Sustainability Rebound Effect

Sustainability Rebound Effect

The sustainability rebound effect is a common occurrence for schools and businesses who achieve their targeted sustainability goals and then effectively reverse course in conservation by increasing spending and resource use.

Sustainability Rebound Effect

What Is The Sustainability Rebound Effect?

The sustainability rebound effect is defined as;

[...] the reduction in expected gains from new technologies that increase the efficiency of resource use, because of behavioral or other systemic responses.

These responses usually tend to offset the beneficial effects of the new technology or other measures taken.

While the literature on the rebound effect generally focuses on the effect of technological improvements on energy consumption, the theory can also be applied to the use of any natural resource or other input, such as labor.

The rebound effect is generally expressed as a ratio of the lost benefit compared to the expected environmental benefit when holding consumption constant.

Rebound effect (conservation)

Put simply, the rebound effect occurs as organizations decrease financial expenditure and resource use, and then turn around (rebound) and increase spending and resource use to previous levels.

It happens all the time.

People cut costs to increase savings only to purchase new technologies or services, which returns spending and consumption to previous levels, thereby negating any gains.

The effect on the environment is significant.

According to Steve Sorrell, an energy policy expert at the University of Sussex;

[...] turning the heating down 1C, replacing car journeys under two miles with walking or cycling, and throwing away one-third less food.

[...] if you did these three things and then spent the money you saved in line with your typical spending patterns, the rebound effect would be 34%.

That is, 34% of the greenhouse gas reductions would be cancelled out because of the goods and services that the extra money will be spent on.

Could the rebound effect undermine climate efforts?


Sustaining Sustainability Initiatives

In general, there are three typical stages of sustainability within any organization.

  • Framing - Management has been convinced of the feasibility and financial advantages of sustainable business practices.
  • Localizing - Sustainable practices are implemented, and;
  • Normalizing - Sustainability practices are derailed, resulting in the rebound effect.

Normalization has several commonly cited causes, including:

  • Financial Issues - The organization is struggling financially in some area and perceives a lack of funds necessary to continue pursuing sustainability measures.
  • Prioritization - A school or business prioritizes other projects over sustainable initiatives.  This can occur due to issues ranging from financial issues to economic growth, and;
  • Failure - An organization fails to achieve its targeted reduction numbers or financial goals.

Normalization and the rebound effect can be countered or negated entirely through:

  • Communication - An organization-wide understanding of the 'why prinicple'--consumers at every level, from corporate to education and residential, increasingly prefer to do business with retailers, manufacturers, and service providers that adhere to stringent sustainability initiatives.  Hence the rise of green cleaning and organic product consumption.
  • Engagement - Corporate management and school administrators must effectively communicate the success of sustainability measures, and;
  • Publicize - By all accounts, keeping only staff and customers in the know is insufficient to maintain the long-term momentum necessary to realize the full benefits of sustainability measures.  The local community and adjacent industries must also be made aware of efforts and accomplishments to increase the scope and sphere of influence, thereby placing pressure on upper management to build upon success.


References & Resources



Organization-wide sustainability measures have been shown to increase profits by identifying areas of waste decreasing consumption.

For reasons that are still not fully understood, due in large part to a lack of detailed analysis, many organizations, even those presently implementing successful sustainability measures, fall victim to the rebound effect.

One of the most frustrating sources of the normalization or rebound effect is economic growth due to the implementation of sustainable business practices--as a school or business increases profits, they are able to invest more, or as their success becomes widely noticed by the public, business increases, resulting in increased consumption and spending, leading to increased emissions and pollution.

The negative side--effects of implementing successful sustainability measures can be effectively countered by continually striving to identify and introduce new protocols for waste reduction.

One of the most accessible areas to begin a sustainable initiative is with cleaning products and procedures--programs readily available through strategic partnerships with qualified service providers.

If you would like more information regarding the benefits of ongoing sustainability measures for your school or business, or if you would like to schedule a free, no-obligation onsite walkthrough of your facility, contact us today for a free quote!

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