Sustainable consumption: a challenge for all

Consumerism defines our age. But as climate change takes hold, we can’t continue to exploit the earth’s resources, with no thought to tomorrow, writes Maryann Bird. How can we achieve more with less?

Ten days after New York City’s World Trade Center was destroyed in the “9/11” attacks that claimed nearly 3,000 lives, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani (echoed by US president George W Bush) suggested a way in which people could help the reeling metropolis to get back on its economic feet. “Come here and spend money, just spend a little money,” Giuliani told a radio audience on September 21, 2001. “Go to a store, do your Christmas or holiday shopping now, this weekend. … buy your birthday gifts for the next three or four months.” He added: “We’re the best shoppers in the world.”


In the intervening years, the city has bounced back, economically, from 9/11. Good news for New York City, in the aftermath of uniquely traumatic events. But, as a planet, spending our way out of disaster is not a solution. More likely, we will spend our way into disaster if we do not consume responsibly and sustainably. What, then, is sustainable consumption, and how do we go about it?


First, a bit of pertinent history. In 1983, the United Nations asked former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland (who had previously been an activist environment minister) to establish and chair the World Commission on Environment and Development. Charged with urgently formulating “a global agenda for change”, the panel was required to:

       *  propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development by 2000 and beyond;

       *  recommend ways for greater environmental cooperation among developing countries and between countries at different stages of economic and social development;


       *  consider how the international community can deal more effectively with environmental concerns; and

       *  help define shared perceptions of long-term environmental issues and how best to deal with the problems of protecting and enhancing the environment.


The 23-member group, informally known as the Brundtland Commission, issued its landmark report, Our Common Future, 20 years ago this year — in April 1987. Apart from its wide-ranging recommendations – drawn from an in-depth study of the common challenges facing humanity — the Brundtland Commission put forth the succinct, agenda-shaping definition of “sustainable development” from which subsequent debate has grown. “Sustainable development,” the report stated, “is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”


Recognised within that definition were two key concepts: “needs” (particularly the essential needs of the world’s poor), and the limitations on the ability to meet those needs. “In its broadest sense,” according to the UN panel, “the strategy for sustainable development aims to promote harmony among human beings and between humanity and nature.” Pursuit of such a strategy, the commission added, requires:

       *  a political system that secures effective citizen participation in decision making;


       *  an economic system that is able to generate surpluses and technical knowledge on a self-reliant and sustained basis;


       *  a social system that provides for solutions for the tensions arising from disharmonious development;


       *  a production system that respects the obligation to preserve the ecological base for development;

       *  a technological system that can search continuously for new solutions;

       *  an international system that fosters sustainable patterns of trade and finance; and

       *  an administrative system that is flexible and has the capacity for self-correction.


A tall order, indeed, and one explained in detail in a report that – in paperback-book format in English — is nearly 400 pages long. Dealing with universal concerns, challenges and endeavours, Our Common Future addresses the full range of relevant topics: the international economy, population and human resources, species and ecosystems (including the “global commons”, which fall outside national jurisdictions), energy, industry, the “urban revolution”, peace and security, development and more.


So how did we get from “sustainable development” to “sustainable consumption”, and where do we go from here?


The Brundtland report laid the foundation for the ambitious 1992 Earth Summit – formally, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) – held in Rio de Janeiro. The Rio summit produced the legally binding UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — which later gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol — and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). And among Rio’s other documents was Agenda 21 – described as “a comprehensive blueprint of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organisations of the UN, governments and major groups in every area in which humans impact on the environment”.

Since Rio, many of these players have sought to clarify concepts, to strengthen understanding of sustainable consumption and production, and to determine responsibility for changing the world’s consumption and production patterns. A working definition of “sustainable consumption” – adopted at an international symposium in Oslo in 1994 — is often used as a starting point. Sustainable consumption, according to this definition, is “the use of services and related products which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life while minimising the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants over the life-cycle of the service or product so as not to jeopardise the needs of future generations”.

In less formal language, that might be summed up as: Mankind cannot continue to exploit the planet’s resources, to waste and poison and pollute, with no thought to tomorrow and to generations to come. In words attributed to the Native American chief Seattle over 250 years ago: “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” The former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan often cited an African proverb: “The earth is not ours. It is a treasure we hold in trust for future generations.”

Such a philosophy may once have been regarded as naïve or idealistic. Now, as climate change accelerates, such views are closer to a global imperative. The ideological “ism” that emerged triumphant at the end of the 20th century, argues American history professor Gary Cross, is consumerism. In his book An All-Consuming Century, Cross defines consumerism as “the belief that goods give meaning to individuals and their roles in society”. Consumerism defines our age, and is reflected in the huge numbers of cars, electronic devices, fast-food meals, holiday trips and myriad other goods and services that an increasing proportion of the world’s population is driven to desire, acquire and consume.

According to the Worldwatch Institute’s report State of the World 2004: The Consumer Society, 1.7 billion people (27% of humanity) have “entered the consumer society”. Nearly half of these consumers now live in developing countries around the world, including the economic giant that is China. “Consumption”  – which is often used synonymously with “consumerism” – “has given millions of people a new sense of independence and has become a common benchmark to measure personal accomplishments”, notes Worldwatch. Consumption also refers to using up a resource, however, and consumer choices can impact heavily on other people and on the planet as a whole.

In the 2004 report, Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin, wrote: “Consumption is, of course, necessary for human life and well-being, and if the choice is between being part of the consumer society or being among the 2.8 billion people who barely survive on less than $2 a day, the answer is easy. Massive increases in calorie intake, housing quality, household appliances and scores of other amenities of the past half century have helped to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But consumption among the world’s wealthy elites, and increasingly among the middle class, has in recent decades gone well beyond satiating needs or even fulfilling dreams to become an end in its own right.”

