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Author: Dr Eureta Rosenberg

( Article Type: Opinion )

What can be done?
Will a reduction in consumption not harm the economy? No – bear in mind that many proposals for tackling environmental destruction and poverty are based on developing a new kind of economy that does not require harmful and unfair consumption patterns. (see Topic ECONOMICS).

1. Informed consumer choices
Green consumption can be a powerful tool to encourage business to provide more environmentally friendly products and services. To make better choices, consumers need accurate, adequate and accessible environmental – and health information about all products and services (not just those labelled ‘green’). Producers, retailers and public authorities must provide this information, through extensive product labelling, customer call services, userfriendly research reports, etc.

In the supermarket I would, for example, need information not only on the eco-friendly paper towels, but on the other paper towels too, and on those cotton kitchen cloths that could do the same job. I need information on the materials used in making them (paper, cotton, bleaches, dyes); the environmental impact of the manufacturing process (how much water was used to grow the trees and the cotton; what pollution is cause by bleaching, dyeing); the impact of use (which product is more hygienic, for example); and disposal – which would cause the least harm when dumped. A useful tool for informing consumer decision-making is the life cycle analysis. It examines the impacts of a product or service and the processes involved in producing it, from production through use to disposal.

Using Life Cycle Analysis, the Wuppertal Institute in Germany found that producing one litre of orange juice used 25 kg of raw materials and 12m2 of land, mostly in Brazil. This did not include the infrastructure to produce the raw materials.

2. Transform production patterns
Recognising the fact that an increasing number of consumers are choosing what is considered the ‘environmentally friendly’ option, some producers have put their efforts into changing perceptions of their product (with huge advertising budgets) rather than changing their product or the way it is produced. A far more constructive, effective and responsible approach would be to re-think the production process.

As a rule of thumb: For every ton of waste produced at the consumer end, five tons are produced during manufacturing, and a massive 20 tons of waste at the site(s) of origin.

Some of the many possibilities include:

Radically increasing resource productivity – Producers use existing resources and energy more effectively and efficiently, or find different materials and processes altogether. Examples include resource-light architecture, regional food markets, hydrogen engines, smart cars and making familiar appliances such as photocopiers more recyclable.

Re-modelling production on ecosystems – ‘Cleaner production’ strategies involve the re-use of materials in continuous closed cycles, as happens in nature. Examples include wind power and permaculture.
Applying the precautionary principle – Processes, materials, chemicals and products must be proven to be safe prior to their release on the market.

Restoration of living systems – through deliberate investment in rivers, mountain slopes, soils, etc. to restore, sustain and expand our natural capital. Examples include afforestation, township gardens, tackling erosion and decontaminating soil.

Emphasising ‘real wealth’ – thus reducing the importance of goods for both producer and consumer, as we revalue those forms of wealth that cannot be bought. One can make money without adding more things to the world, as companies who ‘sell results rather than things’ can testify.

While one can find fault with any of these individual strategies (for example, attempts to increase resource productivity could make products less durable; in their early developmental stages the benefit of new energy-efficient products could be cancelled out by the energy used to produce them), we should use them as part of a ‘whole system’ approach, which includes industrial ecology innovations such as Industrial Waste Exchange (IWEX).

Inspiring Example – The IWEX (Industrial Waste Exchange) project links waste material generators to waste material users. Among its success stories is Warner Lambert SA, whose factory in Retreat, Cape Town, listed its waste in the IWEX catalogue. Now it exchanges a range of wastes, for example plastic waste with Atlantic Plastics – 200-300 kg every three weeks – and cardboard waste with a community outreach programme that makes furniture (see

3. Economic reforms that re-value nature
Technology for greener production already exists. To make sure it is used, we also need economic reforms. These should be based on an economic framework in which natural resources are valued at their replacement costs. For economic innovations that could inspire more sustainable production and consumption (see Topic ECONOMICS). They include:

  • Tax reform – Taxes would shift from labour to resource consumption, the pollution and waste that result from consumption, and transactions.
  • Subsidies – Some government subsidies support environmental destruction, inefficiency and consumption, and prevent innovation and conservation.
  • User fees for the commons – User fees can help protect common goods, such as the ocean or atmosphere, by raising the price of using them. Take the example of aviation, which is a growing cause of air pollution. In the USA a national railway went bankrupt, while numerous domestic airlines survive. If an appropriate price was asked for the true cost of air travel, the railway, a more environmentally-friendly means of transport, could be financially viable.
  • Price incentives – Full cost accounting would reflect the total costs of products and services, including the cost of their environmental impacts, in prices. This may mean that energy generated from fossil fuels would be more expensive than energy generated from renewable sources. This would encourage businesses to compete to produce goods and services with the lowest impact on the natural resource base. This, like the others above, is a controversial strategy. How would price increases affect the poor? Remember, we only want to reduce the consumption of the consumer class. There are ways of pricing that do not harm the poor (viz. South Africa’s Water Act). Cheaper renewable energy could benefit those living in remote areas not reached by the main grid.

Inspiring Example: A local government in Korea introduced a pay-per-volume garbage removal fee. This encouraged consumers to recycle more, transformed the packaging industry, and in three years reduced the size of the waste stream by 20%.

  • Legal incentives – In the current skewed and competitive market economy, these reforms could only take root if we introduced a legal framework of rights and responsibilities. To illustrate the need for this: When the Korean government introduced a tax on engine size to encourage the use of smaller cars, they were pressured to withdraw the tax by the USA, whose interest was to protect its export of luxury cars. The counter-productive effect of vested interests calls for universally enforceable regulations that protect government, corporate, consumer and citizen rights and at the same time reflect our growing understanding of our social and environmental responsibilities.

Towards a post-consumerist world
Where does all this leave us? If we gain a better understanding of the size of our ecological footprint, and the impact of the products we love to consume, we may end up buying less. Before my mind’s eye the colourful mall disappears and a new structure arises, with large vats from which we refill our household detergent… It could be a rather bleak picture – but it need not be! The ‘eco-mall’ could be bursting with stalls where we buy (or exchange) the tools and materials to make our own gifts, and crafts that sing the praises of our children… There could be lively studios selling skills and designs to help us do this. Our core value would be creativity, rather than consumption; instead of goods, we would give time; our status would be based on the services we offer, rather than our possessions…

Sounds ‘far out’? Yes! However, Einstein pointed out that ‘we will not solve the problems of today by using the same thinking that created these problems in the first place‘. We will not achieve equity and ecological sustainability by continuing to over-consume, and simply adding a few green-label purchases. Consumption patterns must change, but they are only part of the solution. We need a whole system approach, where micro-level changes in the home or business are matched by macro-changes in the economy, systematically tackling the drivers of overconsumption. As consumers big and small, we have the power to influence and work towards these changes.

Useful resources
Centre for Sustainable Consumption and Production:
Clearing house for Applied Futures:
Consumers International:
International Institute for Environment and Development:
World Resources Institute:
United Nations Working Group on Sustainable Production:
South African New Economics:

Associated Sustainable Development Articles:

Sustainable Development ~ Manufacturing