Consumption – Towards an Action Plan
Commission on Sustainable Consumption,
Centre for the Environment, Ethics & Society
According to Chapter 4 of Agenda 21, we need to
develop new concepts of prosperity and reinforce the values that would
foster more sustainable production and consumption. But unsustainable
consumerism rests on values and assumptions that are deep-seated in
western society and precious to most poeple.
They include the commitment to liberty, equality, progress, and
the pursuit of happiness.
One of the most important features of modern
western culture is the separation of means and ends.
We have developed government and commercial bureaucracies that
are expert in designing and implementing means, or processes. Their
mantra is “efficiency”. Ends
or goals are another matter, to be left to individual choice or
inclination. In particular,
individuals are supposed to choose their own path to happiness, or the
Or that is the theory.
In practice, our goals are influenced by our social and cultural
context, especially the images, narratives, symbols and role models to
which we are exposed through the media.
We are increasingly locked in to a materialist vision of the good
life that helps TV networks to attract viewers and corporations to sell
Libertarian ideology has created particular
difficulties for governments and intergovernmental organisations trying
to make sense of “sustainable consumption”. Some have argued that
sustainable consumption is about consuming “differently, not less”,
that it is about consuming “more efficiently”, or choosing
Improved efficiency is essential, but we are
unlikely to achieve the ten-fold increases in resource productivity that
many analysts and governments say are necessary in the coming 30-50
years. We may also need to
learn to consume less, to recognise when we have had enough, and develop
“new concepts of prosperity.” But
what might we expect to find in such concepts?
What are the values that would foster sustainable consumption and
Many studies have found that people’s happiness
depends mostly on their health and on family and other relationships.
New concepts of prosperity would need to reflect these
priorities. Having a
“meaning” in life is also of fundamental importance. Most importantly, the new concepts of prosperity would help
us to find a balance among material, social, cultural and spiritual
goals. They might also help
us to see a healthy relationship with nature as part of our own
Changes in values and shifts in lifestyle may need
action by governments, businesses, the media, NGOs and others. But the changes are only likely to catch on if they are
rooted in local communities. The
steps to achieving such changes and shifts will probably include:
But who should be responsible for making sure that
these steps are taken?
mostly interpret sustainable consumption as the consumption of
sustainable products. Harder
approaches to engagement would involve fundamental shifts in the
business model. At the heart of the necessary change is for businesses
to see themselves both as corporate citizens with a wide range of duties
to society and the environment, and as communities of employees and
stakeholders with their own values and ethics.
The major environmental
NGOs have played an increasingly important role in the design of
government and business policies for sustainable development. There has been some blurring of the cultural divide between
pressure groups and those in power.
While the international NGOs might like to advocate a change in
lifestyles, they have been reluctant to appear too extreme in recent
years, especially since such advocacy is usually ineffective.
More has been achieved by small, local groups addressing the
specific concerns, values and priorities of their members.
Alliances among powerful groups can play a dominant role in
determining societal norms. Governments,
transnational companies, financial institutions, the press and media
represent the main power alliance in the late 20th century.
They have offered a one dimensional view of prosperity which the
public has begun to accept. But
alliances may also be the route to change.
A new alliance working for sustainable consumption might start
within the existing power centres, or it could emerge from outside, from
universities, religious institutions, community groups and local