Sustainable Consumption and Production

The most powerful message I took away from Green Week was the resounding call to policy makers to be ambitious! With every new environmentally-led policy proposal from the Commission – be it fuel efficiency standards in the auto-industry or more ambitious emissions reductions or energy savings targets – business and industry tend to say;

SCP greenshoots. Image cc. Rachel Tansey

“We can’t do it! If you make us do what this legislation proposes, it will damage our competitiveness,  jobs will be lost, Europe’s GDP will be dented…”

Yet, time after time, a couple of years after these protestations of impossibility, companies have done it. They meet the demands of the new legislation, and it becomes evident that the change was possible. This argument has a parallel in history, in another era when Quakers were active in calling for change: the days leading up to the abolition of slavery. The slave trader’s defence was simple – how will you employ the thousands of sailors employed on slaving vessels, or the workmen on land, the carpenters, joiners, builders, riggers, gunsmiths, plumbers and labourers? Port cities will fall into decline, as will the manufacturing centers that depend on the slave trade for the export of their goods and import of raw materials. But as Caryl Phillips, in his book ‘The Atlantic Sound’, remarks, what these merchants ‘omitted to mention were the huge profits that were being made by a handful of the richest among them’.

There was a moral imperative to end slavery that outweighed any possible economic considerations. Climate change, resource scarcity and conflict over resources, have the potential to harm even more people than the heinous practice of slavery did. There is a moral and practical imperative to mitigate climate change and reduce our energy and resource consumption, to enable the developing world to make the transition onto cleaner development paths, without, in the mean time, dramatically overshooting the earth’s capacity to support us all.

The Commission must learn to be more ambitious in its legislative proposals, and not to water down changes that are necessary for our climate and environment (which won’t compromise), in the interests of big business (which will).

The notion of sustainable consumption and production (SCP) was at the heart of this urge for ambition. Doreen Fedrigo of the Institute for European Environment Policy described the Commission’s 2008 SCP Action Plan (read more about the SCPAP in this QCEA report) as lacking a sense of where we want to be. Exactly what sustainable consumption would amount to is undoubtedly controversial, but the SCPAP does not address what a sustainable society would mean at all. Like Fedrigo, QCEA believes that SCP must be seen as a positive idea, not about reducing our quality of life, but of going beyond it.

Another criticism made was that the Commission’s SCP policies focus too much on the 1970s-80s idea that if you give people information then they’ll change their behaviour, despite the fact that progress in psychology and sociology indicates this is not necessarily so. Pavel Misiga, head of the SCP unit in the Commission’s DG ENV, indicated that future developments would focus on incentivising companies to analyse and monitor their environmental performance, and encouraging them to go beyond what is required by law. But as for the consumption side, Misiga explained that the Commission has a dilemma: how far can public bodies go in influencing people’s behaviour? Is it the right thing to do? Do they even have the instruments to do it?

The Guardian newspaper’s Fiona Harvey asked whether we have passed the point where giving information and incentives to companies and consumers is enough, and reached the point where we should just tell people what to do. We do not give people a choice on which side of the road to drive. Harvey’s analogy, I think, is worth pursuing – there are very good reasons why the restriction of choice on which side of the road we can drive is not considered an unacceptable breach of our liberties – the danger to human life if we didn’t.  Climate change and resource scarcity are even bigger threats to human life and livlihoods.

As the debate progressed, Fedrigo made another pertinent critique: policy makers assume that people in shops know what is in, and what is behind, a product. But by and large people assume that if a product is there then it is safe, and that the legislation/policy must be in place to ensure it is ok. True, the Eco-Design Directive exists to take the worst products off the market, but it can take 3 to 5 years for the decision-making and implementation process in one product category. Meanwhile, we continue to be so far from sustainability that we’re using 150 per cent of the planet’s resources. Narrow SCP policies are not enough, and we must not settle for incremental change that leads us slowly into oblivion. We should make it economically unfeasible to produce or sell the environmentally worst products, and this must be done by pricing.

“Le silence est bien plus vert que toutes leurs salades” Protesters held a banner in front of Nestlé’s representative, Pascal Gréverath, giving the message that silence is would be greener than Nestlé’s attempts at greenwashing. Image cc. Rachel Tansey

Harvey suggested creating a Roadmap starting from where we want to be, and working backwards to where we are now. After all, it was said, if you are looking for a solution to a problem, then you shouldn’t use the same thinking that got you there. These are the words of Albert Einstein.

Pascal Gréverath, Assistant Vice President of Environmental Sustainability for Nestlé, claimed that something of this sort would require a world authority, and no such authority exists. Nor, he told the audience, does centralized set production work – communism fell, he reminded us, and it wasn’t any better for the environment than capitalism. Gréverath seemed to be attempting an outrageously fallacious argument: we don’t want communism, therefore we cannot attempt to use any kind of thinking other than short-term, profit-driven, consumption-oriented thinking; we cannot create policies that prevent harmful products being on the market; we cannot make prices match their true environmental and social costs; we cannot make a roadmap working backwards from where we want to be. This willful misinterpretation was worthy of a tabloid newspaper, and what concerned me most was the narrowness of mind that apparently assumes capitalism and communism are the sum and end of all human ingenuity, and thus the only conceivable options for the organization of human society and economy.

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About Rachel Tansey

Rachel was a QCEA Programme Assistant on Sustainable Energy Security between November 2010 and November 2011.

One comment

  1. Bernard

    The so-called ‘sustainable consumption’ tends to produce a disciplined consumer without changing the whole system. For a more detailed analysis, see also: Y. Rumpala, ““Sustainable consumption” as a new phase in a governmentalization of consumption”, Theory and Society, vol. 40, n° 6, November 2011.

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