A Universal Diet – Can the Same Sustainable Development Plans Work for Emerging Economies?

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‘Nature provides a free lunch, but only if we control our appetites.’ William Ruckelshaus, the former Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, made this famous statement in BusinessWeek in 1990. Twenty years later, we are still seeking the right ‘diet’ for sustainable development. While the recent developments in the global dialogue on sustainable consumption and production (SCP) and resource efficiency have helped create a better “diet plan”, the question remains: could it work for all economies?

First, let’s have a look at some of the hottest items in our new sustainable development diet. At the World Resources Forum 2012 held in Beijing, China, 2007 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Dr. Mohan Munasinghe was one of those tackling the topic. His focus was to show that the policies needed to implement and sustain SCP are very different depending on whether we look at it from the consumption or production side, and that distinction has to be recognized.

On the consumption side, Dr. Munasinghe identified many patterns that are unsustainable, which could be improved using conventional policies such as internalizing externalities (i.e. adding the environmental cost to the price), better product labeling, imposing new laws, and educating consumers. There are also some long-term approaches, such as changing human behavior by

Black Friday and the Size of the Sustainable Consumption Challenge. Source: John Henderson under CC-license.

amending our current, unsustainable value systems. By putting value on owning the latest and most sophisticated gadgetry, we are perpetuating the cycle of constant production and consumption. A more sustainable value system would involve considering the environmental toll of our consumption and instead of focusing on the wants, it would focus on the necessities in life.

On the production side, business initiatives such as encouraging consumer social responsibility, sharing values with consumers, as well as sustainability accounting and reporting to independent third party verifiers are making headway. Life cycle analysis focusing on value and supply chains are among the practical tools helping businesses become more resource efficient and sustainable.

However, whether businesses use these tools and take these initiatives is also highly linked to the consumers’ behaviors and ultimately, to our value systems. For example, if the price signal is still the most important criteria of product valuation, businesses have no incentive to put different societal values such as the safety and health, carbon footprint, and community on the top of their list of considerations. Could the above mentioned values be used to build new value systems not only in developed countries but also in emerging economies? And when SCP concepts are applied in emerging economies, especially those that have great potential to adopt new ideas, do the developed country examples provide good guidance for dealing with these situations?

Possibly, the easiest place to start then is that which can be quantified the best – production. In this respect, developed countries are improving their performance. Whether it is through more efficient manufacturing processes or stipulating percentage reductions and material reuse, production is becoming more sustainable. It should be these ideas, processes, and business plans that should be incorporated into production over in developing countries, and they must be incentivized to do so. More importantly, developed countries should also push developing countries to value societal impacts and to design products aimed at creating a net social benefit.

Sustainable consumption is a more elusive beast. For those familiar with economic theory, they might recognize this as a problem of stated preferences versus revealed preference. That is the difference between what people say they will do, and what people actually end up doing. Every consumer says, “I’m looking for eco-friendly products because I want to help the environment.” But greener products usually come with a higher price tag and chances are that they’re not going to buy it.

And the brutal truth remains that change on the consumption side is required more from the developed countries. While consumption patterns are on the rise with income levels in developing countries, the average rates at which citizens of North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia consume resources and produce waste are far higher. We tend to assume that the rapidly growing populations of countries like Kenya are responsible for high rates of consumption. But each American consumes as much as 32 Kenyans and without addressing that dimension, we lose the battle before even beginning it.

Nor does consumer behavior change as quickly as production practices. On the supply side, to really get serious about it, governments could theoretically pass laws forcing businesses to comply. But consumption change could happen over a decade or even a generation. Dr. Munasinghe admitted that though this is a more gargantuan task, he still emphasized the need for taking baby-steps. He represented this rather allegorically, by talking about people climbing a mountain. The road might be difficult and the peak not even visible, but you still know which direction to take, and what matters is that you take those steps regardless of if the end result is unclear. Nor is it impossible – one need only take a look at recycling rates over the past few decades for aluminum cans and paper to realize that consumer change is possible.

Dr. Munasinghe suggested that one way to practically implement these initiatives and tools is to get the work done on the grass roots and city level. This is because city mayors have a stronger incentive to push through greening activities as reelection is based on a smaller population’s vote.

Although the notion is starting to gain momentum, the road ahead is long and difficult. Introducing SCP concepts to developing countries in the early stages of development is definitely key in making green consumption happen. But this introduction should not simply be limited to the dictates of developed countries, who may not have considered all elements including social, cultural, and historical aspects of the developing countries. Perhaps what is also needed is a shift away from our traditional methods of measurement. Governments make increases in standards of living a primary goal of national policy but the world cannot support 7 billion people living the high-consumption lifestyle of the West. Changing the value systems is not only the job of the developing countries. Conversely, developed countries’ efforts will exert more significant effects in this revolution.

The success of implementing SCP solutions globally lies in both global and regional efforts to seek more practical solutions to fully promote SCP policies, management practices, and consumer awareness. It requires discussions not just between governments, but also the inclusion of businesses and stakeholder groups from the public. The World Resources Forum helped ignite this discussion in Beijing that rolled over to the SCP in Asia Conference held by UNEP Asia in Bangkok.

Feature Image: Facing a barrage of choices. Source: Sustainable Brands.

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