On the road to Sustainable Lifestyles
Trends of activities and policies
Recent trends indicate that many pressures on the environment from household consumption continue to grow despite improvements in resource efficiency. Consumption growth in the developed world is very closely linked to lifestyle changes. The size of households is becoming smaller. Standards of com-fort such as central heating are rising. Ready meals are becoming a common habit. Dependence on private cars is increasing. People are travelling more frequently and with longer distances (especially via low-cost airlines). Electrical appliances are growing in numbers and varieties.
This continuing increase in total resource consumption is accompanied by an extreme inequality in con-sumption between developed and developing countries. The overall consumption of the richest fifth of the world’s population is 16 times that of the poorest fifth, with the latter deprived of basic human needs. Thus, raising consumption levels of the poor is also one of the most urgent SCP issues.
The overall consumption of the richest fifth of the world’s population is 16 times that of the poorest fifth.
At the Costa Rica meeting in 2005, it was recognised that it is important to have a forward-looking vision of sustainable lifestyles in order to effectively promote sustainable consumption. Policies can then be formulated based on that vision and appropriate measures devised, which include wise use of products and services as well as consideration on the level of consumption in general.
Typical policy interventions clearly have a significant role to play in promoting sustainable consumption. The current trend in the development of environmental regulations is driven towards increasing the focus on products and their associated life-cycle impacts. Both Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation and market-based instruments including eco-taxes on products, materials and environmen-tally damaging activities require responsibilities and actions principally on producers’ side, even though some consumer actions are also needed to make them more effective.
Informational instruments aim at increasing overall consumer awareness with regard to consumption choices. Education, media channels, and labelling mechanisms are often used. However, many studies have illustrated that information provision is not sufficient to achieve required behavioural change.
People need to have sufficient incentives or peer pressure to consider actually changing their consump-tion behaviour. The Costa Rica meeting emphasised that consumers need to be engaged in more effec-tive ways, for example, by using innovative communication strategies and better branding of sustainable lifestyles to motivate and inspire them. Local community-based actions encourage bringing behavioural changes collectively. Environmental information can be more effective to shift consumer behaviour when it is related to other consumer concerns such as health (e.g. organic food) and reduced cost of ownership (e.g. energy efficiency of electronic appliances). Other methods include collaboration with advertising agencies and trend-setters for elaborating “sustainable marketing”.
Pioneering companies can take on the imperatives of sustainable consumption as their innovation op-portunities. Providing consumers with environmentally and socially sound choices such as organic food and Fair Trade products is becoming successful business models as awareness among citizens is growing. Understanding what concerns people as citizens would help businesses to identify new prod-uct and service development prospects as well as to avoid being vulnerable to criticism or civic cam-paigns. However, the level of awareness of sustainable consumption is still low among businesses. Businesses cannot act alone without a strong business case. Governments here have an important role to prepare a policy framework to create a business case and provide a level-playing field for encourag-ing businesses to conceive innovation that makes sustainable lifestyles realise, for instance, by ruling out high-impact products and charging fees for pollutive choices.
With respect to developing countries, which tend to follow the development path of developed countries, there still are opportunities to avoid many of environmental and social problems associated with affluent consumption by addressing their consumption issues sooner rather than later.
Examples of best practices
- The Dawn Project was conducted as a response to concerns about lacking public awareness about the environmental impact from increasing energy use in Thailand. This four-year project developed educational materials on energy saving in daily life based on the concept of life cycle assessment (LCA) and provided training among teachers and community leaders. The project engaged more than 300,000 students at primary and secondary schools, 23,400 teachers and 2,400 community leaders all over the country. More than half of 600 participating schools estab-lished “Energy and Environment Learning Centres”, while almost half of the schools demon-strated at least 10% reduction in energy consumption. The National Energy Policy Office (NEPO) financed the project with policy support from the Ministry of Education and manage-ment services provided by Thailand Environment Institute (TEI).
- The Sustainable Shopping Basket project in Germany aims to inform consumers of opportu-nities and benefits of sustainable consumption in an exciting and accessible manner. It was launched by the Institute for Market-Environment-Society (IMUG), German Council for Sustain-able Development and Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection. The pro-ject does not intend to provide regulations or ready-made answers about right or wrong choices, but aims at facilitating a search for sustainable alternatives by showing possible ways of con-sumption. A shopping guide called “Sustainable Shopping Basket” was developed, containing a list of sustainable products and services from the following consumption areas: foodstuffs, tex-tiles and clothing, living and household, mobility, tourism and financial services. Around 70 fami-lies tested the shopping guide for one month and structured their daily consumption life accord-ing to the terms of sustainability. The results confirmed that the Sustainable Shopping Basket is a suitable communication instrument for the physical embodiment of active consumer policies.
- The Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) programme developed by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute seeks to categorise and certify each tour company according to the degree to which its operations comply with its own sustainability standard. For example, the evaluation of hotels involves the analysis of four general areas: physical-biological environment, hotel facili-ties (internal environmental management practices), customer relations, and socio-economic environment. Those points are checked by sending a questionnaire. Hotels are categorised by six sustainability levels – from zero to five. CST has succeeded in differentiating Costa Rican tourist industry from competitors by adding value to tourism products, opening new possibilities for an international appeal.
- Despite availability of various public policy instruments, little changes have been seen in the be-haviour of consumers. The challenge is that governments create right conditions in which con-sumers are encouraged to rationally behave towards sustainable consumption by combining dif-ferent types of policy instruments wisely.
- The development of national action plans on SCP can be a cornerstone for achieving progress towards sustainable consumption. It is important for countries to first build a vision for sustain-able lifestyles and then to develop national action plans based on it. These plans need to ad-dress how to empower consumers to make sustainable choices, taking into account their social and cultural conditions.
- There is a need to develop methodologies and indicators to measure and encourage progress towards sustainable consumption. Addressing consumption impacts in a life-cycle framework poses particular methodological challenges.
- Given the pivotal role of education, a clear link between school and consumer education for SCP and the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development is still yet to be established.
- Communicating effectively about sustainable lifestyles is a challenge. Public communication and advertising have key roles to play to make sustainable consumption understandable and fash-ionable.
- Making a strong business case for sustainable consumption is a major challenge. Business leaders need to be aware of their potential role to drive consumers towards sustainable life-styles.
- Sustainable consumption tends to be seen as irrelevant to developing countries. There is a need to clarify the consumption issues for developing countries as well as to elaborate a vision of sustainable lifestyles at which people in those countries (especially the “global consumer class”) can aim.