In the core subject area of consumer issues, the new ISO26000 standard argues that organizations have significant opportunities to contribute to sustainable consumption and sustainable development through the products and services they offer and the information they provide.
It goes on to argue that sustainable consumption is consumption of products and resources at rates consistent with sustainable development.
It says that sustainable consumption also encompasses a concern for ethical behaviour regarding animal welfare. ISO26000 points to a key role for businesses and other organizations to promote more sustainable products and services, eliminating negative environmental and health impacts and thinking also about product and service delivery.
Sustainable production and consumption has long been a focus for many parts of the United Nations and since the 1980s there have been many meetings and roundtables supporting the so-called Marrakech Process. But the main problem with the whole discourse on sustainable production and consumption is that 95 percent of the debate has been about production and about 5 percent about consumption. The reason for this is quite straightforward. Dealing with production which is largely controlled by private sector institutions is much easier than dealing with consumption which is controlled by six billion individuals.
Therein lies the greatest challenge. We face a classic ‘free-rider’ problem when we start talking about consumption. The reality is that what I consume as an individual is a tiny fraction of the global problem of unsustainable consumption. Basically, what I do does not matter and so if I consume too much it does not matter so long as everyone else behaves in a sustainable way. Unfortunately, if everyone thinks in this way we have a major problem on our hands. And the bottom line is that most people in the developed world and an increasing proportion of the emerging middle classes in developing countries are now consuming in an unsustainable way.
This is made worse when we consider that consumption has become a recreational activity and not one based on need. And the worst cases of that, conspicuous consumption (that is more about boosting egos rather than responding to need) has led to the development of a whole industry of goods and services that might be considered by some as downright unethical in a world where we are now facing critical resource shortages.
To deal with some of the root causes of unsustainable consumption, we need to see the emergence of a new fashion. This is, to make high levels of consumption unfashionable. Amongst the growing ‘consumption classes’ there is a need to point out overconsumption and to make the perceptions of certain patterns of consumption (e.g. driving SUVs) unethical. The concept of sustainable consumption therefore demands that most of us should consume less and all of us should consume better. But that poses a huge challenge to business who are used to developing strategies about getting people to buy more, increasing turnover and boosting outputs.
But, at the same time, the concept of sustainable consumption certainly means that the poorest people in the world need to consume more. So the ‘consumption classes’ not only need to reduce their consumption levels to levels within the carrying capacity of the world but also need to make space for those in poverty to consume more. Moreover, sustainable consumption amongst the poorest people of the world needs to be linked with health and wellbeing and with opportunities for sustainable economic development.
Therefore the rich (wherever they exist) have a big role to play in shaping more sustainable lifestyles and consumption patterns. If they will not do that voluntarily (after all, it is in their interests not to create resource wars) then they will have to be forced to behave better. Unfortunately, I see no signals whatsoever, that the majority of the rich are willing to cut back on consumption, indeed, what I perceive is just the opposite. There seems to be a ”right” associated with consumption in the minds of people with money. “I have worked hard for this and so I am going to spend it”. But that attitude is going to lead to spiralling downwards as overconsumption leads to further resource shortages, climate change and more pollution. The irony is that more consumption by most of us is going to make our lives worse, not better in the longer term.
But sustainable consumption is not only about consuming less of course. It is also about consuming smarter. In part that means finding better products and services capable of substituting unsustainable ones with superior ones. Many people talk about the need for some sort of dematerialization of goods. The problem is that those discussions have, to my knowledge, been going on for more than a decade and I have seen only pockets of progress on goods that really have a lower material impact.
The concept of sustainable consumption as espoused by ISO26000 requires some new thinking therefore. How do we deliver the services that products provide in a more sustainable way? How do we move a person from point A to point B without the need to transport that person, alone, in a gas guzzling, resource intensive steel box? Do we even need some products?
Questions like this are sure to raise the level of debate since products such as cars are really about more than transportation. They are a classic case of a product bought not for its utility but because of factors such as status, ego, decadence, sex appeal (at least perceived) and (expensive) thrills. How many similar products does that apply to, in reality?
Sustainable consumption therefore requires us to ask some tough questions. Do cars exist in a sustainable society? Should we be changing our clothes according what the fashion industry tells us is ‘cool’? Should we be holding conferences on sustainable production and consumption in five-star hotels? Should I eat non-seasonal food that is flown around the world?
