The rebound effect

When progress and ecology come back to hit us like a boomerang

Have you ever heard of the rebound effect? It’s not a basketball trick or a shuffle dance move. It’s what happens when improving the energy efficiency of a product leads to an increase of its use. The savings generated by innovation are negated either by an increased consumption of this same product (direct rebound effect), or by that of other products (indirect rebound effect).

Here are some examples:

• Insulation in houses has improved, so we heat them more.

• Cars consume less fuel so we drive longer distances.

But also:

• Trains go faster so we travel further away.

• Smartphones perform better so we download more content.

Indirectly, the savings in time or money can also lead to an increase in the consumption of other goods or leisure activities.

The rebound effect leads us to a rush of energy consumption and sometimes cancels the gains that had just been made. And fashion is not an exception. Since the 19th century, improvements in machinery have allowed for an increase in the number of clothing items produced all the while decreasing their cost. Even though access to cheaper new clothes has made it possible to smooth out, at least in appearance, the differences in living standards and to democratise fashion, it is now endangering our planet. By offering organic, recycled, recyclable, local products… eco-friendly brands have reduced their environmental impact, but, at the same time, they have anesthetised consumers of their guilt, thus generating overconsumption.

Sometimes, ecological solutions bring new complications. Tote bags, intended to replace single-use plastic bags, now seem to bring more ecological problems than they solve, as explained by this article. To be more environmentally friendly than disposable plastic bags, they should be used thousands of times. But we now have dozens of them, mostly given for free, serving little purpose, and contributing to the depletion of the planet's resources.

Pushing for ecology through technological solutions could ultimately be responsible for the rebound effect. For ecological progress not to act against its objectives, increased productivity and sobriety must be combined. Increased energy efficiency and better regulation –or flat out reduction– of our needs are the two conditions that must be met to stop the vicious circle in its tracks. The result? More comfort, more time for ourselves and the preservation of our environment.

Did you know about the rebound effect, and if so, what are you doing to limit it?

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