This “unbounded pursuit” of consumption has “extracted a heavy cost” that may well be outpacing consumption itself. “Consumption today absorbs vast quantities of resources, many of which are now being used far below sustainable levels,” according to Flavin. “In just the last 50 years, global use of fresh water has grown threefold, while fossil fuel use has risen fivefold. Renewable resources are particularly under threat, from the falling water tables of northern China to the depleted fisheries of the north Atlantic. … [T]he toll is being measured not just in damaged ecosystems but in human disease and misery – particularly for the poorest among us.”

The ability of the poorest people to meet their basic needs clearly will diminish; so, too, will the ability of better-off people. A less-consumptive developed-world society is essential. We are eating up the planet, living beyond our means, making too large an ecological footprint. Indeed, the new economics foundation (nef) – an independent British think-tank – reported that, as of April 15, 2007, Britain is in “ecological debt” for the year. Based on a study released in 2006 (The UK interdependence report: How the world sustains the nation’s lifestyles and the price it pays), the nef said its figures show that – at current levels of consumption – the country began living beyond its environmental means in mid-April. Only a third of the way into this year, Britain, in effect, stopped relying on its own natural resources for its lifestyle.

Trade data on three imported commodities that are particularly destructive to the environment – soya, palm oil and tropical woods – “reveal just how much of an impact our high-consuming lifestyles are having on global biodiversity, with potentially devastating consequences”, according to the nef.

“The UK’s growing interdependence with the rest of the world is a fact and an opportunity,” says policy director Andrew Simms. “But we are abusing it. By living so far beyond our environmental means and running up ecological debts, we commit two wrongs. We deny millions who go without the chances for a better life and we put the planet’s life-support mechanisms in peril.”

Current production and consumption rates in the so-called first world cannot be duplicated globally. We have only one planet on which to live. That said, China and other developing countries have the same right (and need) to expand economically, to provide additional life-enhancing goods and services to their populations. The big challenge is how to achieve those goals without pushing the planet into environmental collapse.

While past environmental policy focused mainly on pollution from domestic production activities, climate change has made planet Earth a far smaller place. Policy – and practice – now needs to consider the wider world, taking into account the life cycles of goods, services and materials. Wherever we live, the impact of our consumption is increasingly being felt outside our own countries and regions.

Change is necessary, requiring innovation in technology and behaviour alike. Bodies like the UN Environment Programme’s International Panel on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources – known as the Resource Panel – are beginning to address the larger issues at the international level. Many governments and industries, too, are focusing on the future. A European Union directive requires that producers of electrical and electronic goods take them back for safe and efficient recycling at the end of their usefulness. But there also are other complex issues and local realities that touch all our lives and need to be addressed: the influence of manufacturers and retailers on supply chains and consumers; the housing and transport links that often determine individual actions; and our own values and aspirations.

In short, we need to think and debate – as individuals and as communities — about how to achieve more with less, wherever we live. In the developed world, do we really need to fly so much? Do we need a car, or multiple cars? (And how should vehicles be powered?) Do we need more than one house, or to use so much household energy and water? Do we need bottled water, and its plastic bottles? What about our lifetime worth of electronic gadgets and appliances (dramatically represented by artist Paul Bonomini’s “WEEE Man”, now a permanent part of Britain’s Eden Project)? Do we need more furniture, more clothes, more food and flowers flown to us from thousands of kilometres away? Should we have large families, adding to the consuming, demanding masses?

For an increasing number of people in the developing world, these challenging questions also apply to their lives. “Shopping is political, because you vote every time you spend money,” said the Irish rock musician Bono, who campaigns for African debt relief and global justice, in unveiling an “eco-friendly” clothing line in March 2005. There is a feel-good factor in “ethical shopping” – something that nef’s Simms has referred to as “mood music”. But consumption – even the so-called ethical variety – still takes a toll on planetary resources that need to be shared. Contradictions and compromises abound. In a commentary for the Guardian in March 2006, British writer Natasha Walter noted that a “pick’n’mix ethical lifestyle is hardly going to start a revolution”, and that we need to be honest about the limitations of our shopping decisions.

Logically, buying sustainable versions of what we require is certainly preferable to non-sustainable options. Affecting fundamental social change is more difficult, however – harder than changing our brand of detergent or buying organic vegetables or fair-trade-cotton T-shirts. “But,” as Jess Worth wrote in the New Internationalist in November 2006, “this rise in ethical concerns is a huge opportunity, showing that more and more people are willing to act on the most pressing issues facing the planet. The challenge now is to find a way to harness and channel all this energy into something far more ambitious than getting fair-trade kumquats onto the world’s supermarket shelves.”

In an article on his website in September 2006, British writer and environmentalist George Monbiot summed up his and others’ frustration. “[W]e all deceive ourselves and deceive each other about the change that needs to take place,” Monbiot wrote. “The middle classes think they have gone green because they buy organic cotton pyjamas and handmade soaps with bits of leaf in them – though they still heat their conservatories and retain their holiday homes in Croatia. The people who should be confronting them with hard truths balk at the scale of the challenge. And the politicians won’t jump until the rest of us do.”

China, India and other nations are poised to leap forward in a world that runs on unbridled consumption. The mass consumerism that holds much of the planet in its grip — termed “affluenza”, from the words “affluence” and “influenza” – looks set to spread further. As the earth heats up, as its resources dwindle, and as untold millions of people in the southern hemisphere face devastation and death, many millions more risk becoming “infected” with the feelings of anxiety, dissatisfaction and depression that stem from believing that acquiring ever more, ever newer, products can meet most human needs.

In a reflection sometimes attributed to a Chinese philosopher called Lao Tzu, “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”


Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.

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