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Material Footprint of Low-income Households in Finland – is it Sustainable?
1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , * 4, 5
1  National Consumer Research Centre
2  Helsinki University, Department of Environmental Sciences
3  Kela Research Department
4  D-mat ltd.
5  Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy

Published: 02 November 2011 by MDPI in The 1st World Sustainability Forum session Environmental Sustainability
Abstract: A decent, or sufficient, lifestyle is largely considered an important objective in terms of a sustainable future. From an ecological sustainability point of view, a the natural resource consumption of a decent lifestyle should not exceed the long-term carrying capacity of nature. The material footprint based on the MIPS concept (material input per unit of service) can be used as an indicator of the natural resource consumption of lifestyles. Thus, it can provide a rough indication of the long-term ecological sustainability of lifestyles when compared to the level of natural resource consumption that is estimated sustainable. Previous research shows that low-income households consume a relatively small amount of resources. Thus the material footprint of their consumption is assumed to be closer to the ecologically sustainable level of resource use than the consumption of an average household. In order to show the amount of natural resources a minimum consumption level requires, this paper presents the material footprint of households living on a minimum level of social benefits in the Finnish welfare state. The data was collected in a questionnaire on the consumption habits and lifestyles of 18 single households belonging to the lowest income decile in Finland. The results are compared to the results of a previous study on the material footprints of households with varying income levels as well as of an average Finn. In addition, the results are compared to the material footprint of decent minimum reference budgets defined consensually by the Finnish National Consumer Research Centre in a cooperation of experts and a consumer panel. The results show that the low-income households have a lower material footprint than average. Thus, a decrease in material footprint by a factor of 2 - 4 from present average can already be achieved. However, the resource consumption of all the households studied is still higher, in most cases by a factor of 2 and more, than long-term ecological sustainability would require although it is in most cases lower than the material footprint of the social and economic minimum defined for a decent life. The paper discusses this discrepancy and presents conclusions in order to make future lifestyles more sustainable. The central conclusion is that ecologically sustainable consumption cannot be achieved solely by households\' efforts but there is a great need for innovations in technology, business and politics.
Keywords: consumption, household, sufficiency, lifestyle, natural resource use, MIPS, material footprint
Comments on this paper
Yvan Dutil
Infrastructure is the key to sustainability.
Excellent work! Your conclusion are very similar to Gutowski 2008
Unfortunately, this information as not yet diffused into the political system.

Harro von Blottnitz
Good analysis - could you translate your metric?
Congratulations on a well-conceived, executed and presented study!
As co-author on a paper on sustainability aspects of social housing in South Africa (Dick et al. in this forum), I find it useful to know that Finnish social support recipients have an unsustainable life style! The challenge is big! However, I've not worked with the MIPS methodology, so I am not fully appreciating the quantititative aspects of your methodology and results. Would it be possible to also extract the carbon footprint relative to what is regarded as a sustainable 2 ton CO2 eq. per capita per year?
Michael Lettenmeier
Thank you and thanks for your interest!

In this paper, we have focused on the material footprint, which means the abiotic (non-renewable) resources, biotic (renewable) resources and top soil erosion in agriculture and forestry. However, we have calculated the consumption also for the other resource categories in the MIPS concept, which are water and air. Air consumption mainly means the oxygen used in combustion processes and is thus in a quite direct relation to CO2 emissions. We also have noticed that our values for air consumption often are quite close to similar values for carbon footprints so that we could use air consumption as a rough estimation for the carbon footprint.

So to answer your question, we could present also results for CO2-related air consumption. From earlier studies (e.g. Kotakorpi et al. 2008, p. 70, we know that the material footprint and the air consumption correlate relatively well. That's one reason for concentrating on the material footprint, at least so far. (Another reason is that the material footprint is a more holistic indicator including also other resource than carbon.)

I just had a quick look on the sums of the different households for air consumption: the lowest values are around 1 tonne, 4 of 18 households are below 2,5 tonnes, the highest is slightly above 10 tonnes and the average is around 5 tonnes. So, for air consumption (or roughly carbon footprint) we would have 2 households below the sustainable level and 2 other ones close to it.

By the way, the 2 tonnes CO2 eq you mentioned seem to include also public consumption and capital formation, doesn't it? So, for the household activites the sustainable level should probably be a bit lower than 2 tonnes.

Michael Lettenmeier
thanks once more for your comment!
We have started already to think about how to publish that carbon footprint aspect and how to integrate it into our research.
I would like to ask you, which scientific literature you have used when referring to the 2 ton CO2 eq. of emissions as a sustainable level. I have not been able to find a source for that so far. Could you (or somebody else) help me here?

Thanks, Michael