Thursday, 19 April 2012

Sustainable consumption: Less is more

When we swipe our credit cards, it is often good for the economy but bad for the environment. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. If we become more aware of the effects of the products we buy, our consumption can become more sustainable. 

by Peter Bjerregaard

The concept of sustainable consumption is taking centre stage at the Rio +20 summit and other organisations have followed suit. At this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting, the report “More with Less” was released, which very thoroughly depicts the need for a shift to sustainable consumption.

At face value, sustainable consumption can seem counterintuitive to economic growth, but the report illustrates the business opportunities and the pressing need to make the change – either driven by resource scarcity, population growth or rising concerns over hormone-filled meats and pesticides in our food.

And the need is evident. According to World Wildlife Fund, five planets would be required if everyone had the lifestyle of the average citizen in North America and three planets if we all lived like in the United Kingdom. 

One company that is trying to push the trend is the clothing company, Patagonia. At last years holiday buying season, they took out full-page newspaper ads saying “Don’t Buy This Jacket” urging consumers “Don't buy what you don't need. Think twice before you buy anything", and asked customers to take a pledge on sustainable consumption. 

Photo courtesy of Patagonia.

However, not all companies are taking such responsibility. Some need a helping hand. Last year, Greenpeace celebrated the success of their “Unfriend Coal” campaign that called on Facebook to power its data centres from clean energy instead of coal. After 20 months of agitating and mobilising, more than 700,000 people signed up for the campaign and Facebook agreed to use clean energy. This exemplifies that sometimes companies need encouragement and individual activism does matter. 

One step at a time 

As the WEF report also stresses, change starts with the consumer. At the heart of sustainable consumption stands the consumer and what we demand companies will produce. 

Whether we choose to reduce how often and how far we travel by air, or reduce our electricity use or switch to a green energy provider plays a crucial role for how sustainable our consumption is.

Source: DEFRA, UK, A Framework for Pro-Environmental Behaviours, 2007

Basic steps like switching to public transportation or cycling, car-pooling, reducing food waste, reducing consumption of meat, increasing consumption of organic food, or reducing the household heating all form a tapestry of solutions for overconsumption.

Other even smaller hands-on solutions are:

- Running the dishwasher only when it’s full

- Buying energy saving light bulbs

- Washing full loads of clothes

- Using baking soda and distilled vinegar as cleaning appliances

- Using old newspaper as packaging material

- Saving boiled water and use it to water your flowers

Or simply buy more experiences and intangible goods like theatre tickets instead of more material goods. For example, if you go to 10 concerts or 10 restaurant visits, you will approx. emit 100 kg CO2, while buying a flat screen TV will emit 1 ton and a trip from Europe to Bangkok by air will emit approx. 6 ton.

And this might be at the centre of it all. Sustainable consumption is more about quality and experiences than material consumption. Essentially it’s about living the good life and understanding that the choice we make today affects the way people live tomorrow.

Definition of sustainable production & consumption 

“The use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimizing the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations.”
     - United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD)
       Symposium on Sustainable Consumption, Oslo, 1994

More information:
7 trends will shape sustainable consumption in 2012


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