The car is probably the epitome of an unsustainable product, yet trying to get people out of their cars is almost like removing an organ and indicative of the problems of moving towards more sustainable consumption. People seem to become emotionally attached their cars and often talk about their “rights” to drive and the need for better infrastructure to avoid traffic jams. Most of our large cities are (at least in part) designed with the car in mind. Yet cars are a major resource drain, have huge negative impacts in their use, damage our health and create a waste problem that is often out of control.
I also find it interesting that the world’s attention bears down on the airline industry when it comes to climate change. Yet, the average car driver who drives 12000km a year (1000km per month) is responsible for 2.24 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. An individual who takes two holidays a year by short haul planes (e.g. Hong Kong to Thailand) is responsible for only 0.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
But, again, the car is just an example of an unsustainable product and one where the challenges of sustainable consumption are clearly apparent. I accept that there are technical improvements that can be made to this product. But there are still far more SUVs sold in the world than fuel-efficient hybrids.
This all points to the fact, that despite what rationale behaviour would seem to dictate, we cannot rely on individuals to take a lead on sustainable consumption. There is a clear role for government intervention. This needs to include the usual economic instruments of taxes and subsidies that can guide more sustainable consumption. But it should also include the consideration of physical limits on some products, the labelling of products to help more informed choices and research supporting the development of alternatives to particularly damaging products and services.
There is, as ISO26000 points out, also a significant role for the private sector in contributing to sustainable consumption. There is a need to develop alternative products and services with sustainability in mind. There is a need to look at the company’s own (and its managers business related) consumption patterns. There is a need to have sustainable procurement and supply chain practices. But, very importantly, there is a need to educate consumers to use products and services in more sustainable ways which might include the (perverse business) challenge of asking consumers to buy less. Now, there is a challenge!
But, I think the private sector needs to be part of a bigger debate about sustainable lifestyles and setting behavioural norms that are in keeping with the concept of sustainable development. This will certainly challenge the rich to consume less, but it will also enable the poorest to consume more. But sustainable consumption requires some major changes in cultural norms, consumer expectations and the links between consumption and ego. If businesses are serious about the concept of sustainable development, then they cannot fail to engage with issues of consumption. More fundamentally we might challenge the notion that the rich has the ‘right to buy’ whatever they can afford. If there are limits to the world’s resources then there has to be limits to what individuals can and should consume. This might be a difficult idea for businesses to swallow. But why should the rich consume resources which then pushes their prices beyond what the poor can afford. So sustainable consumption is as much a debate over equity, ethics, justice and distribution as it is about lifestyles. And that is going to be a challenge for businesses selling “lifestyles”.
But let us not only concentrate on problems associated with sustainable consumption, let us also look at the advantages. As the rich begin to consumer fewer resources, that opens up more resources that we can dedicate to improved healthcare, restoring the environment and pro-poor economic development. Moreover, we really ought to think carefully about what makes us happy. For me it is not consumption itself that generates happiness. Most people would agree that what makes us happy and what makes life so enriching are our relationships with each other, our relationship with nature and our experiences. Most of the most memorable experiences in my life have actually been quite costless. Sometimes, I think we have forgotten what makes us satisfied in a world where we are constantly being bombarded with messages about consuming more.
Sustainable consumption is therefore about significantly stepping down levels of consumption of the rich and stepping up those of the poor. It is also about consuming in a smarter way with lower environmental impacts and greater social benefits. As we see a shift towards more sustainable consumption, it just might be that we increase happiness across the board. The full consequences of moving towards a more sustainable consumption in our societies might mean that many of us work less, earn less, but at the same time consume less, but experience more. Well, I for one might welcome such a shift.
The issues that I am raising in this article will be hugely challenging for both individuals and businesses. For some they might even be considered to be a step too far, but I would ask whether we truly have any alternative? We are not going to achieve a more sustainable consumption over night but we do need to begin to engage with the real fundamental issues rather than tinkering around the edges. Businesses have a role to play in engaging their customers and working with them towards more sustainable consumption patterns.
Source: CSR Asia,Vol.6 Week 43 27/10/2010