Sustainable Consumption and Production - not only a challenge for UNEP

Submitted by admin on 11. June 2023 - 17:27
Thoresen, Victoria W.

pp. 255-259 in Jan-Gustav Strandenaes and Isis Alvarez (eds), 
The People's Environment narrative: 50 years with UNEP and Civil Society
Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, 5 June 2023

Sustainable Consumption and Production
not only a challenge for UNEP

by Victoria W. Thoresen

Published in
The People's Environment narrative: 50 years with UNEP and Civil Society
Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future
5 June 2023


Since the Second World War many individuals and groups have tried to gain insight into the consequences of peoples’ lifestyle choices. Already in 1998, The United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report highlighted the following:

“Consumption clearly contributes to human development when it enlarges the capabilities and enriches the lives of people without adversely affecting the well- being of others. It clearly contributes when it is as fair to future generations as it is to the present ones. And it clearly contributes when it encourages lively, creative individuals and communities. But the links are often broken, and when they are, consumption patterns and trends are inimical to human development…The real issue is not consumption itself buts its patterns and effects. Consumption patterns today must be changed to advance human development tomorrow."

Agenda 2030’s SDG12 states categorically that “unsustainable patterns of production and consumption are root causes of the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.” According to existing research, unsustainable patterns of production and consumption also contribute to poverty, crime, social disorder and mental illness. A philosophy of consumerism dominates much of the planet, based on the conviction that increasingly more makes things increasingly better. Producers claim they merely react to the market and the demands of the consumer. Consumers maintain that they deserve the right to purchase whatever they want as long as they have the means to do so. Governments explain unbalanced financial flows as being due to their country’s inherent superiority, historical background or national boundaries. Media asserts that marketing “luxury” is their main means of survival. Shopping has even been hailed as a “patriotic duty” by a past American president. Excessive consumption continues to be a force shaping societies while, in many countries, families struggle to meet their basic needs and millions experience the ravages of climate change and environmental degradation. There is a dawning recognition amongst the public at large of the imperative necessity to change existing consumption and production patterns that have negative impacts on the environment and life quality. This is due in part to the work of civil society (including academia, science, and the media); in part to the work of UNEP; and in part to collaboration between civil society and UNEP. However, despite information, guidelines, agreements and regulations, significant changes in consumption and production patterns have yet to occur. This testifies to the crucial and urgent need to adjust and intensify the work of UNEP, civil society, governments, and the private sector, individually and together, in relation to just, sustainable consumption and production (SCP).

Historically speaking

Several processes have influenced how consumption and production have been regarded over the last fifty years by both UNEP and civil society. These could be briefly referred to as: the blame-game, the development-switch, the technological take-over, and the solidarity-clamour.

The “blame game” emerged as scientific evidence grew confirming the destructive impact of human activity on the climate. Debates ensued as to who was primarily responsible for causing the environmental damage: individuals (e.g. consumers), industries or governments. When finger-pointing was aimed at the individual consumer, the concept of consumer responsibility gained momentum. When acknowledgement of the systemic dynamics behind consumer behaviour became more evident, manufacturers began to be expected to “green” both their production processes and products. When it became clear that voluntary codes were insufficient to steer production towards more sustainable practices, governments were accused of merely standing by and eventually more national and international legislation began to appear on the horizon. Parallel to the above mentioned events was the “development-switch”. For decades, economic development was regarded as the primus motor of social development. It was the end-all goal of governments around the globe, be they rich or poor. Increased consumption was the key. Evidence provided by, among others, the UNDP Human Development Index clearly indicated that economic growth did not guarantee social development. Human development involved a wider range of interconnected efforts which included such elements as the reduction of inequalities, improved access to education and more all-encompassing global solidarity. Economic development remains at the core of Agenda 2030; however, emphasis on the interdependency of all the goals is an obvious attempt to integrate the diverse dimensions of human development into the ultimate goal of moving towards more just, sustainable development for all.

Technological innovation has long been deemed the backbone of progress. It has even been considered by some to be the source of salvation from the present crises affecting the world. As opposed to behaviour change and altered patterns of consumption, new technology is often viewed as being a means of maintaining the status quo (e.g. unfettered consumption and production) by simply modifying either production processes, products or both. With the advent of the concept of circular economy, maintaining existing levels of production gained legitimization as long as products could be reused or recycled. The fact that even reused and recycled items have end dates to their existence has not significantly reduced the enthusiasm many environmentalists have to this approach.

