Consumers Can Be the Vanguard of Sustainability

  • 2015•09•20

    Zafar Adeel


    Photo: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0

    This article is part of UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.

    Goal #12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

    Many have declared the 2030 Development Agenda to be collectively a very ambitious approach to re-tool how societal advancement, economic growth, and environmental sustainability are achieved. This is nowhere more obvious than in the proposed Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #12, which endeavors to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Although at first glance a somewhat innocuous goal, goal #12 packs an incredibly ambitious and challenging set of targets.

    Achieving this goal would entail a significant — in some cases, drastic — change of behaviour on the part of governments, businesses, and individuals. Governments will likely need to introduce new regulations and legislation to curb excessive consumption of natural resources and reduce waste generation in a very wide sphere of activities. Creating such legal frameworks is not easy, and requires extensive deliberations to ensure they match local requirements and conditions. But the greater challenge lies in their implementation.

    There is a chequered history, most particularly in developing countries, regarding implementation and enforcement. In contrast, the greatest successes in governance have come from situations in which governments have simply played the role of enabler (rather than relying on command-and-control approaches). Such success stories will have to be further studied, customised, and translated for use in different countries.

    Changing behaviours of businesses and industrial sectors has been achieved with considerable success — when the right motivation comes along. Coming from governments, this could be in the form of either new regulatory impulses or enabling conditions. Changes to private sector operations, meanwhile, have frequently come in response to changing demands from consumers.

    And this brings us to the most difficult part of this equation: changing behaviours of consumers. Numerous studies have demonstrated that changing human behaviour — including at community, city, or national scale — is not only challenging but also a very time-consuming and prolonged process.

    Large-scale behavioural changes require a mix of information dissemination, awareness raising, peer pressure, financial incentives, social rewards, and regulatory enforcement. Achieving the right combination of these ingredients is an art form and not so much of an exact science.

    Let’s take food wastage patterns as an example. At present, about 40–45% of food is wasted, in both developed and developing countries. The primary causes are excessively wasteful patterns in the former case, and the lack of appropriate processing and/or storage facilities in the latter case.

    We now know that we will require about 70% more food-on-the-plate by 2050. This demand cannot be met just by increasing production; most productive lands are already under cultivation, and land degradation processes are leading to reduced productivity. Eliminating or minimising food wastage, therefore, becomes central to ensuring global food security. But doing so would require a massive public information campaign, coupled with capacity development to meet the target of cutting by half current food wastage per capita. 

    Achieving sustainable and efficient use of natural resources is a similarly challenging target. Consumers can demand better sourcing of virgin materials used in products, and that, in turn, can push mining companies, manufacturers, and retail businesses to change their patterns. There are examples of partial success in this direction: fair-trade coffee is in demand in many parts of North America, sourcing of wood from sustainable forestry is becoming popular, and many industries are utilising a high proportion of recycled materials in their manufacturing processes. But examples of drastic changes in production processes triggered by massive consumer pressure remain elusive.

    In addition to the inherent difficulties in changing consumer patterns and production processes, SDG #12 suffers from lack of specificity in defining its targets. One target aims to “substantially” reduce waste generation; this is vague enough to be nearly meaningless, and will likely be ignored by and large. Other targets urge companies and public sector, respectively, to adopt “sustainable practices”. While the concept of sustainable development has been around since the late 1980s, and the Agenda 21 has provided significant detail and texture, its practical application has generally been diffused, diversified, and ineffective.

    Yet in spite of the inherent difficulties, lack of specificity, and challenges to practical application, SDG #12 is a clear manifestation of the general principles of sustainability. Had it been omitted from the 2030 Development Agenda, the resulting development framework would have been incomplete and ineffective.

    The crux of the matter now lies in ascribing specific and meaningful indicators to correspond with each of the targets. As the SDG implementation gets underway, governments and the international community will have to seriously consider investments into educating and informing consumers. Significant capacity development and technology transfer also will be needed for developing countries to achieve sustainable consumption and production.

    Most importantly, developed countries will need to significantly alter their consumption patterns. Outsourcing of “dirty” (heavily polluting) manufacturing and extractive industries cannot be considered consistent with achievement of SDG #12. Harmful subsidies also will come under increasing scrutiny.

    Universal implementation of the sustainable development goals, in both developed and developing countries, will be a major revolution.


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    Consumers Can Be the Vanguard of Sustainability by Zafar Adeel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.