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19th European Roundtable on Sustainable Consumption and Production – Circular Europe for Sustainability: Design, Production and Consumption

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By children for adults: Understanding sustainable consumption through co-design of visual narratives with young people

The urgency to modify consumption behaviours in advanced economies as means of ameliorating negative environmental impacts is widely acknowledged. Children are generally excluded from active participation in sustainable consumption discourses, yet, young people are explicitly engaged in corporate consumption contexts, further exacerbating unsustainable levels of consumption.

Prevailing communication design artefacts addressing sustainable consumption—including the design of educational activities and materials—are generally developed by adults for children. These design interventions are primarily framed around strategies such as dissemination of alarming environmental statistics, information campaigns, environmental activities and engaging young people in educational settings. Such design artefacts, programs and strategies frequently situate individual citizens as responsible for addressing negative environmental impacts of over-consumption—despite widespread criticism that such individualization is ineffective and diverts attention from broader civic, collective and importantly corporate responsibility. Few approaches focus on supporting children’s agency or encouragement of critical thinking in the context of sustainable consumption.

This study centralizes children’s unique perspectives on consumption and sustainability—their creativity, curiosity and propensity for playfulness—through the lens of critical pedagogy. It examines how sixty South Australian, urban, public primary school children aged eleven to thirteen understand consumption and sustainability through Participatory Action Research (PAR) and co-design of fifteen visual narratives. This research argues that explicit embedding of playfulness—while employed successfully as a means of consumer engagement in corporate contexts—is generally absent in communication design artefacts and educational resources that aim to encourage engagement with sustainable consumption.

Research methods employed in this study include mind-mapping, idea generation, story-boarding and character development in addressing the research questions: How do children understand consumption and sustainability through PAR and co-design of visual narratives? Can young people’s critical engagement with issues of sustainable consumption be encouraged through centralizing their roles in creative processes? What can be learnt from participating children’s views on sustainable consumption to inform the creation of alternative communication design artefacts and environmental education strategies addressing sustainable consumption?

Participating children’s understandings of consumption are examined specifically around four broad conceptual frames—how children understand consumption, children’s awareness of sustainability and consumption, individualization and collective action, the allure of novelty and in-built obsolescence. Nine categories are constructed through thematic analysis of the co-designed stop-motion animations and printed books. The visual narratives are, thereby, positioned as forms of design-probes guiding the interpretation of participating children’s understandings of sustainable consumption. Participants demonstrate heightened awareness of consumption-related environmental and social issues such as vehicle emissions, sweatshop labour and the persuasiveness of media and advertising in influencing consumption decisions. Prevalent themes are, perpetual pursuit of novelty through consuming and individualization of responsibility for addressing negative impacts of over-consumption.

This study positions participating children as active contributors to sustainable consumption discourses, as they experience that creative practice can provide parameters of framing their understandings in forms that adults will take note of. This research fosters critical engagement with complexities underlying consumption practices, thereby, contributing several alternative concepts around which to frame future communication design and sustainability education approaches.

Doreen Donovan
University of South Australia


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