The “solidarity clamour” refers to the growing call for more equitable use and distribution of resources. Biased availability, unjust policies (such as tax evasion and favouritism), and psychological brainwashing (via messages such as “you deserve it” or “the good life is having this or that luxury item”) have reinforced accepted norms supporting excessive consumption in parts of the world and “under-consumption” in others. Demands for greater transparency and accountability as regards production and marketing have begun to be heard. Appeals are being made for new definitions of “prosperity” and greater focus on what constitutes a healthy balance between the material and the non-material aspects of life. Conscientious consumption, collaborative consumption, sufficiency and degrowth initiatives have surfaced. These efforts seemingly materializing from empathy-based visions of social responsibility. New perspectives on knowledge creation introduced the idea that individuals and communities (including indigenous cultures and youth) could cooperatively identify and find solutions to environmental problems in their locality.

Intermittent feedback loops

Collaboration is ideally a process of dialectical interaction in which one part of a system is dependent upon the feedback of another. It can best be illustrated with the figure of the infinity loop ∞ . The continuous exchange of information, thoughts, feelings, needs and desires lie at the core of the majority of human activities be they consumption, governance, or even friendship and love. In many parts of the world, as well as within some international agencies, autocracy and top-down governance has gradually opened for greater collaboration with stakeholders. This has also been the case with UNEP. Collaboration between UNEP and civil society in relation to SCP can be categorized as follows:

1. Civil society actors have provided UNEP with relevant research and scientific data. In some instances UNEP has sought input to the Global Environment Outlook Reports, in others they have funded projects to investigate specific aspects of SCP.

2. Civil society organizations have functioned as informal liaisons between UNEP and government ministries (particularly where environmental issues were a part of different ministries).

3. A selection of willing civil society organizations have acted as consultants providing advice to UNEP and consulting on matters related to SCP. The One Planet Programme (originally referred to as the Ten Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production) and its predecessor The Marrakech Task Force Ten-year Programme are examples of this.

4. Civil society organizations have collaborated by creating awareness amongst public, spreading information, resources, and guidance about themes and actions which UNEP has focused upon.

5. Sometimes civil society has served as advocates for UNEP’s approach to certain SCP themes.

As a relatively small international agency, UNEP has been dependent upon collaboration with civil society. Unfortunately, this collaboration has, over the last fifty years, been characterized by interruptions, misunderstandings and disagreements. A thorough analysis of the causes of difficulties between UNEP and civil society organizations is beyond the scope of this short article. Nonetheless, certain ones can be identified.

A number of these impediments have been the result of ideological disagreements. An example of this is the role of the precautionary principle as it relates to SCP. Once a fundamental doctrine of environmental stewardship, it has faded into the background in political discussions led by UNEP, while many civil society organizations continue to call for its implementation. Another example is that of the significance of education in connection to changing patterns of consumption and production. Although UNEP has supported international environmental programs in the past and cooperated with UNESCO on a number of initiatives, as well as having education for SCP as a theme in a few earlier programs, focus on the role of learning as a key factor in achieving SCP has progressively become weaker. Information spreading and “nudging” have received far greater attention. That innovative technology and circular economy will solve the conundrums of SCP has also emerged as a conviction strongly supported by UNEP. This has fostered concern from civil society representatives who seriously question continued over-consumption.

As with many organizations, some collaboration problems have come from administrative procedures. Communication between UNEP leadership and the civil society organizations it tries to collaborate with has not always been clear, concise or consistent. Civil society organizations that have been requested to contribute to SCP work have also seen their collective efforts ignored or shelved without explanation in favour of approaches created by UNEP staff.

Unravelling greater understanding

UNEP’s mandate is to function as the main international agency contributing to the identification of important environmental challenges, promoting the implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development and advocating relevant changes. The enigma buried within this mandate is the fact that no one yet has a clear definition of what constitutes sustainable development. This makes identifying what SCP is a highly convoluted undertaking that UNEP cannot do on its own. Neither can it succeed by creating allegiances solely with governments and the private sector.

In addition to partnerships with governments and the private sector, improved collaboration with civil society is essential. It is a process that requires greater respect of and responsiveness to civil society by UNEP.

SOURCE: pp. 255-259 in Jan-Gustav Strandenaes and Isis Alvarez (eds), The People's Environment narrative: 50 years with UNEP and Civil Society, Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, 5 June 2023.

IEF logo

Last updated 11 June 2023