Thursday December 07, 2023

The sustainable consumer

March 15, 2020

“Your T-shirt might be cheap, but that price might only be possible because someone is working under terrible working conditions for a below-living wage on the other side of the world. The environmental consequences of the T-shirt in terms of water and fuel consumption and chemical waste is invisible to all of us”. This statement is by a European fashion brand setting the benchmark for sustainability with their ‘radical transparency’ approach.

“We avoid synthetic fabrics such as polyester, which are plastics made from fossil fuels which never bio-degrade. Our main leather is vegetable-tanned with bark, which uses no chemicals. Our main jersey uses 67 percent Tencel, which is a natural Eucalyptus-based fabric which consumes much less water than cotton and has a closed-loop process which minimizes waste,” the statement added.

Such positive trends are recorded by the Consumer International (CI) to mark World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD) with the 2020 theme ‘The Sustainable Consumer’. The London based CI brings together over 200 organizations in more than 100 countries to empower and champion the rights of consumers everywhere.

The WCRD was inspired by President John F Kennedy, who sent a special message to the US Congress on March 15, 1962 – in which he formally addressed the issue of consumer rights. He was the first world leader to do so. The consumer movement first marked that date in 1983 and now uses the day every year to mobilize action on important issues and campaigns.

Explaining the ‘sustainable consumer’, CI says that to protect the planet and provide fair social conditions for current and future generations, we need to produce and consume goods and services more sustainably. Sustainable consumption aims to increase resource efficiency and fair trade while helping alleviate poverty and enable everyone to enjoy a good quality of life.

But we need to make it the easy option for consumers everywhere because if everyone lived the lifestyle of the average person in Western Europe, we would need three planets to support us. Meanwhile, about one billion people live in extreme poverty, unable to access the minimum needed for a decent quality of life.

To protect the planet and provide fair social conditions for current and future generations, we need to think about the way we produce and consume goods and services. Sustainable consumption aims to increase resource efficiency and fair trade while helping alleviate poverty and enable everyone to enjoy a good quality of life with access to food, water, energy, medicine, and more.

There is a need for drastic action to address the global crises of climate change and biodiversity loss by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, waste, and resource use from across all sectors.

Consumers can add particular value by focusing on the sectors that involve consumers as end-users, where legislation is created and where consumer organizations have the experience, expertise, legitimacy, and space to act – energy and food being two of the largest. This is also where the consumer movement could have the most significant impact.

Global actions are required to achieve Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (SDGs), an ambitious set of 17 global goals with targets for 2030 that set out a new paradigm for economic and social development and contain many goals related to environmental challenges.

Goal 12 is more relevant to today’s WCRD: “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”. Since sustainable consumption and production aims at “doing more, and better, with less,” net welfare gains from economic activities can increase by reducing resource use, degradation and pollution along the whole life cycle while improving quality of life. There also needs to be a significant focus on operating on the supply chain, involving everyone from producer to final consumer. This includes educating consumers on sustainable consumption and lifestyles, providing them with adequate information through standards and labels, and engaging in sustainable public procurement, among others.”

The Paris Agreement aims to keep the global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But already alarm bells are being raised that these may not be achieved as the required speed, multilateral action, and intensive global effort is still missing.

Advances in mobility technology by shifting to electric vehicles is a huge factor in reducing the global carbon footprint. But what actions are consumers taking in 2019 to change consumption habits? One notable trend is the growing demand for ride-sharing services – with the global market set to reach $170 billion by 2025. Ride-sharing has the potential to reduce the need for car ownership, and carpooling services are also becoming a mainstream option for many consumers.

Clear and intuitive information on sustainability is a vital tool for consumers. To enable consumers to make decisions that support a more sustainable lifestyle for all, they need access to education and clear, reliable information about product sustainability claims.

But unreliable information is in danger of eroding consumer trust. The practice of ‘greenwashing’, where consumers are misled by unsubstantiated sustainability claims on products, is becoming a big issue. A consumer organization in Brazil recently found misleading claims in 48 percent of the 500 products they analyzed.

Businesses who provide clear, responsible, and transparent sustainability claims can gain a competitive advantage.

The largest market for plastics today is packaging materials. That trash now accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste generated globally – most of it never gets recycled or incinerated. Around the world, nearly a million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute.

World plastic production has increased exponentially from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 162 million in 1993 to 448 million by 2015. As of 2015, more than 6.9 billion tons of plastic waste had been generated. Around 9 percent of that was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or environment.

Unsustainable packaging is a huge barrier that needs to be overcome if we are to achieve real progress towards sustainable consumption. Whether we are shopping online or in our local food store, it’s hard to avoid accumulating an endless supply of needless packaging.

Many of us are demanding action, and global research shows that consumers value packaging that is either recyclable or reusable. At the supply chain level, global commitments such as the ‘New Plastics Economy’ initiative are significant steps for major companies looking to address plastic waste.

Most products inevitably have a defined lifetime. And while many consumers accept this, the idea some products are designed to die after a certain point is less acceptable. Many products we use daily – mobile phones, TVs, white goods are vulnerable to mechanical breakdown, software glitches, and unavailable or high repair costs; globally product lifetime is decreasing.

But how can we guard against decreasing product lifetime? Worldwide action is being taken to strengthen and protect the rights of consumers, from ‘Right to Repair’ legislation to tools such as Test-Achats ‘Trashed Too Fast’ reporting mechanism that gives consumers a way to flag products that they feel have stopped working too soon.

And for digital products that are already out of use, growing pressure has led to enacted legislation in 67 countries to deal with the global problem of e-waste, with some of the leading technology firms setting ambitious targets for using renewable materials.

The writer is a freelance contributor.