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November 1999

Product / Service Substitution Database

Proposal in support of sustainable lifestyles

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Concern for sustainable communities and lifestyles recognizes the need to change "consumption patterns" in order to reduce the ecological footprint of those adopting the advocated lifestyles. Many specific suggestions have been put forward with respect to energy, food, water, transportation and the like. These are the subject of international, national, regional, municipal and household programmes, notably in relation to the recommendations of Agenda 21.

At the same time there is considerable pressure to enhance lifestyles and quality of life through use of more sophisticated energy-demanding products and services. Indeed significant sectors of the economic are dependent on persuading people through skilled marketing to adopt these new products which tend to increase the ecological footprint of those so persuaded.

Aside from the concern to improve lifestyles, this proposal also addresses needs of those who are economically and socially disadvantaged and do not have access to particular products, but may have access to their substitutes. This may be especially relevant in the event of disaster and catastrophe as addressed by civil defence and humanitarian relief programs, when they occur or in anticipation of them.


This proposal is concerned with the design and implementation of a database that would enable people to recognize how the products and services they select are positioned in relation to others that may substitute for them. The database is specifically concerned with the economic and ecological consequences to a lifestyle of replacing Product M by Product N.

Substitution pathways: The structure of the database, whereby different products were (hyper)linked, would be such that users could explore the opportunities for replacing their use of:

Hierarchical structure: The database records on "products" (or services) might be either specific products or classes of such products (thus grouping many specific products). In this respect use would be made of the standard international classifications of such products and services. A hierarchical classification would therefore also be used whereby products at different logical levels were (hyper)linked.

Impact links: Where possible individual product records would be (hyper)linked to environmental or social problems with which they were associated. An extensive database of this type is maintained on over 30,000 "world problems" by the Union of International Associations.

Remedial links: Where possible individual product records would be (hyper)linked to remedial strategies seeking to reduce the environmental or social problems associated with those products or services. An extensive database of this type is maintained on over 30,000 "strategies" by the Union of International Associations.

Sources of information

Information relevant to this initiative may be obtained from sources such as:

Representation of coherent lifestyle patterns

Whilst a database as outlined above could be of obvious value in guiding consumer choices in relation to lifestyle preferences, valuable additional features could be envisaged.

The problem in opting for alternatives of lower ecological or economic impact is that the sustainability of that choice tends to be determined by the meaningfulness of the lifestyle pattern that it engenders. The strength of conventional product marketing is lies in the ability to offer something that can be portrayed as "better" in some way that can be experienced as lifestyle enhancement, notably with a materialist emphasis. The experiential benefits of substituting apparently cruder and less sophisticated products for the latest technological breakthroughs is far less obvious, notably to those tantalized by the new and the excitement of breaking out of old patterns.

The database must there contribute in some way to rendering credible the coherence and meaningfulness of the lifestyle pattern sustained by a set of product/service choices. Whereas for some this may be a matter of belief or ideology - for which they are prepared to sacrifice - for others the meaningfulness of the consequent patterns needs to be articulated in new ways.

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