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Jem Bendell
Adjunct Associate Professor,
Griffith Business School, Australia

Founder, Lifeworth, Switzerland

Jonathan Cohen |
Principal, Stakeholder Consulting;
Author, Business Watch*

Tipping Frames: The Lifeworth Review of 2006
[ PDF: 2585kb | 54 pages ]

Appendices available in all PDF versions.

Consuming truths

As 2006 progressed it became clear that the challenge of climate change was once again rising in public consciousness in many parts of the world. The success of the film An Inconvenient Truth highlighted wide public curiosity and concern as to what is happening to our weather.41 The climate challenge is a consumption challenge: to promote human well-being while reducing the overall demand for carbon fuels, either directly or as embodied in the various products and services we use.

The international policy agenda on sustainable consumption (SC) continues to be touted as one of the most important out there, but real action remains lacking. The UNEP/UN DESA process, the so-called Marrakesh process, continues to have high-level meetings on SC-for example, a high-level meeting in Istanbul in August and a roundtable in Mumbai in September. But action and enthusiasm are lacking in these meetings. Governments have not set aside budgets for this, there are no international performance targets, top-level ministers are not routinely involved, and there is no formal mechanism for reporting at the international level. In fact, the Marrakesh process was not itself mandated at the Johannesburg Summit on sustainable development, and is just an aspect of what was mandated-a vaguely conceived 'Ten Year Framework of Programmes'. At the time of writing, close to the halfway point of the ten-year framework of programmes, the international policy process has yielded not much more than a few 'task forces'-small government-funded committees, focusing on aspects of the sustainable consumption challenge, but not guaranteed to find anything new. Overall, there is hardly much enthusiasm to act proactively.

In light of this apparent impasse, a new EU-funded project SCORE (Sustainable Consumption Research Exchange), brainchild of Dutch engineer Arnold Tukker, was developed.42 Hosted by and in collaboration with the newly minted UNEP Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP) in Wuppertal, Germany, SCORE is aiming to provide a needed injection of urgency on the sustainable consumption agenda. A key task will be to help policy-makers, business and the public understand how sustainable consumption need not be a negative cost-raising fun-reducing burden, but can be a positive, opportunities-laden pathway to sustainable development.

Previously the UNEP Consumption Opportunities report sought to frame sustainable consumption in these terms.43 It emphasised that most action on sustainable consumption has focused on impact reduction, involving pollution reduction, conservation of single stocks of resources, and preservation of ecosystems and species. Although important, the UNEP report emphasised that with the growing burden of consumption levels worldwide such impact reduction is not sufficient, and actual demand reduction is required. It pointed out this did not mean a reduction in human utility, but a reduction in the actual resource through-flow of economies. Rather than put the emphasis on the consumer, as so many are prone to do, UNEP recognised that 'systemic demand' needs reduction, which means considering industry resource wastage and the lack of service solutions to provide for human needs. Thus it argued for more efficient consumption, involving fewer resources for the same product, increasingly different consumption, involving switching to ways of meeting human need through services not products, and conscious consumption, which implies collective efforts to promote wider consideration of whether our consumption of certain resource-intensive products actually delivers significant well-being anyway.

As awareness of the environmental imperative grows, the challenge will be for businesses to find ways of succeeding within economies that must reduce their resource through-flow. More responsible products-as-usual will not be sufficient for future success. The 'dematerialisation' and optimisation of consumption patterns will be key.

Arnold Tukker of SCORE is among the leading experts who have joined the editorial board of the new Consumption Opportunities Project, which will promote the UNEP sustainable consumption framework described above.44 The author of this original Consumption Opportunities framework, John Manoochehri, told JCC that:

the Marrakesh process has given us a stadium, and the governmental mandates, weak as they are, provide a partial audience. Maybe Consumption Opportunities can clarify what games are actually being played, and what the winning stakes are, and networks like SCORE can provide both coaching and even produce star players. But it remains a question of whether governments and business actually do take up the opportunities on offer, whether they really want to play.

The game may really begin if the consumption challenge can be framed in terms of creating pathways for social development that are sufficiently resource-light to be possible for a majority of the world's population over the long term, rather than the minority of a few generations of middle- to upper-class consumers.

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42 and

43 J. Manoochehri, Consumption Opportunities. Strategies for Change: A Report for Decision-makers (Geneva: UNEP, 2001;


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