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Symposium 2013

Proposal - Ways to achieve sustainable consumption

The Challenge

A growing world population and increasing living standards imply large and accelerating resource use for individual consumption. The world’s population already consumes many of the planet’s resour ...

A growing world population and increasing living standards imply large and accelerating resource use for individual consumption. The world’s population already consumes many of the planet’s resources in unsustainable ways. It seems that economic progress in developing countries will also follow this pattern. A remedy may lie in more conscious behavior by consumers: sustainable consumption.

The global consumption of natural resources is unsustainable. Rapid economic growth in emerging countries and a growing world population put an increasing strain on environmental conditions and natural resources. Future consumption patterns have to be markedly different to avoid catastrophic environmental and social consequences.

Making consumption patterns sustainable is one of the greatest current challenges to humanity. It requires timely and concerted action of government, firms, and consumers. Its final goal has to be a world with a higher awareness of environmental and social impacts, in which the population’s needs for self-fulfillment is not met with ever higher levels of consumption.

Companies need new business leaders that consider the environmental and social impacts of production. Enforce the use of sustainable production and good working conditions throughout the supply chain. Notable examples are H&M and Timberland.

Communicate successful management of sustainability. Among others, The Body Shop, Patagonia, and Ben & Jerry’s inform customers about the ecological impact of their products and on labor conditions. They also support environmental and development projects.

Find new ways to fulfill customers’ needs with minimal environmental impact. Encourage product-sharing or renting of products. Major car companies did this by launching car sharing initiatives.

Governments need to rethink their regulations and incentives. Abandon subsidies harmful to the environment. Make sure prices reflect environmental impacts. Eating a kilogram of steak causes similar emissions to driving 250 kilometers in a large car. Accordingly, meat should be taxed. This was already discussed in New Zealand. Discourage consumption that undermines well-being. Australia did this for smoking. Denmark temporarily taxed fat in food. France taxes sugar-rich soft drinks.

Develop incentives to make business leaders think long-term. Long-term stock options may be an option. Make companies liable for violations of human rights. Use regulation to promote the sharing of products. The ban on short-term renting of flats in New York is a counterexample, reflecting the interests of the hotel lobby.

Promote education on farming and livestock production, encourage an organic and low-meat diet in public places like schools. Promote alternative ways of self-fulfillment in schools to show alternatives to consumption. Ensure that the use of advertisement respects decent boundaries and that advertisement is truthful. Promote alternative means of transport. The city of Curitiba in Brazil showcased how life satisfaction can be increased by promoting public transport.

Do not measure the success of policies only in terms of GDP. Incorporate social and environmental issues.

NGOs need to inform consumers about their crucial role. They need to raise consumers’ awareness for their social and environmental impact and lay out paths for sustainable lifestyles. Inform people about the impact of their consumption choices. Maintain platforms that compare the environmental impact of products throughout their lifecycle. Make the history of products visible. Virtual water and carbon footprint were a good start. Go further to include other environmental and social concerns.

Promote isolated pilot studies to show feasibility of lifestyle change. “Transition Towns” try to reshape the way we interact and provide a good example. Also encourage small changes in habits. A red line in a building towards the staircase can reduce the use of the elevator tremendously. Low hanging fruits provide meaningful steps in the right direction.

Encourage communication on wasteful heating, air conditioning, and electricity use and in the public domain and within companies. Also encourage communication on ways to improve lifestyles. Make people question their material wants.

In face of global climate change and resource scarcity, consumption patterns worldwide need to change. Across countries, examples have to be initiated that a shift of focus away from material wealth is possible and that it does not come at the expense of well-being. This requires strong efforts of producers, governments, NGOs, and consumers. In total, specific needs will have to be met with lower environmental impact. And people need to find gratification apart from ever higher levels of consumption.

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