can be regarded as contributions. Two broader storylines have been chosen to organize the contributions to the conference (and to the pre-conference) within a cohesive framework:

  • For a policy aiming at sustainability, is steering consumer behaviour a promising route (or should we rather focus on regulation of production)?
  • How can research on sustainable consumption inform recommendations for political action?

To facilitate navigation through the various contributions, the report uses a technique called argument mapping, which was developed as a tool for computer-supported collaborative research and argumentation in the context of, a platform for scientific policy advice and technology assessment.

Argument maps

Argument maps are, in a way, similar to mind maps: They are visual representations of concepts. Visual representations of this kind offer one basic advantage over the display in form of a text: The tree- or node-like structure allows readers to navigate more easily between the different layers of information and to focus on the points that interest them. This is the feature that mind maps and argument maps have in common. In all other aspects, they are different.

Argument maps are not just an arrangement of topics and sub-topics. Instead, they represent a chain of reasoning – an idealized one. Thus, argument maps are not a representation of a discussion in the way that it actually took place. To build a map, the original chronological order often has to be destroyed. Complex interventions have to be cut into several small pieces. Also, elements have to be added that were never a part of the original discussion, such as problems that were not stated as such (although solutions were offered). In choosing a certain claim as the starting point for an argumentation, argument maps seem to be taking a position. But this is not actually the case. Argument maps just present the arguments that are discussed, without deciding which claims are right or wrong in the end.

An argument map can give structure to discussions in a better way than a simple mind map does. This is because the underlying chain of reasoning is a structure that also guides us in our actual debates, decision-making-processes and research projects. The purpose of an argument map is not to abandon familiar practices and to replace them with some sort of calculus but to support the ongoing deliberation. How this works becomes clear when comparing argument maps to another, well-established practice of structuring information – the use of keywords or “tags”. Keywords and tags serve as shorthand descriptions for journal articles and working papers, presentations, posters and books. Furthermore, they establish relationships between disparate items. Items that share the same keyword or tag are similar. They belong together. A set of items among which the same keywords were repeatedly used can be represented as a diagram that has the form of a network. Argument mapping proceeds in quite a similar fashion; it also establishes a network of items of information. The difference is that the definitions of relationships within the network use a richer language. Bits of information do not just “belong together” but react upon one another. They support and defeat one another. This is much closer to the way that research is conducted. Research is not just a matter of piling up similar items but proceeds by establishing something like a research argument.

Argument mapping helps to build up and to follow research arguments that lead through a whole corpus of publications, presentations and comments.

Although there are several major research projects working on the use of argument maps in the context of policy advice, this report is, to our knowledge, the first time that argument maps have been used in the context of the documentation of a scientific conference.

The main part of this report leads the reader through the argument maps that were worked out based on notes taken during the conference (and the pre-conference) and also with the help of the presentations and posters that were part of the conference. Comments that we received as a reaction to the first version of this report (circulated among conference participants in January 2012) are, as far as possible, integrated into the maps presented in this updated version of the report.

Argument maps use a simple set of icons to establish relations between statements and questions:

  • A discussion starts with either a question  or  a claim or proposal (the same icon is used for an answer, featuring as a claim/proposal for the subsequent discussion)
  • Claims and proposals are supported by or objected to by pros and cons  (relating to the immediately preceding element)
  • Furthermore, there are comments graphic and links to websites , documents , to other nodes on the map and to other maps 
  • and signifies the basis of the argument – the kind of evidence that can be used to refute or support a claim Sometimes, two or more claims are connected to a thesis with an “&”.In this case, all the connected claims have to be true in order to support the thesis. graphic and graphic signify an open question, addressing the readers of the map The abbreviation (AV) in square brackets refers to the conference abstract volume and indicates the page number in the abstract volume where the title and the names of the authors of a presentation can be found [1]

[1] Sustainable Consumption – Towards Action and Impact (2011): Abstract Volume. International Scientific Conference, November 6th-8th 2001, in Hamburg, Germany. ISBN: 978-3-906456-67-6. Retrieved from: . Presentation slides and posters from the conference are also available at . Please contact the IKAÖ staff for details:

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