European excess has global environmental fallout

European mass consumption is having a negative ripple effect across the global supply chain according to a European Environment Agency (EEA) report, which examines possible solutions to the problem

The Environmental Indicators Report 2014 examines the negative side-effects of Europe’s growing consumption in the food, technology and clothing markets, and suggests a more localised approach, with a focus on quality products, could mitigate environmental impact

EEA executive director Hans Bruyninckx said: “The way we live and how we produce things has a substantial impact beyond our borders. In the past Europe has largely focused on policies to make European production more eco-efficient, but we can see that in a globalised world it is increasingly important that we fundamentally re-think how we consume and produce, to encourage true sustainability throughout the whole lifecycle of products.”


Problem: EU food consumption per person has increased by 3% since 1995, while meat imports have doubled in that time. In total, producing 1 KG of beef requires 617 litres of water, while the beef industry as a whole produces 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2 annually.

Solution: Shorten supply chains. As well as reducing environmental impacts from the transport of food and food waste, a move towards short supply chains would support small farms and put consumers more closely in touch with food production. This would increase awareness of environmental impacts and seasonal food. The EEA also suggested education to help change consumer attitudes; European consumption of meat egss and dairy is twice the global average.


Problem: EU clothing purchases have increased by 34% since 1990, even accounting for population growth. 87% of total demand is now by met by imports, up from just 33% in 2004. The growing consumption of cheap clothes has heightened resource demands and environmental and social pressures across the life cycle. For example, cultivating cotton is often associated with significant use of water and land resources, and application of pesticides, while the end product must be flown across continents.

Solution: Better outcomes could be achieved if Europeans were to buy fewer, better-quality clothes from socially and environmentally sustainable sources. Businesses and civil society also have a particularly important role to play in mitigating impacts outside Europe — for example though new business models for sharing and leasing clothes.


Problem: An increasing number of households in the EU has meant a corresponding increase in the production of electrical items. The rapid technological growth and replacement cycles of electronics combined with manufacturer’s planned obsolescence – deliberate design of products to fail – has also led to massive waste. Around 74% of electronic items are imported into Europe.

Electronics manufacturing is particularly energy-intensive, requiring up to 140 times more energy per kilogram than plastics. In addition, the use of these electronics has boosted household electricity consumption by 37 % since 1990.

Solution: The current system would be more sustainable with higher-quality appliances and a focus on sharing/leasing common products. The overall life-cycle environmental impacts could be reduced by making products more energy efficient, increasing take-back and re-manufacturing, and capturing more of the valuable materials from e-waste.

Brad Allen

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